The Dog I've Always Wanted

Canine Behavior, Training and Photography

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Dog Talk by Harrison Forbes with Beth Adelman

January 4th, 2009 · · Book Reviews


“A company recently approached me about doing a set of training videos they planned to call the Harrison Method.”  I told them, “That’s exactly what I am not going to do.  If I limit my training to one set of techniques, then I’m saying one size fits all and you are obligated to do everything that one way. But the truth is that approach doesn’t work. Any single method may be great for a couple of dogs, or even most of them, but there’s always going to be a big percentage for who that approach doesn’t work.”

“My training method is the anti-method. You need to be open to every method and throw your preconceived notions out the window. Understanding dogs and their behaviour is a never-ending process. It’s like building a library; if you want to teach a dog to sit, there are twenty different ways to get there and each way will work well on at least one dog you’re likely to meet. And when somebody shows you the twenty-first way, you”ve got to be open-minded and stick it on your library shelf, because you may need to pull it down one day. To me, that’s what a good dog trainer does.”

When I read the preceding  paragraphs in Harrison Forbes’ book Dog Talk it was as though I’d found gold. Yes, I thought, this is a guy with his head screwed on straight. He is not interested in defining and defending a rigid method and dogmatically (you should excuse the pun) applying it come hell or high water. He is always open to learning something new. That sounds like an intelligent and rational way to do things.

I have listened to and read so many arguments between proponents of various methods and numerous  training gurus that I realize most people involved in these verbal brawls are only interested in advancing a cause and making their opponents look foolish at best, abusive at worst. The only good thing about having and expounding a method is that it is a package that can be presented and taught to  other people ie. clients. But inevitably  this approach will lead to some successes  and  many failures. Learning to be a dog trainer is not an eight week proposition; it is a life-long process fed by a desire to continue to learn no matter how much experience you have under your belt.

If one is serious about this whole pursuit and really wants to learn how to train dogs it would useful to learn a few things about the right attitude to espouse. According to Harrison Forbes observation is invaluable, of a variety of animals not just dogs. He calls this active observation. It involves noticing all the subtle nuances of animal body language, speculating on intention and  motivation, and remarking upon and interpreting changes in patterns of expression and action. This requires good concentration and the ability to be still and do nothing. Fairly challenging for most of us but well worth the effort. Interest and curiosity will be rewarded with understanding.

Harrison Forbes sets things out in a straight forward way as far as what is possible by means of training. While he does state that every dog has issues and that they can be addressed with proper training he also describes dogs that have what he considers nervous conditions that are transmitted genetically. He uses the word ” squirrelly ” . For example it can be difficult to tell at the outset when seeing a dog in a shelter if the behaviour it is displaying finds its origin in a history of abuse, current stressful conditions or a fundamental problem with the dog’s temperament. Unfortunately difficulties of the third type are not fixable.

But there are many dogs that are fixable and Harrison Forbes tells some of their stories.  As a trainer of police dogs, both Schutzhund and Farhthund (sniffer dogs) he works with some powerful and potetially dangerous dogs. He is well known and respected in his corner of the dog world and from time to time has the opportunity to rehabilitate some remarkable dogs. Aside from their physical power most of these dogs are also high rankers on the dog intelligence chart: German Shepherds, rottweilers, doberman pinschers, Staffordshire terriers, and even a wolf named Diablo. Forbes prides himself on having a talent for conditioning dogs to think for themselves. It seems to me that this is the highest form of training , a kind of phd for dogs. He also holds the conviction that training must be suited to the dog, that the more you know about a dog the better the training will go. It is vital that the training addresses that particular dog, his past experience, his strengths and weaknesses.

In spite of his skill with what are generally thought of as hard dogs Forbes has been able to participate in the training of his family’s Lhasa apso, Abigail Elizabeth, and also to do some remedial work with her. He uses her case as an illustration of why consistency is so important. Poor Abigail Elizabeth was being trained by three young children.

Harrison Forbes knows a great deal about training dogs and is apparently one of those fortunate individuals who can be called an intuitive or natural dog trainer. He is a wonderful story teller who has some very valuable information to share and it is relayed in a straightforward and readily comprehensible way.

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