Hannah Molloy doesn’t sit still. Even as we speak on the phone, I can sense her mentally hopping on the spot. A bundle of energy is what my Mum would call her – even her own website, without needing to resort to hyperbole, describes Hannah as a ‘force of nature’.
Hearing Hannah describe her life, one suspects she’s been cloned. There surely isn’t enough time in the day. There’s the dog behaviour agency, ‘Pawfect Dogsense’, that she founded in 2011. Then there’s the TV work with Channel 4’s Puppy School, and an upcoming book on how to train one’s dog.
She works with corporates too, notably Just for Pets, a British chain that specialises in raw food and brands itself as the ‘Waitrose of pet food’. The day we speak, she’s off to see them in an attempt to incorporate her work into theirs.
What dogs think
They’ll listen, to be sure. There’s an old-fashioned sense of get-up-and-go about her, a natural vigour that eludes most of us. Energy infuses everything she does – but she reserves her true fervour for the relationship we have with our four-legged friends.
Our chat starts with a simple question. Do we really understand dogs – these once-wild wolves, with whom we share our homes and lives– and do they get us?
“I am of the view that we’ll never really be able to tell what dogs are thinking,” she says. But only, she adds, because “we forgot how to communicate with them”.
Hannah takes my hand and leads me down the path of history. “In the past, most animal behaviourists were farmers and vets. They worked with animals all day long.”
Back then – and this wasn’t so very long ago – there was an innate “understanding of what is an animal”. Now, most vets live in towns and cities and they solve medical problems – deer ticks, dicky tummies – but not behavioural ones.
“Professional vets don’t talk about dog psychology,” she says. “They focus on the body not the brain. Vets don’t talk to each other about this aspect of dogs, so they don’t aren’t forming a coherent strategy that would help to educate owners.”
If you don't listen, you won't hear
This problem is exacerbated by a “cacophony of misunderstanding” with our furry friends. We infantilise our dogs and make trite assumptions about character. Maybe we assume control is all about who gets to be leader of the pack – whereas, what your dog wants “is for you to be a strong, confident, loving leader”.
Maybe we ignore them, or shower them with attention. “Most dogs aren’t used to being touched and petted,” she says. “We don’t realise that – so suddenly you get a snap or a snarl, and your dog’s sitting there thinking, ‘well, I sent you enough warning signs’.
And all the warning signals are there: they are laid out in simple terms in Hannah’s Pawfect YouTube videos, or in books by Alexandra Horowitz or Stanley Coren.
It’s often easier to digest simple do’s and don’t’s, so I ask for one. “Don’t approach dogs head-on, or lean over them,” she replies immediately. “Turn your posture sideways and let them come to you. Don’t encroach on their space. Also - remember that dogs don’t inherently want to be touched by strangers.”
Stressor Signs and Calming Clues
It dawns on me that our ignorance is stressing our dogs out terribly. I mention something Dudley (he of Dudley & Co fame) – does seemingly at random during walks. Every so often, he’ll stick his bum down and refuse to go any further.
“It’s a calming signal,” Hannah replies. “It’s their way of saying, ‘I don’t want to be seen any more’.” There will be a trigger or a series of them, she adds. Maybe Dudley didn’t get his breakfast on time. Maybe there was a domestic argument, or someone honked a car horn. Perhaps he saw a person or dog he didn’t like or got spooked by the weather. It could be all of those factors combined - and more.
It’s a fight-or-flight moment, the kind we humans know all too well. “The bum-down moment is a point of near-shutdown,” she says. “It’s an extreme thing to do – and we underestimate how easy it is for a dog to get to that point.”
And while all dogs exhibit similar stressor symptoms, the outcome can differ depending on the breed. Vizslas may ‘point’ when nervous, while staffies might kill or ‘rag’ a smaller body. For collies, the instinct is to ‘herd’, be it humans or ants.
The answer is not as complicated as you may think. Good dog-behaviour classes – of the kind provided offline and, under Covid-19 lockdown, online too – by the likes of Pawfect Dogsense, which has trained 10,000 dogs in under ten years, certainly help.
But you can do a lot of the simple stuff at home. “Watch your dog, check for signals,” she urges. “Don’t analyse them – just look at what they are actually doing.” One of Dudley’s ‘leave me alone’ warning signals is the ‘whale eye’, a sideways glance where the sclera – the whites of his eyes – get all big and bulgy.
When the whale eye is in town, I tend to tiptoe around pup-pup.
Another good practice when getting to better know a dog’s nature is to scatter food around an open safe space, perhaps a back garden, then stand back and soak in all the resulting natural dogginess.
“Watch how your dog forages,” she says. “How he places his feet and approaches food. That’s when you notice how comfortable he is in his body, how he places his weight, and if he eats carefully or frantically – which might be a worry. Does he pace around or plod, and so on. There’s a lot of information buried in those cues.”
All of this matters. Remember - dogs are one of the only species on that planet with no back-up plan. They’re ‘our’ animals – we made them and in doing so, we forced them to depend on us. In developed countries, they aren’t allowed to live apart from us.
They are naturally competitive, yet we try to breed that out of them. The bloodline is healthier when it mixes and overlaps – yet we covet ever-smaller pedigree pals. They constantly talk to us, explain things, signal like crazy – while we stare into our smartphones. Then they snap and we jump back, startled.
Hannah needs to dash. She’s got the Just for Pets people to meet, and a chat with her publisher. One final question though: what are her long-term ambitions?
She laughs - loudly. “I want to reduce the price of behavioural services to avoid dog behaviour and training becoming gentrified,” she says.
It’s just the response you’d expect from someone who created Pawfect Dogsense to give a “guerrilla approach to urban dog training,” and to bring the practice to the masses. Her aim is to continue to offer well-priced dog training to everyone who wants and needs it.
Two more projects stand out. The first, with National Health Service, aims to stop children getting bitten - and that means training both dog and owner. The other is with the ethical Website Puppies.co.uk, which helps would-be owners and their kids to identify, at the point of sale, who is and is not a puppy farmer.
“It’s the only way forward,” she says. “If people continue to adopt the approach of shop-don’t-adopt, we – and dogs – will never win. Adopting and good training and communication is the only way forward.”