He Got the Job Done. End of Story: One of the Greatest of All Dog Trainers


ImageCatain Haggerty in Memorium: He was an annoying and grating individual. But he loved dogs. He saved lives. He got the job done. He was always to true to himself, true to his beliefs. 

    Ask dog trainers who the most influential trainer of all time is. You won’t hear the name Barbara Woodhouse (the British woman who called out, “walkies!”) and for sure it’s not Cesar Milan, the latest flavor of the month who appears on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” One name you will hear is Captain Arthur Haggerty.

    On July 3, Haggerty died of adenocarcinoma at the age of 74.

    t’s true, the death the previous week of Eddie, the dog on the TV show “Fasier” may have attracted more headlines in the press, but those who write about and who train dogs certainly took notice of the Captain’s passing.

      Babette Haggerty-Brennan, Captain Haggerty’s daughter, a dog trainer in Palm Beach, FL says that shortly after her dad died a family friend posted the notice on the Internet. Within ten minutes, she was inundated with condolences.  And her email box was filled for days.

      The Captain was at one time a familiar name to the public. No one person did more to popularize dog training as a profession. In 1961, when he opened his Tri-State School for Dogs in New York, at a time when few people bothered to take their dogs to be trained. He was the first dog trainer to the stars, and was the first to talk about training dogs on TV, chatting on talk shows with Johnny Carson and Mike Douglas. While he knew how to joke around on TV, he took the professional seriously. Babette says she’s hearing from all kinds of dog trainers, even those same trainers who her dad called “mamby pamby.”

      In a 2004 interview, the Captain to me, “We have a nation filled with sissy dogs. Those TPR’s (trainers using total positive reinforcement) don’t get the job done.”

      “It seems he paved the way,” says Babette. “They acknowledge what my dad’s done and respect him. To my dad the profession always came second, and the dogs came first – and then nothing else mattered. His matra, ‘Remember, it’s about the dogs.’ He was able to rise above personalities; it was all about the dogs, and getting results.”

      I recall the first time I met Captain Haggerty; 12-years ago at a Dog Writer’s Association of America dinner held to present awards. I had won several, and an imposing even intimidating figure, with a shaved head stood up. He stood 6’3” but he somehow seemed larger than life. I knew this was the legendary Captain Haggerty.  I was shaking in my boots. I instantly understood how dogs obeyed him. I was ready to obey him.

      I had seen his photo, but in person he looked – well, familiar, as if I had met him before.

      His voice was surprisingly soft, even warm as he congratulated me. Ever eager for press, he then rattled off some projects he was working on and pitched me story ideas. Then he put his arm around my neck – with hands larger than a Grizzly’s paws – and said, “Hey kiddo, let’s talk.”

      Well, that’s not quite how it went. I mostly listened. He spoke about those mamby, pamby trainers, about training dogs for the military (which he did for many years), about his commitment to writing about dogs truthfully and accepting them for what they are without anthropomorphizing.

      Only years later did I realize why he looked strangely familiar. His skills transcended beyond a leash. As an actor, he appeared in character roles in many movies, including “The Great Gatsby” and “The Eyes of Laura Mars.” He was also the star of many TV commercials, which included his most famous role of all – he was the original Mr. Clean.

      When he wasn’t on a sound stage, he taught dogs to act; his four-legged students appeared in nearly 500 TV commercials, on various TV soap operas, even on Broadway.

      He credits are unparalleled. He trained dogs until the very end, for over five decades in all. His resume was astounding. And he was never shy about offering his credits to you or offering his opinions. If the Captain was thinking it, you’d know it, and the dogs he was training would know it. He was clear. Nothing ambiguous about him.

      “That’s a part of the secret,” he once said. “The dogs don’t have to wonder about me – they know exactly what I want.”

      He went into the army in 1951 and into combat in Korea. Eventually, he went on to manage the Army Canine Corps in Ft. Benning, GA. He was the dog training officer at the Army Dog Training Center in Ft. Carson, CO. While at the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Scout Dog Platoon at Ford Ord, CA, he conducted training experiments involving over 500 tests dealing with mine detection work. His groundbreaking work is still considered the foundation for how the military now utilizes mine detecting dogs.

      He returned to civilian life and opened the dog school, but he remained a Captain throughout his life. “Well, I am a Captain,” he explained. “Listen, it’s about marketing; I saw that successful trainers had their own names on the doors. But how about a name people would remember? It also made sense for me to use the same name I used as an actor. Then, there’s the image. A captain is a leader, a person who can take command of a dog, a tough guy – that’s me.”

      The marketing approach worked. Soon the Captain developed a persona as a sort of General Patton of dogs.

      He was Hugh Heftner’s dog trainer, and got press, so he continued training celebrity dogs. Long before David Letterman’s Stupid Pet Tricks, one could argue that Haggerty invented the idea, appearing on talk show with dogs doing, well, stupid sticks. No wonder Letterman used Haggerty 26 time times on his famous feature. In 2002, he authored “How to Teach Your Dog to Talk,” his fifth book.

      But he was far more serious than silly tricks. He wrote 200 papers on dogs, dog training and behavior. He traveled around the world training police dogs. He’s trained dogs for just about anything and everything dogs can do – ranging sled dogs to schutzhund to guide dog work.

      Haggerty told me, “Too much is being made of technique and equipment. All these people saying, ‘I was the first to use food,’ or ‘I was the first to do this or the first to do that.’ The bottom line is helping the client and helping the dog. End of story.”

      For some this question might be a sensitive one, but not for Haggerty, so I went ahead and asked, “How would you like this for your eulogy? ‘He was an annoying and grading individual. But he loved dogs. He saved lives. He got the job done. End of story.”

      His response was ebullient, “I like that,” and he laughed. “But I’m not going anywhere, not as long as there are dogs for me to train.”

      If all dogs go to heaven – he’ll have plenty to do.