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.