The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

July 31, 2009

Book review: Dog trainer offers up some ‘Lessons Learned’

‘Dog Talk: Lessons Learned

from a Life with Dogs’

By Harrison Forbes

My kennel club friends often refer to the first dogs we trained as our “practice” dogs. Indeed, I learned a lot from raising my now aged rottweiler-German shepherd mix from puppyhood and training him in obedience and agility — sometimes it was a case of what not to do the next time around.

Harrison Forbes is no exception. In “Dog Talk: Lessons Learned from a Life with Dogs,” Forbes, the host of a radio talk show called “Pet Talk” and a longtime trainer of police dogs, takes a look back at the dogs he has known.

He does dispense some training tips along the way, but ultimately it all boils down to knowing your dog, not following one particular training regimen. “My training method is the anti-method,” he writes. “You need to be open to every method and throw your preconceived notions out the window. Understanding dogs and their behavior is a never-ending process.”

As someone who teaches beginning obedience and puppy classes, I found myself nodding in agreement.

So if you’re looking for a straight-up training book, “Dog Talk” probably isn’t for you. (There are, however, plenty of good ones in the Joplin Public Library collection by people such as Ian Dunbar, Sarah Hodgson and Tamar Gellar.) But if you want to spend a couple hundred pages with someone who has worked with and loved many dogs — some of them not so loveable — this book fits the bill.

The dogs that Forbes has owned made me look at mine and think, “Hey, you might have chewed through drywall once in a while, but at least you never did that.”

There was Lex, who badly mauled his K-9 handler’s wife when she foolishly leaned down to kiss him on the muzzle. And Ivan, who was so traumatized by a previous master that he would periodically withdraw into himself, whimpering and sucking on his rear leg like it was a pacifier. Bart had a disconcerting way of showing he disliked someone: “He would get right in front of them and shove his muzzle up between their legs and look right up at them with a look that said, ‘If I open my mouth, you’re castrated.’”

At the other end of the spectrum, there was the first dog he owned. He’d received permission from his mom and stepfather, who thought he’d pick out something small like a chihuahua. Imagine their surprise when the dog Forbes chose was a big, beautiful American Staffordshire terrier named Praise Jesus — PJ for short — by his evangelical Christian breeder. Forbes learned a lot from owning PJ, who was so good around children that he could take a Dorito to the eye without drama but protective enough that he body-slammed two German shepherds that went after Forbes’ mother.

Later in Forbes’ career, he acquired Akbar, a German shepherd who had suffered such horrific abuse early in life that he often reacted with fear-based aggression toward his K-9 handlers. Forbes literally saved the dog at the last minute, as he was about to be euthanized, and rehabilitated him, teaching him how to trust again. He later placed him with a bounty hunter who provided the constant companionship the dog needed, and Akbar lived out his days happily riding around in the front seat of a pickup truck.

“Dog Talk” isn’t just success stories, however. Forbes owns up to making some seriously boneheaded mistakes — purchasing a wolf when he was still in college, buying his daughter a poorly-bred shih tzu from a pet store, getting bitten more than once by his own dogs, and unintentionally setting off a dog fight because he wasn’t managing his dogs properly. But the guy has a lot of confidence in his abilities and his dogs, so he always shrugs it off and looks at such mistakes as lessons learned.

To Forbes, that’s what it’s all about, and I have to agree. Perhaps more important, beneath the authoritative trainer of tough animals is a man who deeply loves dogs. Of his relationship with his current pet, a marshmallow of a pit bull, he writes, “I forgot how much I love to have a big old huggie dog.”

So if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to commune with my own big old huggie dog.

Lisa E. Brown is the administrative assistant at the Joplin Public Library.