These 'Memoirs' of a pet therapist are goofy but sincere

August 30, 1998
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

I knew I was in trouble when I picked up a copy of Warren Eckstein's new book, "Memoirs of a Pet Therapist" (Fawcett Columbine, 1998), and turned at random to a chapter called "Personal Stuff."

This sentence jumped out at me: "My family's way of talking to one another was to bicker!"

Attention is drawn to this inelegant sentence by putting an exclamation point at the end. And I'm afraid Eckstein's book is full of exclamation points. Exclamation points, except in extremely rare cases ("War declared!"), are the tool of a poor writer, screaming "look at me!" or "I'm making a joke here!" They get in the way.

But I plowed ahead, exclamation points and all.

I found out that, basically, I'm the last person in the world to know about Warren Eckstein. He hosts his own nationally syndicated radio program.

"The Pet Show," and he is a frequent guest on myriad TV shows including Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee and NBC Weekend. Maybe you've seen him on the David Letterman show? Eckstein was one of the brains behind the creation of the "stupid pet tricks" segment.

Eckstein is sort of a goofy guy. Sincere and lovable but not sophisticated. OK, that makes sense. His book is exactly the same way.

What he's all about, this Jewish guy who grew up on the East Coast, is animals. He loves them. That's a good thing, because according to Eckstein himself, the only talent he has in the world is an ability to communicate with animals.

He writes: "It doesn't matter what kind of animal it is, a snake, a dog, a bird - it makes no difference. We talk to each other. Sometimes I'll see someone walking down the street with a little dog and instinctively I'll bend down and give the dog a kiss. There's no facade with animals; if they like you, they'll let you know. I'm very instinctive and my instinct tells me that I've chosen my life's work well."

Yes, I think that's true. His happiness is apparent and maybe that's what kept me reading his book. I also wanted to find out if anyone ever slugged him after he kissed their dog. (Evidently not.)

I also like his attitude toward pet training: "I see no reason why owners should try to maintain strict control over an animal at all times. How much fun is it for your dog to have to walk in the same position (heeling) around the block? Let him lift his leg, smell around. Most people are too domineering and bossy over their pets. And remember, always have praise, not food, in your pocket for your pet!"

Eckstein describes how he became a celebrity pet therapist, beginning with his very lean early years on the East Coast when his first rich clients were members of the Mafia. Seems that a lot of those types wanted guard dogs in the '70s. He also worked as an animal control officer on Long Island and ran a deluxe pet kennel for several years.

One of the stranger tales he tells concerns a gambler. This gambler wanted Eckstein to train his dog to do a certain trick. "I want to put down three objects on the floor that look exactly alike," the gambler explained. "Then I want the dog to stop and pick up one of those objects when I do something on cue that would not be recognizable to other people."

Eckstein knew it was possible to train the dog, "an incredible German shepherd," ("incredible" being his favorite and much over-used adjective) to do this by the use of discreet hand signals or a click or swallow in the voice to cue the dog. It was intense training, but it could be done. So Eckstein taught the man how to turn his pet into a gambling dog, a dog that would always pick the $50 bill when a $50, $20 and $10 were put on the floor.

The gambler went on to win a lot of money with his dog.

"I still bump into this mischievous man who taught his dog to win big money!" chortled Eckstein.

Eckstein went on, as I have said, to become the media darling of the Hollywood pet set. And one thing he said confirmed my suspicions about these pet appearances. Eckstein says he always gives his animals a little water before they appear on TV. The resulting spontaneous accidents are anything but. Eckstein says he does this to reassure the audience that peeing is natural and that it isn't a criminal offense. OK, Warren, just don't carry it too far.

Two years ago Eckstein moved to Southern California, so I hope we'll hear more from him in the years ahead. And next time I hope his publisher gives him an editor.

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