Dog Talk

Lessons Learned from a Life with Dogs

Harrison Forbes with Beth Adelman

St. Martin's Press

Introduction
 
I’m going to start this book with a confession: I’m a hypocrite. For fourteen years now I’ve been telling listeners to my radio show, Pet Talk, not to buy a puppy from a retail store, not to buy a puppy on impulse, not to buy a puppy at Christmastime, and not to buy a puppy if you have children under the age of four. But when the only girl born in your family in fifty- nine years looks up at you with her baby blue begging eyes and says, “Daddy, can I have this little puppy? Please, I want her sooooo bad,” all logic and fortitude melt away as you turn to daddy putty and you hear a voice that sounds like yours saying, “Okay, baby.” Then your heart seizes up and you think, “I can’t believe I just did that!” But it’s too late. “Do as I say, not as I do.” Isn’t that the mantra of hypocrites?
 
Oh yes . . . and the puppy was a seven- week- old shih tzu with a lazy eye. Because I also always tell my listeners not to get a puppy that young and not to take one with health problems. While I’m at it, I might as well be a big hypocrite.
 
I’ve built my reputation as a dog trainer by working with some of the world’s toughest police and protection dogs, finding ways to deal with dogs who were very difficult to handle. Most of those dogs lived in my kennel—although some of them came in and out of the house and eventually became beloved members of our family.
 
While I’ve also worked with many of the little guys, I’ve never been especially fond of owning small, yappy dogs. It was a different story with my wife, Jill, though. She grew up with a small dog and always wanted another one for our kids. She astutely figured out that I’d never get one just because she asked, so she successfully passed the torch of that want and need to our four- year- old daughter, Alexandra Jane. Jill saw to it that the flame of that desire never went out, and the need for a smaller dog, a house dog, a dog who would be Ally Jane’s little pet, had been a theme in our house for some time.
 
I finally promised them we could get a small dog when all the kids were older than four, because I am the kind of guy who practices what I preach—most of the time. This meant another two years; Chandler, my youngest, was two at the time. But you know how patient little kids are.
 
A few months before Christmas, Ally Jane started hitting me pretty heavy with the requests. Every time we saw a puppy on television or passed one on the street, she wanted it. She climbed up in my lap one day with those very sad puppy dog eyes and the pouty lips and said, “I just want a puppy, Daddy. If that’s all I get for Christmas, that’s okay. All I want is a puppy.”
 
That’s when I took my first step down that slippery slope of hypocrisy. “We’re not going to get a puppy,” I said, “but we’ll find an adult dog.”
 
And I meant it. I started checking newspaper ads offering dogs for adoption, and went to see several of them. Just a week earlier, I’d talked to some people with an adult Yorkshire terrier. On the phone, he sounded like the ideal dog. But they didn’t live nearby, so we agreed to meet at a spot halfway between where they were and where I was. And I’m really glad we did, because the dog had never been away from home before and he was completely wound up and freaked out. If we’d met him in his home, he would have seemed just fine and I’d never have known there was a problem. With all the traveling we do, that dog would have been a disaster. Sure, I could have worked with him and helped him develop his confidence, but why start out with a nervous, unsocialized dog when you’ve got three little kids in the house? (I also have a son named Parker who is eight.)
 
When I saw that dog, I was reminded of one of those things I know all too well and always apply when I test dogs for police work: Dogs can react very differently when they’re outside their comfort zone. Things aren’t always as they appear, and a smart trainer knows that. The fact that I forgot about this and only ended up meeting the dog away from home by chance just tells you how far away from my good sense I’d already stepped.
 
The day I officially became a hypocrite was the Sunday before Christmas. We were in Memphis visiting my mother. By then I had seen so many different dogs that they were starting to run together. There was a place called The Puppy Corral that was twenty minutes from Mom’s house, and we ended up passing it on the way home. I wasn’t stuck on one particular breed, and I thought it would be useful to see several breeds at once so I could compare them. Not to get a puppy, mind you, but just to give me an idea of the kind of adult dog I wanted to look for. Everyone was in the car, and there just wasn’t any way for me not to take the kids into the store with me.
 
But it was only to look. Because this store is the epitome of the things I preach against. They’re supplied by commercial breeders, they’re overpriced, and the genetics of these dogs is questionable. Still, this particular place had been in business twenty- five years and had a pretty good reputation and a good health guarantee. They have little sitting areas where you can take the puppies out and play with them, so I decided while I did some breed research I could also teach the kids about temperament testing. It would be a learning experience for me and for them. That was all. I swear.
 
The showroom was huge—maybe 3,000 square feet. They had about 200 dogs in the place, but they just kept about two or three of each breed in display cages and kind of rotated them around. There were stand- alone stations with three or four puppies in playpens, and there were walls of cages with a pup in each, and attendants everywhere helping you look for what you wanted. There was also a bunch of people mopping up the concrete floor with disinfectant whenever a puppy peed, so the place was very clean. In concept I don’t like what they do, but I had to admit they did it well.
 
My kids went crazy because there were adorable puppies everywhere. And within five minutes I realized this was not going the way I had hoped. I started pointing out to the kids some behaviors I saw in the dogs that I didn’t like. They just wanted every puppy they picked up. Jill didn’t let Chandler sit on the floor, but she held him while he enthusiastically petted every dog we saw. At this point, I should have realized what was happening and herded them all to the exit.
 
But I didn’t. Somehow, I was still convinced this was a great opportunity to teach the kids, that we could walk out of there without a puppy. We were in a unique situation of being able to look at so many breeds at the same time. I always tell my radio listeners not to get stuck on a particular breed, but to look for a type of dog. Sometimes it’s really important to compare apples and oranges, and where else were we going to do it? At least, that’s what I told myself.
 
There was a brown and white Lhasa apso I liked, and he did really well on all the little things I use to gauge temperament. For example, when we put him down in a pen, he went toward the kids rather than away from them. When they rolled a tennis ball, I watched how long he was interested in the ball, and when his interest broke off I noted whether he went off by himself or back to the kids. “These are the same tests I do for police dogs,” I told my kids. I guess I didn’t notice that nobody was listening.
 
Now, if I roll a ball, all I’m interested in for a police dog is his sustained interest in the ball. I don’t really care if he goes back to the handler, because interest in the handler is not as important as interest in the toy. Think about this for a second: When you’re training narcotics dogs, you’re using a reward of playtime with a ball or a tug toy or something similar to get them to do the work. The dog isn’t doing it because he likes the smell of the drugs; he’s doing it because he has an insatiable drive for the reward.
 
But a pet dog has to be oriented to people. You want him to have some kind of interest in a toy, but he should be able to move away from it and seek out the attention of a person. So I made the kids sit down on the floor inside the play area and not run and pick the puppy up or even call him. I rolled the ball for the Lhasa apso and we just waited to see if the dog would go back to them.
He followed the ball for less than ten seconds and then ran back and played with the kids and was really cuddly. Everything was going fine. He was a cute dog, kind of fluffy, really sweet.
 
But then my wife picked him up and he instantly started scrambling to get down. Jill didn’t think anything of it—“He just wants to get down and play”—but I saw something else. I kept picking the dog up and passing him around and pretty soon it was clear this dog was uncomfortable being held. I wanted to see if he would fight when I tried holding him close to me, and the answer was yes.
 
I was looking for a dog who would submit to being picked up and feel confident and okay about it. That’s indicative of a dog who will follow a leader, which means he will be easier to teach. But this dog had an independent spirit and was not inclined to be compliant.
 
He was cute as a button and really healthy, but his attitude bothered me. Then I did a noise test with him. I dropped a metal drinking bowl on the hard concrete floor while the dog was in the middle of playing. It’s absolutely normal for a loud noise like that to startle a dog, but the key is watching how they recover. If it startles them to the point where they can’t get over it within ten to fifteen seconds, there’s a problem. The ideal is a dog who is either mildly startled for a split second or not startled at all and then goes over to investigate the bowl.
 
The Lhasa did okay with the startle test, but I just wasn’t feeling right about his struggling when he was picked up. Which was fine with me, because we were not there to get a dog.
 
We looked at a French bulldog, other Lhasa apsos, shih tzus, a miniature schnauzer, a toy poodle, two Yorkshire terriers, a cairn terrier—maybe eight or nine dogs who I actually got out and tested. And by “tested” I don’t just mean the ball and the bowl and picking the dog up. I watched everything about them: their body language, were they proud, did they walk around confident with their tail up or did they slink around, how did they react when people walked by?
 
We were getting ready to leave—because, after all, we were only there to do research—when they brought out this tiny little black- and- white bal l of fluff. I mean, so tiny that it worried me. She was a shih tzu, and they swore she was seven weeks old but she looked more like four weeks. She weighed less than two pounds. I actually made them go back and check her birth date.
 
I handed the puppy to Ally Jane and stepped back to see what would happen. That’s when I noticed that one of the pup’s eyes was looking forward and the other was going off to la- la land. So this is an underweight shih tzu with a googly eye. Time to go home.
 
At that point, though, Ally Jane was holding the pup and the puppy was nuzzling into her and obviously passed the holding test, plus she was tiny and cute. My daughter and her mom were really liking this dog.
 
So then I did an extended version of the ball test, because I wanted to make sure that she could see and focus properly. I held her and rolled the ball across her field of vision, looking to see if she was focusing enough to pinpoint its location. She scampered after the ball, picked it up and gave a little growl, really oblivious to all the noise and people in the store. She was showing a lot of personality and was able to focus and have fun. Within about thirty seconds she was playing and romping like she was a part of the family, and her growling and wrestling with the ball was showing a feisty temperament that I liked. She was comfortable and confident. Then she ran right over and tumbled headfirst into Ally Jane’s lap. That told me a lot: “I’m confident with body contact with people I don’t know,” she was saying. She was diving into everybody’s arms and when she got there she was very settled—not in a cowering way but proud and full of herself. She was just enjoying being held and kissed and loved.
 
Then I did the noise test. I dropped the bowl when she was sitting there playing with Ally Jane. And she did the best possible thing: She turned her head to look but didn’t startle. She just turned around, looked at it, ran over, and sniffed it. Then she turned back to Ally Jane and just flew into her and started grabbing her pants legs and playing with her and play growling.
 
Ally Jane just loved her. And she had already named the dog: Abigail Elizabeth. I knew right then it was all over. The princess had won.
 
I did the holding test and the good old charisma and chemistry test and this dog was the one everybody loved. I can’t really give you one particular reason why this puppy was the one, but that’s the nature of chemistry. She just was. And that’s when I got “the face.” The face of the girl I love the most in the whole world. The one that said, “Daddy, please can I have this little puppy?”
 
But we did not take the shih tzu home. Instead, I left a deposit with the store to hold her. There was a fight about that, but this is one of those rules I never break. I know what you’re thinking: I’d already broken all the rules by leaving a deposit. But you just don’t take a dog home after one visit. You have to let your emotions settle down a little bit, make sure you still want the dog as much after some time has passed. Did I really think Ally Jane wasn’t going to want that shih tzu a day from now, a week from now, a month from now? I may be a hypocrite, but I’m not stupid.
 
Ally Jane, meanwhile, cried all the way to the car. “I want her now! Why can’t we have her now? Let’s take her home.” My wife wanted her, too. Parker, though, was playing the tough guy. He had started working with Nord, one of my protection dogs, and had heard me preach the anti- little- dog mantra so many times that he felt obliged to show some manly disdain. So it was the women against the men. (Lucky for me Chandler was too young to say much.) “Stinky old daddy” is what Ally Jane called me. My wife called me that, too.
 
And then came the pouting. Ally Jane stuck out her adorable little girl lip and then asked every twenty minutes, “When are we going to get her? Why can’t she come today? Can we go back and get her tomorrow? Can we go back and get her to night?”
 
Actually, I wanted an extra two weeks because I was going to be traveling a lot and I wanted to be home for a while when the puppy came into the house. Plus, I made the folks at the store pull all the feeding records on her, because she was so tiny that I wanted to make sure she was eating. And I made them rewrite the health guarantee she came with so I would have two weeks from the day of purchase to get the pup seen by my veterinarian to guarantee her health.
 
But it didn’t work out the way I planned, because a dad can take only so much pouting. I went and got Abigail Elizabeth on Christmas Eve, less than a week after we’d first seen her. A few days before, the whole family went to Target to buy the puppy bowls and beds and everything we’d need. There were all these accessories and things that I was never able to get for my working dogs. It was kind of weird for me, but I was surprised at how quickly I got into it.
 
When you get a big dog you intend to train for protection work, you buy him a leather buckle collar and a strong leather leash and some stainless steel bowls and a couple of very sturdy chew and tug toys, and that’s about it. But when you get a baby shih tzu . . . well, I started looking at the little dog carriers— purses, really—and comparing the pink leather one to the black one and then the frilly flowered one that would match the pink pet bed. There were so many more choices than I was used to and suddenly I cared about whether the pink carrier matched the pink bed.
 
My family started teasing me. They said in a couple of weeks I’d be walking around with the pink dog purse with the dog sticking out of it. And actually, a time or two, I did.
 
I suppose this is as good a time as any to explain that I’ve been a dog trainer and behaviorist for more than twenty years, and have trained more than 600 dogs for police departments all over the country. I compete in protection dog sports, too. How I got into this line of work and the dogs I have worked with are partly what this book is about.
 
The things I’ve learned over all those years of dog training and shared over all those years of broadcasting is the other part of what this book is about. That’s important, because this book is not just for people who think police dog training is kind of cool—although it definitely is.
 
This book is for everyone who likes dogs and is interested in dog behavior and why dogs do what they do. If you want to know what makes dogs tick, well, so do I. And I have spent the past two de cades trying to figure it out.
 
I also wrote this book to help people understand that they are a lot more in control of their dog’s behavior than they think. Any good dog trainer will tell you that your energy travels down the leash just like an electric cord. And your dog’s energy travels up the leash. It works both ways. That’s the biggest curse or gift we can give our dogs. I’ve never seen a nervous dog with a real calm, mellow dog owner. You can give your dog good calm energy and a confidence that enables him to feel good about being in all kinds of situations.
 
When your dog was a puppy, anytime he was exposed to something new, his mom was standing there and he immediately looked to her to see what she was doing. If she shivered and cowered and got nervous, he learned to shiver and get nervous. If she was confident, he was thinking, “Okay, this must be cool.
 
Let’s go on to the next thing.” Without his mom, your dog takes those cues from you. Think about how empowering that is.
 
So now, as I said, it’s Christmas Eve. We all piled into the car for the two-hour drive from where I live, near Jackson, to The Puppy Corral outside of Memphis. On the way, I was thinking that for all these years, whenever I’ve brought new dogs home they’ve always been my police dogs. If any dog ever chewed up anything or had an accident in the house, it was my fault. With this puppy, I was savoring the fact that the whole housetraining process was going to be on my family’s shoulders and I could point fingers and make them clean stuff up. I was looking forward to saying things like, “You wanted this dog, you begged for it, and now you got it.”
 
By now I had forgiven myself for getting this puppy. Everyone was so excited that I just got pulled along with them. Maybe a white collar would look nice with the pink carrier . . .
 
We picked up Abigail Elizabeth (a name that, at the time, was probably twice as big as the puppy), signed the papers, and started the long drive home. She was such a tiny little puffball, but she was great in the car and didn’t get sick or stressed. The first fifteen minutes into the drive I looked in the rearview mirror and she was sound asleep in Ally Jane’s lap. That picture was worth everything. Ally Jane had her hand resting on the puppy, and she was so happy and so excited. I knew then that I’d done the right thing by making her wait a week for the dog. This way, it was a big event and not like just picking up a toy at Wal-Mart. I hoped building up the puppy’s homecoming like that would help her see how serious a thing it is to get a dog.
 
When we got home, I set up a baby gate to confine Abigail Elizabeth to the utility room and then explained to my family about keeping a dog that young in a small area of the house so she wouldn’t get into trouble. Of course, as soon as I left the house they’d get the puppy out and let her run around. And, as puppies do, she started going to the bathroom all over the house. But I never cleaned up a single drop. I let my wife and my daughter do it.
 
You may be wondering at this point why I’ve started a book about police dogs with Abigail Elizabeth’s story. The reason is simple: The techniques I use with police dogs also work with a shih tzu. The basic behavioral drives of a ninety-five-pound German shepherd are not all that different from the basic drives of a four- pound Chihuahua. (In fact, I’ve always said that if Chihuahuas weighed ninety-five pounds, they’d be people killers.)
 
I want to dispel a lot of myths about police dogs, because they are so much more like regular housedogs than people think. And I want you to feel empowered to be in control of your own pet and to think about the little things you do that may be making it harder to get what you want from your dog. If you have a small dog who’s a little snappy and crusty about things, it’s not as dangerous as if he were a hundred- pound dog, so maybe you let it go or tell yourself he’s just a grumpy little dog. Gradually, you get into a routine where the dog’s behavior shapes the way you live your life, where you sit, when you have people over, who can touch the dog, and so on, rather than the other way around.
 
If you learn anything from my experiences with the biggest, toughest dogs around, it’s that it doesn’t have to be that way. With just a couple of tweaks and fixes, you can make your life with that pet a whole lot better and take that relationship up a couple of notches, so you have a dog you really enjoy.
 
Any trainer who says he “knows it all” has a narrow view of dog training. You might know a technique that works with one dog but it might not work with another, so you have to draw from all of your experiences to help each dog be what he is meant to be. In some ways, this book is a chronicle of that journey for me.
 
But dog behavior is still dog behavior. Here’s another way to think about it. Suppose I’m the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and I see my vice president of finance is so disorganized that he can’t get his work done. The things I would do to help him get everything organized and running smoothly are the same things I’d do if my stay- at- home spouse was disorganized and disheveled all the time. I’d take the same basic approach to running a Fortune 500 company as I would to running a small house hold. And I’d take the same basic approach to training a shih tzu as I would to training a rottweiler.
 
As it turned out, Abigail Elizabeth presented some interesting problems for us (I’ll tell you about those at the end of this book), and I learned a lot from working with her. I love seeing the way Ally Jane lights up around her. In fact, there’s something special about each of the dogs I’ve had—parts of my heart will always be with them. PJ, for example, was there for me during a difficult transition in my life. Tico was goofy and all personality—a great working dog. Bart and I had a quiet connection right from the beginning; he returned my love in a way that was so focused and individual.
 
With all these dogs, I had a certain understanding. “You’ll respect me and I’ll respect you,” they seemed to be saying. “I will do what you want, but there comes a point when I will stand up for myself.” In no dog was this mutual respect more deeply felt than it was with Lex. We understood each other utterly and completely. A dog like that comes along once in a lifetime. You’ll meet Lex in Chapter 1. And when you do, you’ll understand why I’m still not ready to give my whole heart to another dog since Lex.
 
Excerpted from Dog Talk by Harrison Forbes
Copyright@ 2008 by Harrison Forbes
Published in 2008 by United state of America
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited.Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.