Yanking Matthew Margolis' chain

Wednesday, Jun 3 1998
"'VEAL LOIN.' 'What?' 'FOR DINNER WE HAVE VEAL LOIN!'" By way of analogy, Matthew Margolis, author, TV personality and self-anointed "dog trainer to the stars," is explaining why boarding a dog in his Monterey Park kennel for training is a wise idea. Or at least that's the question that was put to him before he launched this routine, which features Margolis as both bullying restaurateur and helpless patron, alternating roles by varying his pitch. "'What would you like for dinner, sir?' 'Well, fish!' 'NOPE! VEAL LOIN!' 'But I don't like veal.' 'VEAL IS GOOD.'"

Like most questions put to Margolis, this one does not have a straightforward answer. But it does have a point: Like a restaurant with a varied menu, Margolis' National Institute of Dog Training is an all-purpose operation. "Of the four ways to train a dog - in-home, in-kennel, classes, books and videos, we do three," he says. And in the world of professional dog training, it is the best all-purpose operation. "We are," he says, invoking another food metaphor, "the creme de la creme." Disagree with him, and he will remind you that he has the eternal gratitude of Whoopi Goldberg.

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"'Well, the restaurant next door says, "I have fish, I have chicken, and I have meat!"' 'THEN YOU DON'T WANNA GO THERE BECAUSE IF THEY COOK THREE THINGS THEY'RE NOT DOING IT RIGHT! You cook one thing, that's what you do! You go to Fatburger, they just do burgers!' 'Cheeseburgers?' 'Nope, just BURGERS! NO CHEESE!'"

Co-author (with Mordecai Siegal) of Good Dog, Bad Dog (1973), When Good Dogs Do Bad Things (1987) and his 1995 autobiography, Woof!: The Funny and Fabulous Trials and Tribulations of 25 Years as a Dog Trainer, Margolis makes regular appearances on Good Morning America to advise viewers on how to pick child-safe puppies; ABC's 20/20 featured him recently as an expert on aggressive dogs. His 1995 PBS special, Woof! It's a Dog's Life, was turned into a series, Woof! Woof!, by WGBH in Boston. His institute sees several hundred dogs a year, including Cher's, Madonna's, and the two golden retrievers that belonged to the late Jimmy Stewart and his wife, Gloria. "I think of myself as the IBM and the Intel of the dog world," he boasts. "I've read and studied and trained thousands of dogs. People send their dogs across the country to me."

But not everyone is convinced. In Los Angeles, at least, if you throw a stone into a pack of dog trainers it's hard to hit one who won't eagerly di-vulge his disdain. "People are insecure," Margolis complains. "They want to knock the competition rather than say, 'He does good work, and he does good work.' AT&T, GTE, MCI - I don't think they knock each other. I don't understand it."

Woof!, to both Siegal's and Margolis' credit, is a remarkably candid account of the events in the 56-year-old Queens-bred dog trainer's career, including how he abandoned his fleeting dream of becoming an actor when the celebrated New York agent Stark Hesseltine caught him lying on his resume. In his mid-20s and at loose ends, Margolis took an aptitude test in which one of the questions was: "Would you like to train dogs for the blind?" He realized in that moment that training dogs "was a wonderful, valuable thing that I could learn to do as well as anybody," and he ran to a pay phone to call Captain Arthur J. Haggerty's School for Dogs, where he studied for six weeks before starting up the National Institute of Dog Training in his Manhattan kitchen. Among his first clients was a Latino family with a mean dog named Macho, a dog with "four hairy legs as thick as baseball bats." He charged $200 or $300 to train most dogs back then, but quoted Macho's owners $1,200, hoping to wriggle out of the assignment without losing face. To his ostensible dismay, they accepted, and Margolis had found himself a profession.

Margolis has promoted himself as an expert in dog aggression ever since, an identity that has vaulted him beyond mere dog trainer into the Beverly Hills life of moderate celebrity. On The David Susskind Show a few months after the publication of his first book, he subdued a liquor-store owner's violent German shepherd in a matter of minutes. He later performed a similar feat on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, after he bragged to Bob Dolce, Carson's talent coordinator, "that I could take any dog and make it obedient within one or two minutes." Leaving aside his skills as a trainer - and the worst of his enemies would concede that Margolis has a remarkable way with dogs - it is his emphasis on the potential viciousness of the random canine that puts Margolis at the head of the local dog-trainer pack: He uses fear as a marketing tool.

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