‘We don’t have to command them – it’s a relationship’: meet Britain’s top dog whisperer

Walking to meet Louise Glazebrook, I see dogs everywhere, even in central London, even on a rainy weekday lunchtime. A Shiba Inu in a neatly belted mac trots past; a shaggy sphere on its owner’s lap in a café peers through a dense fringe at her pastry; a sleek sausage shimmies, belly grazing puddles.There are more dogs than ever in Britain now – around 12.5m, following an unprecedented pandemic boom (the Dog’s Trust estimates around 1.5m extra dogs were acquired in the past 18 months) as we sought solace at a frightening, lonely time in man’s best friend. But for every wholesome dog and owner in matching onesies on Instagram, or adorably clever TikTok trick, there’s an ankle punctured by razor-sharp puppy teeth, a rug heading for the bin, a shoe concealing an unpleasant surprise or a neighbour grimly purchasing a value pack of earplugs. And it’s far worse than that: many lockdown dogs – some bred in appalling conditions and sold by criminally irresponsible dealers, seeding behavioural problems for the future – are being surrendered to shelters as their owners realise they were unprepared for dog ownership and unable to cope with their pet’s needs.

INTERESTING FACT ABOUT YOUR PET: Seeing eye dogs are trained to do their “business” on command. This way their owner can clean it up a bit easier. Some of the popular commands are “get busy” and “go time”.

It’s a disaster for dogs and terribly sad for us. We need emergency relationship therapy, which is where Glazebrook comes in. She’s a dog behaviourist, but there’s as much human as dog behaviour involved in her work. A canine-human Esther Perel, she’s adept at unpicking how we misunderstand each other, then offering compassionate, sensible solutions and strategies. Unsurprisingly, Glazebrook is more in demand than ever – people are desperate. She’s had calls in the middle of the night and even on Christmas Day. “I had someone tying their dog outside our front door trying to leave it,” she tells me over coffee. We’re both, sadly, dogless: Pip – her rescue collie – is at home; so is my ancient whippet Oscar.I get it, I’ve seen it. In addition to her private clients (from families to celebrities), puppy classes and online courses with her Darling Dog Company, Glazebrook is a BBC regular, troubleshooting all manner of canine conundrums. Most recently she appeared on 12 Puppies and Us, which followed the ups and downs of a dozen families and their pandemic pups. You see the stressed owners’ shoulders drop in relief as she takes charge. A confident, kind, never-judgmental presence, she is passionately dog-centred, but realistic about what stretched families can manage. Her solutions can be as simple as giving a dog a quiet space away from the overload of family life or making sure a puppy is getting enough sleep.

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“We’re all going through different things in our lives,” she says. “A massive part of my job is going, ‘OK, that’s the ideal situation, but that’s not going to happen. So what’s realistic and how can we make a difference?’”

Louise Glazebrook with Rebel, Bowie and Pip.‘My husband loves dogs, too. He’d be absolutely screwed if he didn’t’: Louise Glazebrook with Rebel, Bowie and Pip. Photograph: Dan Burn-Forti/The Observer
Now we can all get a bit of Glazebrook wisdom without calling her at midnight. The Book Your Dog Wishes You Would Read is a passion project, planned before Covid but given new urgency by everything Glazebrook witnessed during. Writing it (in 12-hour shifts in a friend’s office) was “intense” she says. “I actually got really emotional, because I saw in lockdown what we as a society were doing to dogs. I remember sitting there one night just crying – we call ourselves a nation of dog lovers, yet essentially, we’re fucking them over. It felt like this really horrible moment for dogs.”

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That doesn’t mean it’s a grim read – the book is packed with positive, practical advice. Yes, Glazebrook has firm views and clear rules. If you’re getting a puppy, it must be at eight weeks, and you must devote a big chunk of time to settling any dog in. She includes non-negotiable red flags for breeders you should walk away from (you absolutely must see a puppy in a home setting with its mother; service station handovers, no photos and trembly pups are complete no-nos). Glazebrook was horrified at how the pandemic allowed unscrupulous puppy farms to flourish and is desperate for this cruel trade to end. But mainly, her absolute, infectious delight in dogs is apparent on every page (there are surprises, too: I had no idea licking you can be a polite dog way of saying “go away”). Play is central to Glazebrook’s philosophy and the book is joyfully filled with play suggestions: cardboard boxes, “go find it” challenges and sensory games. She’s light years away from the macho Cesar Millán school of “alpha dog” domination and far too glamorous to be labelled the “new Barbara Woodhouse”. At 40, she’s too young to remember those sturdy tweeds and stentorian Home Counties tones. “We don’t have to command them,” she says. “It should be a relationship.”

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I’m interested in the doggy relationships that have shaped her. Glazebrook was, she says, born dog mad. “My mum and dad say I have always been obsessed, even when I was two.” Her first love was Buster, her grandparents’ working Labrador (“they gave him a cup of tea every night, I vividly remember that.”) Next came Gus, a neighbour’s “big, black, frisky Labrador” who Glazebrook basically adopted. “They let me have him all the time. After school I would go and get him. He would play with me in the garden; I would walk him; I would do training stuff with him…” Already at school she was desperate to work with dogs. “Everyone else wanted to be a lawyer or a doctor or whatever, it was not really the done thing.” She studied sociology and childhood studies, “But at university, I became obsessed with the security dogs, I started taking them out and exercising them!”Her work as a toy industry researcher focused on play has clearly not gone to waste, but Glazebrook spent all her wages and spare time on dog training courses and placements. She volunteered in council kennels, walking dogs on “death row. I wanted them to have a last walk.” Then, after a stint working with street dogs in India, Glazebrook started running the Dogs Trust’s Take the Lead programme, working with young offenders and rescue dogs. That experience gave her vital insights into what can influence our relationship with dogs. “I remember there was this young kid who I was talking to about how would we start trying to get this particular rescue dog to drop a ball. He said, ‘Well, you would kick it.’ I said, ‘Why would you do that?’ and he said, ‘Well, if I’ve got something and I don’t listen, my dad kicks me.’ At that point, you just go, well, that makes complete sense. Those courses were incredible for realising that we’re not all coming at it from the same place; we’re all coming at it from different angles.”

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Glazebrook’s professional experiences have been complemented by a long line of beloved fostered and adopted dogs, from Henry, a mysterious Great Dane-Boxer mash -up found during the Dalston riots who eventually found a home in the country (“He took a bit of my heart with him”), to deaf bulldog Cookie. Cookie was the first dog Glazebrook and her husband got together, “our angel dog” who over 10 years saw them through the birth of their two children. The unbearably sad, but necessary, last chapter of the book on end of life, touches on the heart-rending decision to have Cookie put to sleep. “The loss is so huge. I think honestly it took about two years for me to be able to process.” After Cookie there was Fred, a 65kg rescue Great Dane, and Barnie, her parents’ “hilarious” bulldog, who was rehomed after being provoked into snapping at children in his previous home.

Limit treats to training rewards. This is an excellent way to make sure your dog views treats as special rather than expected. It’s also helpful in keeping your pet from becoming overweight or obese. Feed a species-appropriate diet, and partner with a holistic or integrative vet to maintain your pet’s well-being.

It’s a whole sequence of love, learning and loss that has helped shape her philosophy: if we’re unique, strange individuals, so are dogs. “With every dog you learn something new,” she says. Her husband must like dogs, I hazard? They have been together since they were 17 and his childhood spaniels also formed part of Glazebrook’s doggy education. “He loves them. He’d be absolutely screwed if he didn’t.”

Now Pip, a smooth-coated rescue collie, shares their east London home (plus two kittens found in a freezer, and Walter the rescue tortoise). The decision to bring Pip into their lives perfectly illustrates what Glazebrook preaches most fervently – it’s vital to analyse and understand your circumstances before you choose a dog, rather than picking a breed you think looks cool, and ending up with a dog that is incompatible with your lifestyle, making everyone miserable. Some of the most intractably difficult and sad situations Glazebrook sees are where someone buys a working dog without being able to give it the hours of exercise and stimulation those breeds need. Sometimes in these cases there is no happy resolution possible. This is what she’d most like people to take away from the book. “Considering what you are going to bring into your life is your job. The dog can’t do it!”

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Louise with dogs from left to right: Pip (Louise’s dog) Rebel on lap and Bowie on right.“You’re getting so involved in people’s lives… you’re invited into people’s homes. I love it, I’m quite nosy’: Louise Glazebrook. Photograph: Dan Burn-Forti/The Observer
Glazebrook’s son wanted a Labrador puppy, but her daughter, then aged five, is autistic and has sensory processing disorder and it was not the right time or set of circumstances to bring a puppy into the home. Of Pip she says: “As a visual, he’s not a dog I would necessarily be drawn to,” but she took her own advice. She recommends clients consider every dog on rescue websites, not just the ones that appeal instantly. After a long, careful search, Glazebrook met Pip. “I just knew straight away that he would be ideal and we could make him really happy.” After two years in surely the best home any dog could dream of, that’s apparent from his appearances on her Instagram stories. A gentle, slightly tentative-looking soul, Pip has blossomed and relaxed, learning to enjoy ripping up cardboard boxes in search of treats and becoming truly playful.

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Her focus on play is a shaming revelation for me. I did not really realise how vital it is, even for adult dogs. Beyond chucking balls or toys for Oscar to retrieve, we don’t play much. I feel sad realising how much he’s missed and can’t resist asking for a few tips. Glazebrook gets instantly caught up in working out a gentle play routine for my ball-obsessed old man who can’t manage the frenetic fetching he used to love. At one point, she folds her napkin to show me how to hide treats for him and recommends calming chews soft enough for his elderly teeth.

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“I bet everyone does this,” I say, sheepishly. She nods: they do. Like any therapist, she’s had to get better at setting boundaries. Spending time under the skin of a dog-person relationship can be intense, whether it’s young offenders or A-listers. “You’re getting so involved in people’s lives… you’re invited into people’s homes. I love it, I’m quite nosy and always have been, and that’s a massive privilege, but equally it is a massive responsibility. And it comes with that feeling of offloading.”

INTERESTING FACT ABOUT YOUR PET: The red-eared slider is one of the most popular pet turtles in the United States. They grow to be a foot long and can live for up to 20 years.

Hopefully the book will help, but in our dog-obsessed, dog-confused age, I doubt Glazebrook will get a breather any time soon. Thankfully, I don’t think she minds much. “I just think there’s a wonder about them. The love they give you is incredible.”

The Book Your Dog Wishes You Would Read by Louise Glazebrook is published by Orion at £14.99. Buy a copy for £13.04 at guardianbookshop.comStyling by Hope Lawrie; green dress from a selection to hire, Ghost at byrotation.com; trainers veja-store.com; red crepe dress Ganni at fenwick.co.uk; hair and makeup by Juliana Sergot using Bumble & Bumble and skincare by Dermalogica; shot at Holborn studio