In the kennel with … Sarah Whitehead

Dog Coach Videos interviews top dog trainers & behaviourists

Sarah and Jack 2010 copy.jpg

One of the UK’s top dog trainers, Sarah Whitehead, is an authority on puppy training, development and behaviour, aggression, and canine body language. She has an MSc in Animal Behaviour and has been involved in research with Dr John Bradshaw. She used to be Deputy Editor of Dogs Today magazine and is also the author of 24 behavioural and training books, booklets and DVDs. She appears regularly as a consultant on TV and radio.

Sarah also runs the Clever Dog Company chain of puppy and dog training classes with eighteen branches across the UK and has just launched a new on-line dog training programme Train Your Dog Online.

She says: “I have been incredibly fortunate in my career to work with some of the most brilliant dog people – the late John Fisher was my mentor, and I worked as his Head of Practice. I have been specializing in aggression problems in dogs for over 20 years now, and also have a passion for canine body language and facial expression. My favourite thing to do is to teach other people how to ‘read’ their dogs, and effectively ‘learn to talk dog’ – and for that I created the Learn to Talk Dog online programme, and a number of  free webinar recordings, including Signals of Pre-emptive Aggression which can be viewed online at any time.”


CC-vsmll-logo-pple How would you advise owners on the best way to bond with their dog?

SW: Think Dog! I know it’s a bit of a cliché now but if you try and think how your dog sees the world then you are far less likely to get into battles with him or her, and it makes training so much easier. I see good, positive reinforcement training as a means of communication between two species – it’s not just about control – it helps to create the relationship between you via a common understanding. When I see good training it always looks like a ‘dance’ between dog and handler to me – they are in sync and working together as a team. To me, that’s a joy.


CC-vsmll-logo-pple What would be your 3 top tips for owners wanting to be a good dog trainer?


  • Give up the idea that there’s a wolf hiding inside your dog! Your dog wants to be in a  team with you, not be your adversary!
  • Get some basic understanding of how dogs learn – some of it is very similar to humans, and some of it rather more surprising. For example, we know that people and dogs can both learn through repetition but many owners don’t appreciate that dogs can learn a new behaviour in just a single trial – especially where the reward is very powerful. I once had a dog that accidentally stepped on the bin pedal – the lid popped open and he discovered that all his Christmases had come at once! He didn’t need to practise the behaviour that got him the reward – once was enough learn how to open the bin – and he was an expert at the behaviour for the rest of his life!
  • Learn to read your dog’s body language – it will help you to predict his behaviour, guide your training and have a happier relationship with him or her.


CC-vsmll-logo-pple And your advice on 3 things owners should never do when training their dog?


  • Use brain not brawn! Using confrontation or punishment really just shows a lack of imagination and commitment to the relationship. Fear is at the heart of a lot of behavioural issues, so make sure your dog knows that you offer security, and use positive training to build the bond between you.
  • Use clever management. This sounds obvious but preventing problems from occurring is always easier than curing them later on. It may not be particularly exciting to manage your dog’s behaviour – by keeping him or her on the lead, or using a baby gate, for example – but it’s up to us to create the environment that keeps our dogs out of trouble.
  • Predict and protect. I use this expression a lot. Owners who are observant and can spot trouble coming are much more likely to be able to help their dogs avoid or cope with some of the challenges life can throw at them. For example, when I take my own dogs out to the park, I don’t just watch their behaviour – I also observe other dogs, and even other people, so that I can make a judgement about whether or not to let them interact. I’m not the ‘play police’ but I am careful. I want their interactions to be positive, enjoyable ones, and I’d like to think that my dogs look to me for that kind of social buffering.


CC-vsmll-logo-pple In your experience, what do owners find most difficult about dog training?

SW: One of the skills that makes someone a good trainer is the ability to be able to avoid reinforcing ‘bad’ behaviour – and then being able to spot that split second of ‘genius’ when it is good.

It’s hard for most people to ignore things they don’t like. We are conditioned to respond rather than ignore or interrupt, and this means that many dogs get inadvertently rewarded for all the behaviours their owners like least!

Owners need lots of help to be able to know how to handle the less desirable stuff, as well as how to spot brilliance in their dogs and reinforce that instead.


 CC-vsmll-logo-pple And, finally, what do you envisage the greatest challenges will be for pet dogs – and their owners – over the next 10-20 years?

SW: I’m going to be a bit controversial. Hand on heart, I’m not convinced that the traditional model of dog training in groups or classes is necessarily right for most dogs and owners when they are starting out. It may be OK once the relationship has been formed between dog and their owners, and the basics are in place, but I can’t think of any other area where a novice handler with their novice animal is placed in a  group of other novices and expected to learn without stress or distraction at the outset. It’s highly problematic, and can even cause the very problems that it’s designed to prevent or treat.

I think it’s time that we started to challenge this model as the accepted ‘norm’ for elementary training, and started to offer something much more bespoke and personalised instead. For this reason, I will be launching the Clever Dog Company Method Licensed Trainers’ Scheme later this year. I’m very excited about it! Watch this space…

To find out what your dog is trying to tell you, visit Sarah’s Learn to Talk Dog online programme or watch a free webinar recording of  Signals of Pre-emptive Aggression in which you’ll learn exactly how to spot the early signs of aggression  – and how to prevent it escalating.

And, if you are a trainer, a behaviourist or an aspiring canine professional, do take a look at Sarah’s Inner Circle which delivers up to date thinking and masses of information to its members.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *