The delightfully eccentric Barbara Woodhouse was seventy-years-old when she became a television superstar and something of a national institution whose fame spread as far afield from Cricklewood to Hollywood.
Woodhouse was born in Rathfarnham, County Dublin in 1910. But when, in 1919, her father died, the family moved to Brighton in Sussex where they stayed briefly before settling in Headington in Oxfordshire. She developed her knack with animals as a child when her mother boarded dogs and on leaving school she went to agricultural school in Shropshire where, at that time, she was the only female student.
Woodhouse married in 1934 and moved to Argentina with her husband but the marriage didn’t last and they were divorced in 1937. She remarried in 1940. She trained dogs as her children were growing up and at one time ran a hotel for dogs and their owners and became a renowned dog trainer. In 1953 she made her television debut in a short BBC film titled Juno Helps Out – Juno being the family dog. The short also starred her husband Patrick and her son and daughter, Patrick and Judith. The following year, she published two books; Talking to Animals and Dog Training My Way, the first of her canine coaching tomes. Several other dog training books followed and she was invited onto the BBC quiz show What’s My Line, but the guest panellists failed to identify her occupation.
Woodhouse would occasionally work as the dog trainer on a number of BBC programmes where Juno was featured and after the pooch retired she introduced Junia into the heady world of showbusiness. The Invisible Man, Out of the Unknown and Beggar My Neighbour all benefitted from Barbara Woodhouse's expertise. All the while her books on dogs, puppies and ponies were published with great regularity throughout the 1960s.
Described as a cross between a drill sergeant and Dr. Doolittle, Woodhouse’s decidedly dotty demeanour was perfect fodder for a nation that adores its oddball characters, and when, in the late summer of 1979, the BBC decided to fill a half-hour of BBC2’s airtime with a programme on how to train domestic dogs, there was simply no one else that fit the bill more perfectly.
Training Dogs the Woodhouse Way debuted on 7 January 1980 and, to everyone’s surprise, became a sure-fire rating winner. Before long, loyal viewers were commanding their dogs to “SIT!” and offering them "Walkies!" as her training bywords caught on. Woodhouse's smiling, bespectacled face, framed by short grey hair, her tartan skirt and oh-so-sensible shoes were the unlikeliest elements win her votes as the female TV personality of the year in Britain – but that’s exactly what it did as she became the most distinguished senior citizen to grace our television screens. She was, in her own words, “flabbergasted!”
The BBC2 series became so popular that it was repeated on BBC1 less than four weeks after the end of the run. Soon, more and more of the general public agreed with her ideology that there is no such thing as a bad dog but simply inadequate owners. And she went to great lengths to impress this on the unsuspecting ‘victims’ who appeared on her show – not the dogs themselves but the canine owners who were often spoken to in abrupt tones due to their lack of understanding of her commands, and on-air criticism of their behaviour meant that, more often than not, the owners looked more terrified the dogs!
At the height of fame, she is said to have received over 400 letters per day from owners thanking her for her help and advice. She once told The Associated Press that because of the television appearances, she could not go out in public without being asked for her advice, but she said she didn't mind. Very soon, her fame extended beyond Great Britain’s shores and when her series was sold to PBS in America it became an unexpected hit there as well. She also found herself in demand from some famous Hollywood pet owners such as Zsa Zsa Gabor, David Soul and Stefanie Powers and found herself the subject of an article in Time magazine. “Dogs may be man’s best friend, but they worship and adore Barbara Woodhouse,” wrote Gerald Clarke in Time. “Given half a chance, the entire canine species doubtless would slobber and slurp all over her, tails wagging fast enough to cause gale warnings throughout the British Isles.”
Another accolade was recorded in the 1983 James Bond film Octopussy where Bond, played by Roger Moore, does a Woodhouse impersonation when he puts his hand up in a command posture an orders a commanding “SIT!” to a threatening tiger - the animal obeys immediately. It was a humorous moment in the movie but one that steadfastly confirmed Barbara Woodhouse’s almost worldwide fame.
She also released the bestselling book No Bad Dogs, The Woodhouse Way, which was commonly regarded as a dog owner’s bible. Later she presented Woodhouse Roadshow in which she travelled the country training dogs and ponies – but never cats. She once said she can train a dog in six minutes. But cats? They take bribery.
Published on February 13th, 2023. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.