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Ian Dunbar Speaks
And the dog world sits up and listens
Ian Dunbar

Ian Dunbar is a doctor twice over, holding a veterinary degree (from the Royal Veterinary College in his native Britain) as well as a PhD in animal behavior (from the University of California, Berkeley). But he’s most renowned for revolutionizing the way dogs—and especially puppies—are trained. The founder of Sirius Puppy Training, and more recently, the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (an educational organization that promotes dog-friendly training methods), Dr. Dunbar routinely prescribes lure-reward training techniques, patience, and most of all, a sense of fun. We spoke to him in his home in Berkeley, which he shares with his wife, two cats and at least three dogs.

Bark: Our society has changed so much in the span of your career, and obviously the role of dogs has changed, too. Dogs are no longer primarily in backyards, but in our homes and even in our beds! How has this happened?

Dunbar: The change has actually been over the last century. Dogs used to be working utility animals, owned by people who required a dog to perform a task, or who were so rich that they could employ people who could raise the dogs for them. Today, they are primarily a companion animal. And having a companion animal is on par with having a relationship with a person. What is that lovely quote? “One’s not half two, it’s two are halves of one.” e.e. cummings, I think. Meaning, when you look at a dog, you are looking at half of a relationship.  

Do people know a lot more about dogs than they did 30 years ago?

The general public knows a lot more than they used to, that’s true. For example, they take their puppies to puppy classes now; there wasn’t such a thing as a puppy class 30 years ago. The only classes that were available to dog owners 30 years ago were obedience-based, kennel-club-type classes, and classes for working dogs. There wasn’t anything available for “pet dog training.” Now, puppy training is taken as automatic. Trainers and veterinarians today are well educated about behavior, which was not the case even 20 years ago. But I think the general public still really needs to learn how easy it is to train their dogs.

Well, you make training look easy …

It has to be easy. Most dog owners are not experts, so the methods have to be time-efficient and effective. Because even though it’s a relationship, dog training still bears the stigma that it’s a chore. I want to change that view. You don’t train your dog, you live with your dog, and every aspect of living together is training and guiding and perfecting its behavior. You should not be living with a person or an animal who does things you don’t like; it’s too silly for words! Especially since the behavior problems that dogs have are so easily treatable, and the temperament problems are so easily preventable.  

Was it your research on canine development at UC Berkeley, that led you to prescribe puppy classes as a preventative for temperament problems?

The puppy classes grew out of a combination of things. I came to California for my PhD in dog behavior, specifically, the development of sexual dimorphism in dogs. We were looking at the development of social hierarchies. To study this, we observed puppies as they grew up. We had one litter with a puppy we called Sirius, who was an absolute bully, with an overinflated view of himself. One day we put him in with three litters of puppies, and he started to bully a female from another litter. She was older than him by three weeks, and much bigger, and they had an altercation. It lasted only about 10 seconds, but it changed Sirius’s entire temperament. He went from being the most belligerent bully to a very low-profile, seeking-to-please type of dog.

I thought, “Wow, wouldn’t pet owners like to know this?” Because the general view among behaviorists then was that you could change behavior quite easily but you couldn’t change temperament. And here was a wonderful example of a dog whose temperament and personality just totally changed. At the time, the bias on genetic antecedents of behavior was colossal in the kennel club world.

Another inspiration for the puppy classes was Omaha, my Malamute puppy, whom I got in 1981. I was freaking out: “He’s going to be 100 pounds!” I wanted to get him into school, but I couldn’t find a class anywhere that would take him until he was six months to a year old. I thought, “This is absolutely crazy. He has to go to some kind of puppy class!” But they didn’t exist! So I started one.

I knew from my research that puppies begin their education when they are two days old. The development of hierarchies begins when the little blind neonates are suckling, competing for available teats. Then there was the Sirius experience, a wonderful experience and one that changed his entire personality. I thought, “Why are these dog training schools telling me I’ve got to wait until he’s a year old?” It’s like not sending your kid to school until he’s 20! It’s ridiculous. So I decided I would teach puppy classes.

To the amusement of your vet school chums?

Yes, a lot of the people I was at college with laughed about it, my veterinary degree and PhD, and me teaching puppy classes. But I really enjoyed it, meeting people, families, and helping them out with their little puppies.

Very quickly, my puppy classes became quite famous, largely because of the video I made in 1987—Sirius Dog Training was the first dog training video ever made, and it went ’round the world. On the strength of that video, I went all over the world, giving talks about puppy training and lure-reward training, with the emphasis on early socialization and preventing aggression as the way to go.  

You once said that learning to be more positive with the dog helps you to be a more positive person overall.

Dog training is a great template for teaching human relationship skills. That’s what it’s all about. If you can’t work out a relationship with a dog, how the hell are you going to live with a person? If you can’t get your dog to come when called in a park, how are you going to get your husband to come home from the bar? Or your kids to come home from school on time? If you can’t housetrain your puppy, how are you going to potty-train your kid? It’s a very nonthreatening way to teach relationship skills, and what we learn we can apply to our human relationships … And for some reason, people can learn this better with dogs than with other people. Often, they then learn to apply it with other people.

Countless times I’ve been asked in puppy class, “Will this work on my kids?” And I always say, “Yep, and on your husband, too.” My students used to come back with hilarious things that they had done to solve problems: “My husband always moans when he comes home from work, and I got rid of that in one week!” “What did you do?” “Nothing! You just don’t respond to a moaning person. You only respond to a smiling person!”  

Do you ever find yourself getting frustrated or angry with an owner who insists on using physical punishment and other outdated techniques?

No, I don’t get angry. If I get angry, they will become defensive and I will lose them. A dog growls at you; do you hit him? No! He’ll bite you! Same with people. If they disagree with you, don’t disagree with them back! It just gets worse! You just nod and smile, and get them talking, and they’ll come around!

I think of all the important skills to learn in the world, that’s the most important: learning to get past the anger and find a way to deliver information to that person that will help him.

Training dogs and educating people, especially children, are the same: It’s not teaching them what we want them to do, it’s teaching them to want to do what we want them to do.

What’s next on your professional agenda?

I’m getting toward the twilight of my career, I hope. I’m looking forward to gardening and construction on the house and writing. But I want to spend two or three more years trying to promote the education of prospective puppy owners. Selecting a puppy is no different from selecting a school for your kids, or buying a new car. You have to be really discerning. Too many people take home eight-week-old puppies that are behaviorally retarded; they haven’t been raised and handled properly. Also, too few prospective owners know that dog training is fun, easy and effortless; it’s actually what living with a dog is all about! I’ll be evangelizing about these things for the next few years, and then I’ll retire to my garden—and hang out with my dogs on their leather couches.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 27: Summer 2004

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