It was puppy love at first sight.
''Sit-t!'' said Barbara Woodhouse firmly.
Spike the English bulldog stopped puffing and pulling on his lead and sat, much to his owner's amazement.
''What a gorgeous boy!'' Mrs. Woodhouse chirped, slapping her thighs for Spike to come to her.
And come he did, jumping as high as his squat little legs would carry him, jowls aquiver with the smile of success.
As the crowd at the shopping mall pressed Mrs. Woodhouse with one ''problem'' pooch after another, it was even better entertainment than her popular syndicated television show, ''Training Dogs the Woodhouse Way.'' The dogs listened attentively and caught on quickly while their owners fumbled with leads and commands.
In her familiar pleated skirt, wool sweater, and sensible brown loafers, her hair held in place with a single bobby pin, Barbara Woodhouse could be taken for a British school mistress or perhaps a well-heeled drill sergeant. But the good humor in her voice when she praises her pupils (''What a clever girl!'') and even when she rebukes them (''That's a very naughty dog!'') carries a warmth that television cameras don't always capture. This is a woman who clearly loves the animals she works with.
''I long to get on with dogs,'' she says, stooping to look reassuringly into the eyes of a whimpering mutt and give it a quick tickle on the chest. ''Unfortunately, I'm on a choke chain myself, never with enough time to spend. Still, I love spreading the gospel of kindness and quickness. Jerk 'em and love 'em, that's my motto. And you can see for yourself how it works.''
After looping a large-linked choke chain around her own wrist and jerking on it to prove to an anxious owner that it won't hurt her dog, Mrs. Woodhouse gets to the heart of her training philosophy: ''There's nothing wrong with this dog, madam. She just needs to know you're in control. She longs to obey and respect you. And she needs to be praised.''
In the past 20 years more than 17,000 dogs have been praised the Woodhouse way. Guide dogs and guard dogs, dogs that go into tizzies at the sight of a passing truck, and dogs that are afraid to get into cars, Great Danes and tiny Yorkshire terriers -- she jerks and loves them all. And she does it so successfully that the Guinness Book of World Records lists her as the most successful trainer in the world.
Barbara Woodhouse is also something of a character in the curious British mold -- ''the first genuine hoot of the Eighties,'' according to the London Daily Mail. To spend an afternoon with her is to be swept from radio talk show to ''dog demonstration'' to bookstore autographing session, with a few minutes out for lunch in the back seat of a rented car.
It's a pace that she and her husband of 42 years, Dr. Michael Woodhouse, are used to by now. Since July they've spent only three weeks at home, on the 30 -acre estate outside London where her television series was filmed. When they're there, she says, the dining room table is ''covered in letters to the ceiling'' with requests to open carpet shops and give talks for women's luncheon clubs. ''I've even had an offer from IBM to speak to their sales force. They thought my enthusiasm would wake up their representatives.''
Mrs. Woodhouse's enthusiasm is one of many reasons for the unexpected success of ''Training Dogs the Woodhouse Way.'' First aired by the BBC in 1980, it quickly became a weekly fixture of the dog-loving public and has been rebroadcast twice since then. Although she can't confirm reports that the royal family tuned in regularly, she says she recently visited with the Queen and her nine Welsh corgi dogs. ''She told me she probably has too many,'' Mrs. Woodhouse says, ''and I told her I suspected they bred rather indiscriminately. I don't think hers are all pure.''
The message Mrs. Woodhouse conveys in her series and in her new book, ''No Bad Dogs the Woodhouse Way'' (New York: Summit Books), is that anyone who knows how to approach dogs properly, how to maintain eye contact with them, and how to urge them on with a variety of voices can have the same success that she does.
''A pat and a kind word are not enough in the initial training of dogs; the atmosphere must be charged with a certain excitement . . . .'' she writes in her book. ''Dogs love laughter, clapping and jokes. . . . You can't train a dog well if you are unhappy.''
As a youngster, Barbara Woodhouse had what she describes as a ''telepathy'' with animals. Raised by a clergyman father and a mother who bred Alsatians, she says she spent much of her childhood talking to dogs and taking them for walks, often striking off with 35 of them at once. She was also ''mad for horses, like girls were in the old days,'' and at college rode with the Oxford University Polo Club.
When she and Dr. Woodhouse were married and began to raise a family, their pets far outnumbered their three children. The dogs and children grew up together in five films Mrs. Woodhouse wrote and produced (one of which won an award for the best children's film that year), and the menagerie even traveled together on holiday. ''We always took the dogs with us,'' she recalls, ''and the year after the war ended we took the cows to the seaside, too, and provided all the villagers with as much illegal milk as they wanted.''
Her two Great Danes probably take the honors for family stardom, appearing in more than 100 films in 21 years, sharing the billing with Clark Gable, Peter Finch, and Roger Moore. She's also worked with cougars, giraffes, hyenas, and chickens, and claims to have once trained a praying mantis to sit up and pose for tourists on a photographic outing in The Gambia.
When she was injured in an automobile accident a number of years ago, Mrs. Woodhouse gave up horseback riding and devoted her inexhaustible energies to training dogs. In a new television series now being aired in Britain, however, she's having ''another go'' at horses. The technique behind the training she presents in ''Barbara's World of Horses and Ponies'' is based on what she learned about taming wild horses from native Guarani Indians in Argentina.
She turns around in the back seat of the car to demonstrate. ''You simply put your hands behind your back and breathe gently down your nose. The horse will then come up and breathe down your nose. That's horse language, you see, for 'How do you do?'
''Are you listening, Gato del Sol?