Dog trainer and presenter, Graeme Hall, on his new The Dogfather Live on Stage tour, which is coming to Scotland
Graeme Hall is the Mary Poppins of the canine world.
In his Channel 5 programme, Dogs Behaving Very Badly, this presenter and dog trainer, otherwise known as The Dogfather, brings his calm and assured presence into naughty pup owners’ chaotic homes. Dressed in his signature Barbour jacket, jeans and tweed waistcoat, Hall, 56, will step back and calmly assess the situation, whether that’s a barking, humping or scarpering problem.
Specific cases have included a spaniel that eats socks, or, in one episode, a Border collie that’s obsessed with its own reflection.
Then he offers positive training advice that invariably works. Usually it’s as simple as a change in the tone of voice, when issuing commands, or gentle reassurance.
Unsurprisingly, dog parents love him, so much so that he’s now on tour around the UK, with a Scottish date at Edinburgh Queen’s Hall on May 26. We asked this dog trainer a few questions in advance of his appearances.
Have you been to Scotland before?
Absolutely. I’ve been working in Scotland since around 2012 - everywhere from Ayrshire to north of Aberdeen and quite a lot of places in between. I once made the mistake of booking a private one-to-one dog training session in the centre of Edinburgh in the middle of the festival and couldn’t find accommodation. I love working in Scotland because I’m from Yorkshire and I think Scots and Yorkshire people have got a bit in common, we like to say it like it is and don’t beat about the bush. If we like you, you know about it, if we don’t, you know about it, all of which makes us a little bit like dogs.
Did you always want to work with animals and did you have any alternative career paths?
Growing up in Selby, my first recollections of local dogs were two fold. One was a poodle called Pepsi who was lovely, but there was a German Shepherd cross, called Bonnie, who chased me down a cul de sac one day and nearly bit me. I wasn’t that keen on dogs. Mum and dad were busy working people so it was always a case of, we can’t have a dog, it’s not fair. In terms of career path, I left university with a degree in Hispanic Studies, then I worked for Weetabix for 21 years, up to a senior level. I was all set to be a management consultant but dog training had become my hobby. At the time I had two rottweiler puppies, Axel and Gordon, and I thought ‘they have to be really well behaved, they’re big powerful dogs’ so I threw myself into dog training as a hobby and learned as much as I could. I’m one of those people who think if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. So by accident dog training became my job.
Did you grow up watching Barbara Woodhouse?
She was pretty scary and wore tweed skirts. The impression she left on me was to try not to be too scary if I became a dog trainer and, although I might not want to wear the skirt, the tweed’s good.
Why the tour?
I’m now on the fourth series of Dogs Behaving Very Badly and that means we’ve covered over 100 stories and there’s been a huge appetite from the public, which I’m eternally grateful for. More and more people are tuning in. I’ve written a book and I have a podcast so the tour seems like a natural progression. What drives me is doing my best to help people and having a bit of fun at the same time. It just seems to me that a stage show is exactly that, or it should be, for this kind of thing. The promise from me is that you’ll go away thinking that was fun and I’ve learned things that I didn’t before.
What's the format?
In the first half I’m going to explain how I do what I do with dogs and the rules for behaviour, but also we’re going to go through some choice picks from the television show. There will be videos and I’ll be telling funny stories and will let you in on some of the things that happen behind the scenes. Part two is a question and answer session. In some ‘in conversation with’ stage shows the Q&A is there to fill up spare time at the end, but for this show I thought it was important to give everybody a voice. The whole of the second half is live questions and answers so I literally don’t know, venue to venue, what I’ll be doing in part two which makes it exciting. I’m hoping that we will get some dogs live on stage at some venues. Sadly, not all venues and local authorities allow it, so where it is possible we are looking to do something with local people and their dogs on stage.
Does that make you nervous?
Am I nervous? Yes. Am I excited? Yes, and also excited to bring the show to Edinburgh. Can you ever be well prepared for what a dog is likely to do? No, and are they likely to be even less predictable on a stage in front of a big audience? Yes. Never work with animals and children, I never got the memo.
What have been your best and worst moments on the telly show?
Worst: In this series, for the first time, we had a German Shepherd called Oakley who I couldn’t do anything with on the first day that I went there. He was a very clever dog, who was biting the lead and then people’s hands by accident and everything I tried worked for a short amount of time before he thought of a way around it. It was like playing chess with a grand master – you think of a move and he’s two steps ahead of you. At the end of the first day, we’d literally got nowhere and I drove away feeling really deflated. I’d given them nothing but I had to come back. When I returned with some new ideas, a couple of things worked and we ended up with a really good result. It would have been so easy just to say there is nothing that can be done here. The moment that I realised the cameras were on me and I wasn’t going to get a result that day, I thought life is like that, you can’t predict what dogs are going to do.
Best: We have a lot of fun and laughs but some of the best ones are the really emotional stories. There was a couple where the dog - a Border terrier called Bonzo - was splitting them apart. The couple had been together for many years and their relationship was at a stage where the husband was at the end of his tether and ready to leave. His wife separately said ‘one of them is going to go and it’s not the dog’ and, in one day, we managed to turn that around. The dog had been attacking him - it was only a little puppy. I knew that, as I was driving away from there, I’d fixed the dog and I think I’ve got that relationship on the right track. There are times when I’m not just a dog trainer, I’m almost a relationship counsellor as well. That’s a great feeling.
Are there any specific problems that have become rife because of lockdown?
The one that everybody is talking about is separation anxiety. When people went back to the office for the first time in many months, dogs weren’t used to it, particularly young ones that were born at the start of the lockdown. All they’d ever known was people being at home. Lots of people are asking about that. Incidentally, if you look really anxious when you’re leaving, your dog will read that you’re worried and it’ll make the problem worse. The more we tell ourselves there will be a problem, the more there’s a problem.
The other thing we didn’t do was invite visitors into our home. So for a dog who grew up during lockdown, they just never saw anybody walk into their house. I’ve seen a lot of what I call ‘stranger danger’ problems recently where the dog is barking, looking nervous or even aggressive towards visitors because they’re intruders. The dog doesn’t understand that it’s normal for some people to walk into the house because for so many months they never did. What also happened during that period was that we also got lots of parcel deliveries, so many dogs learned to bark. They’d bark, the delivery driver went away, the dog thought ‘excellent, I did a good job there’. They learned to bark as people came to the door and, now, some of those people are coming inside. What’s a dog to think?
Are we learning new things about dogs all the time?
Yes, in the years I’ve been doing this, we’ve learnt so much and there are teams of people in universities around the world who are studying them. We now know that dogs watch our faces and understand that there are differences in our facial expressions. That doesn’t quite mean that they understand how and what we’re feeling, because they’re not human, but they know the difference between a frown and a smile. I can tell you exactly where on a human’s face a dog is looking and you might be surprised to know it’s your forehead. Your forehead muscles drive your eyebrows and they make your eyes expressive so when we frown, our eyebrows go down, when we smile they go up slightly. Dogs are looking at that part of the face, not exclusively, but that’s their first port of call and they can read us like a book. We know so much more about that than we ever did.
Labrador owners always think their dogs are greedy and will never stop eating even when they’re full. It turns out 24 per cent of them are right because that’s the percentage of Labradors that have a defective gene that means that they never actually feel full. They are literally always starving in their heads. We didn’t know that until a few years ago, so all the time things are coming on. It’s fascinating.
Do you feel people are watching you for impeccable behaviour when you take your own pup, Lilydog, out?
Yes, and in fairness so they should really because if I’m walking my own dog and they’re badly behaved then I’m clearly not very good, am I?
Tickets at www.graemehalllive.com