An Interview With Ian Dunbar
by John Bell Young
Over the last few weeks, I had occasion to speak at length with Dr. Ian Dunbar, who is widely considered, by his peers and the public alike, as the dean of dog trainers. But as I learned during the course of conducting this extraordinary interview, Dr Dunbar is a great deal more than that; he is an authentic polymath, whose vast experience as a trainer is informed by his expertise in several related disciplines, not the least of which are the veterinary and behavioral sciences. No less impressive is his ability to clarify complex issues in a way that is straightforward and intelligible. To say that Dr Dunbar’s knowledge of canine culture is encyclopaedic is an understatement; the sheer breadth of his authority is breathtaking, and I dare say I learned more of value in a few hours of chatting with Ian Dunbar than I had in four years of independent study and research. As a pianist — and to all the classical music devotees out there who also love dogs — I would add this: Ian Dunbar is to canine culture what Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli was to the interpretation of Ravel, or von Karajan was to Mahler: altogether incomparable.
-John Bell Young
Excerpted from Dogstardaily.com:
Dr. Ian Dunbar is peerless in his field; there is simply no other person who has his qualifications, experience, and expertise in the realm of modern psychological dog training and behavior counseling-fields, which Dr. Dunbar has played a major role in developing over the past 25 years. He has been lecturing to veterinarians and dog clubs for over thirty years, conducting more than 800 days of seminar and workshop for trainers and veterinarians around the world. There are few educated trainers who have not been strongly influenced by Dr. Dunbar’s fun and games, from-the-animal’s-point-of-view, dog friendly dog training.
Dr. Dunbar is a veterinarian, animal behaviorist, and writer. He received his veterinary degree and a Special Honors degree in Physiology & Biochemistry from the Royal Veterinary College (London University) and a doctorate in animal behavior from the Psychology Department at the University of California in Berkeley, where he spent ten years researching olfactory communication, the development of hierarchical social behavior, and aggression in domestic dogs. Dr. Dunbar is a member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the International Society for Applied Ethology, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, the California Veterinary Medical Association, the Sierra Veterinary Medical Association, and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (which he founded).Dr. Dunbar joined the Society for Veterinary Ethology (now the International Society for Applied Ethology) over 35 years ago, at which time he was the only member specializing in dog and cat behavior problems. Later he was involved in the establishment of the American SVE (now the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior).
He has written numerous books, including How To Teach A New Dog Old Tricks, the Good Little Dog Book and a series of Behavior Booklets (separate educational booklets on each of the most common pet behavior problems). Additionally, he has hosted eleven videotapes on puppy/dog behavior and training, including SIRIUS® Puppy Training, Training Dogs With Dunbar and Every Picture Tells A Story. All of his videos have won a variety of awards. The SIRIUS Puppy Training video (the first dog training video ever produced) remains the all-time best selling dog video. For three years running the SIRIUS® video has been voted the #1 BEST DOG TRAINING VIDEO by the Association of Pet Dog trainers, which is the largest and most influential association of dog trainers in the world.
Dr. Dunbar was invited to develop and write the American Kennel Club’s Gazette “Behavior” column, which was voted Best Dog Column for a number of years in succession by the Dog Writers’ Association of America. In 1993, Dr. Dunbar founded the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) APDT in the United States and organized the first two Annual Conferences. Dr. Dunbar’s current project is the creation of the K9 GAMES®-an exciting spectator event featuring fast-moving, motivating, competitive games for dogs and owners.
Dr. Dunbar’s SIRIUS® Puppy Training video had a dramatic influence on the pet dog fancy, completely changing the way dogs are trained around the world. His unique lure/reward, off-leash training techniques provided a delightful alternative to inane and inhumane leash jerking. SIRIUS techniques have been adopted and adapted by most thinking and caring dog trainers worldwide. For more information go to: Sirius Puppy Training (www.siriuspup.com ) Dr. Dunbar’s books, CDs and DVDs are available from the DogStarDaily online digital store. Also, many of his multi-day seminars for dog trainers and veterinarians are available on DVD from Tawzer Dog Videos, and his “Give Them A Scalpet and They Will Dissect A Kiss: Dog Training Past, Present and Future” lecture is available from Dogwise.
JBY: What is your position with regard to those smoldering and often controversial issues of Breed Specific Legislation?
ID: My question is: Why do we even have such legislation? Presumably it was put in place to make things safer for people. But there is no evidence that these breed banning laws have actually worked, anywhere in the world. Ohio is the first state to begin repealing these laws. While they have caused a lot of dissension and argument, there is no evidence they have reduced the number of dog bites.
JBY: While it is true that certain so-called “bully breeds” were bred to fight each other (not humans), and thus genetically predisposed to aggression — does that mean that every dog belonging to those breeds is likely to become aggressive and pose a danger to humans and other dogs?
ID: The majority of dog bites are snaps, but serious dog bites are very rare, and almost always due to the egregious incompetence of their owners. The fact is that most bites are fear based; a dog bites because he is afraid of people. Little dogs bite more often, but do less harm. Big dogs bite less often, but do more harm. Dogs kill about twenty people in the USA every year; about twelve of those are children. Almost without exception, each incident is a case of amazing negligence directly attributable to the parents of those children. By comparison, two thousand kids were killed last year by their parents. Do we see much about that sad statistic in the media? No! It’s extremely unusual for a dog to kill anyone, but when it does happen, it’s news. And yet when kids are killed by cars or their parents, it’s often not news, because it happens several times every day.
JBY: There are those who argue that Breed Specific legislation is, on the whole, a good idea in the interest of public safety. Or is it really the naive and misguided apprehension of those who believe that there are inherently dangerous breeds?
ID: Breedism is the doggie equivalent of racism, and breed bands are frankly stupid. They instill fear in people’s minds and turn them against perfectly normal dogs. It’s really sad. Part of the problem is that many people, some dog professionals included, only look for a single reason for biting, such as genetic, hereditary, breed or temperament, etc., things that cannot be changed. In reality, a dog may have numerous reasons to bite. For example: he is not well socialized, he’s hand-shy, he takes a while to warm to strangers, he’s not overly fond of children, he’s a bit tricky around his food bowl, etc.
Maybe none of these stimuli is sufficient cause for a dog to bite. However, if all stimuli occur at the same time – an unfamiliar child inadvertently touches the dog’s collar when the dog is next to his food bowl – we have a bite that appears to come out of the blue without reason or warning. In fact, the dog has many reasons for biting and has most certainly warned many times. The notion of subliminal bite stimuli makes dog bites preventable and treatable, because it is possible to desensitize each stimulus one by one (always working below threshold).
JBY: The most maligned breed, at least in the political circles that would seek to ban it, is the Pit Bull. But that name is actually a generic term for several related, but different breeds, and includes the American Pit Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier, and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier. What should the public know about these breeds?
ID: In spite of their reputation, bully breeds are in fact among the friendliest, most playful dogs there are. Should I ever have kids in my family again, I would love a Rottweiler or Pit Bull, which would be among my first choices, because they are so accepting of children. But again, they need to be socialized early. Far too many dogs are treated like livestock, and there are probably fewer than five percent of breeders who socialize their puppies, train them for manners, or consistently use chew toys.
JBY: What do you recommend be done to deal more effectively with public concern, which naive politicians have instead seen fit to remedy through ineffective laws?
ID: The whole problem is preventable with greater socialization in the first eight weeks of a dog’s life, and certainly before a puppy turns three months old. But no matter the breed, why wait? A puppy who grows up being handled a lot will get used to people. Problems develop when puppies are handled by only a couple of people, are not handled enough, or not given the opportunity to meet other people and dogs. When raised in this manner, they become fearful. Too many breeders fail to socialize their pups, or train them for manners. Nor do veterinarians, pet stores or the media take the trouble to inform the public as to the importance of socialization. I am trying now to coordinate all the dog professions and the media to inform prospective and new puppy owners of the urgency and importance of early socialization and handling.
ID: The worst is impulse adoption, where the adopter has given the responsibility no thought. If you adopt on impulse, you’ve likely just adopted a project, because you will likely end up with a fearful dog. Though the best reason for adopting a dog is because you want it, and that you’d rather have a dog than a puppy, it’s no less important that you’ve really thought it through. It can take a long time to find the perfect dog. The more homework you do, the more prepared you’ll be.
JBY: What do you recommend one should do in advance of making a commitment to adopt a dog? Conduct research through books and videos? Get to know one’s friends’ and neighbors’ dogs? Adopt a dog temporarily through a fostering program? What in your view is the best way to prepare for bringing a dog into one’s life?
ID: I strongly suggest going to a local puppy class and talking with dog owners enrolled there. These are the most direct and honest people with whom to discuss the pros and cons of dog ownership. They really know what the problems are. “Test drive” the dog you have your eye on to adopt. For example, if you want a Jack Russell, then “test drive” a few; get to know the individual dog, and the breed, too. Volunteering at a local shelter would be helpful, too. Basically, you need to know dogs before you choose one. Things can go wrong very quickly, especially if your puppy becomes fearful. While adopting a dog doesn’t require going to university and reading a lot of books, it does demand a seriousness of purpose, and a willingness to spend a good amount of time, in advance, in the company of dogs. Whether you have your heart set on a Rottweiler or a Greyhound, you’ll learn a great deal more by “test driving” these dogs than you will by reading twenty books!
JBY: What specifically do new dog owners need to do and to look for when selecting a puppy?
ID: Ask questions! Is the puppy hyperactive? Does he bark a lot? Has the breeder made an effort to house train and socialize him? Has the pup (or dog) been taught basic manners? This is crucial, because when you get your puppy home, the next six to eight weeks will make or break him. A dog who knows the rules will not frustrate his owners. After all, it’s quality of life that matters, and a puppy who is made aware of household rules won’t anger his owners, which makes for a much better relationship.
While it’s vital to keep your puppy safe in a proper environment where he learns to cope at home alone, it’s no less important to socialize him so he grows up enjoying the presence of people. If he is not socialized, he will learn to fear people, and his life will be a living nightmare. It’s not unlike a person who has a phobia of rats or spiders or snakes, who is then put in a small room with such critters. Well, that’s exactly what life is like for an un-socialized dog. At DogStarDaily.com we’ve posted specific advice on these issues for dog owners, pet store proprietors, trainers, and breeders.
JBY: For those adopting a dog for the first time, what are the most important issues to consider with regard to health and well being? Sometimes there can be uncertainty surrounding the background of a puppy, or grown dog, which is up for adoption at a shelter, as opposed to one available from a reputable breeder. What questions should a prospective adopter ask with regard to a dog’s background and behavioral disposition?
ID: Far too many kennels and breeders have dogs with health issues, which can result in premature death. Some dogs with underlying health problems are dead by the time they are six. Thus it’s important to be sure that your new puppy is free of both temperament and health problems. Where purebreds are concerned, it’s a good idea to request documentation about the dog’s health and family history. It is important to find out how long the puppy’s parents, grandparents and great grandparents, etc. lived. Longevity is perhaps the best indicator of general physical and behavioral health. Of course, it’s sometimes difficult to obtain such detailed information from a shelter, or to know for sure. On the other hand a mixed breed dog will generally be physically healthier than a pure bred. The overall health of a puppy depends on how he is raised and treated, not only at the shelter, but after he gets home, too.
JBY: Many people prefer to adopt a mature, full grown dog, rather than a puppy. Are there special considerations before making the commitment to bringing home an older dog?
ID: Absolutely! Often, a shelter won’t know much about an older dog’s past or family history, and thus no idea about his potential longevity. Even so, don’t worry: the perfect dog for you is out there for you somewhere. What is important is to search, search, search, and then – search again! Make sure to meet the dog you’re interested in many times. Also, every member of the family should handle the dog and assess his reaction, not only to the humans, but also to any other dogs or cats. This is especially important if you already have other animals at home. If the shelter won’t allow you to handle the dog, go to another facility. Whatever you do, don’t act in haste!
JBY: What is the best and safest way to socialize a puppy, and no less important, a mature dog?
ID: Puppies need to be socialized before three months of age. This may be safely accomplished at the breeder’s kennel or in the pup’s new home, but outdoor shoes must be left outside, as they can track in the parvo virus. As a rule of thumb a puppy needs to be handled and trained by at least 100 people before eight weeks of age and then by another 100 people between eight and twelve weeks of age. Once the puppy is three months old, socialization may continue in the big wide world, as with adult dogs Socialization never stops. As soon as you stop socializing your dog his behavior will begin to drift.
JBY: Sometimes, especially in public, you will encounter people who feel free to approach one’s dog and interact with him inappropriately, either getting in his face (as kids sometimes do, while flailing their arms, for example), or actually encouraging the dog to jump up on them. Clearly, this can compromise the appropriate behavior that competent training should have instilled in our dogs, and may even encourage them to return to bad habits. What can the new dog owner do to discourage such behavior on the part of otherwise well-meaning strangers, without offending them?
ID: We know people are always going to approach, and we have to assume they will. It’s unrealistic not to expect that. But we also want our dogs to be well socialized and comfortable around strangers. So you have to be damn sure that your dog likes being petted by children and strangers. Again, this is why early socialization is paramount. What I do is say, “Let me ask my dog, shall I?” Then I give him a hand signal to bark, and another to shush. That usually fascinates people, and calms them down, too. Then I’ll repeat that a couple of times. I am more concerned with young children who want to get kissy-face and hug the dog, which will encourage the dog to jump up. In my puppy classes, I prepare people for this, by making sure the dog’s “default setting” is to sit when a human approaches, and not to move towards them.
JBY: Do you recommend that young dogs, especially puppies, be taken to dog parks to interact freely and socialize with other dogs?
ID: It’s a challenge to keep your dog socialized to other dogs, so it’s important to take him to a dog park, particularly in early adolescence. But don’t let your dog get too excited before going into the park. Spend time outside of the park to give the puppy a chance to calm down. Ask him to sit. Give your dog a treat every time another dog comes up to the fence. Then, before you go in, be sure to have a look at the other dogs and people in the park. You want to be sure that the other dogs there are friendly, playful, and know how to interact.
JBY: Dogs can get awfully excited en route to the park. I know mine do! What do you suggest to get them to settle down once they get there?
ID: Before you enter the park, stand still and wait for your dog to look at you before you go in. If you have a hyperactive dog, it’s a good idea to practice entering the park, because if he’s too excited, other dogs will get amped up, too. It helps to walk towards and then away from the park several times; in other words, practice how you enter the park. Otherwise, if your dog is young or excitable, he will become a target. Also, always engage your dog at the park! Do something with him; don’t simply ignore him when he is playing with other dogs. If you separate training from play, play will become the only thing that your dog wants to do; play will become a distraction to training. Instead, integrate the two. Frequently, call your dog or ask him to sit and then immediately tell him to go play. Sit- go play, sit-go play, etc. Thus, instead of becoming a distraction, play becomes a reward that reinforces training.
JBY: Do dog parks on the whole present too many potential problems and dangers that may be beyond the control of the well-meaning dog person?
ID: Regarding minor scuffles among dogs, especially among those who you are familiar with, don’t get overly upset. Owners who get upset over scuffles convey their stress to their dog Most of the time scuffles are no different than an argument between humans, and yet we expect our dogs to get along with every dog they see. I don’t know any human who gets along all the time with every other human. The whole point of puppy classes is to allow your dog to learn social savvy. But it doesn’t stop there! Never take your dog’s good behavior or a dog’s greeting for granted. If he sniffs or plays with another dog, praise him. When your dog greets or looks at another dog, praise him. Whenever your dog sees another dog at a distance, laugh and praise your dog, take a couple of steps back and offer him a food treat. If you hold your hand above the dog’s muzzle he will sit. This way, your dog will begin to associate the sight of other dogs with your approval and happiness, and he will learn to turn, sit and look up at you. This is important; because if he is sitting and looking at you, he is not eye-balling the other dog and therefore poses less of a threat.
JBY: You have long advocated, and have been one of the most compelling voices among trainers for positive reinforcement training. Can you first set forth the basic principles of positive reinforcement, as well as the proper role of aversives in such training?
ID: The basic principles of dog training are very simple. Edward Lee Thorndike stated them a hundred years ago. If you reward a dog, the immediately preceding behavior will increase in frequency, and be more likely to occur in the future; if you punish a dog, the immediately preceding behavior will decrease in frequency and be less likely to occur in future. Reward-based training is simple. If your dog does something you like, say thank you, give your dog a treat or a kiss, and he will be more likely to act that way in the future. Often, human nature is the real problem; our biggest foible is to take the good for granted and bitch at the bad.
I advise dog owners and caretakers to stay vigilant and monitor their dog’s behavior. They must catch their trainee in the act of doing something right, and once they do, say “thank you” in praise. For the most part, dogs behave well most of the time, and look to their owners for praise. But we tend to focus instead on bad behavior, which occurs far less frequently. If you reward the many instances of good behavior, you will eventually squeeze out the bad.
JBY: From your perspective, how does one distinguish reward based training from that which relies primarily on aversives and punishment?
ID: Some advocates of reward based training will tell you that punishment is scary, and will refuse to punish at all, while other trainers claim that punishment has to be painful or scary in order to be effective. Both statements are incorrect. Punishment doesn’t have to be painful in order to be effective, nor should it. You don’t want to make learning an unpleasant experience for your dog! I guess I tend to think of dog training on par with teaching someone to tango, ski, or play golf, or teaching a child to read. Yes, we have to teach owners to eliminate undesirable and dangerous behaviors, otherwise they will become frustrated and most likely resort to imitating some very stupid things that they see on television, such as forcing a dog on to its side (alpha rolls) Do that, and you’ll end up getting bitten! What are you going to do, for example, if your dog runs into the street, or jumps onto a child? We have to teach people how to reduce and eliminate undesirable behavior via means that are neither painful nor scary.
JBY: As you know, the notion of the quick fix is not only deceptive where dog training is concerned, but glibly promoted nowadays by cruel or incompetent trainers who naively advocate dominance as the measure of disciplining a dog. What are your thoughts about this?
ID: The whole notion of binary feedback, which proscribes reward versus punishment, is not sufficient. The reward part is brilliant – that is, rewarding the dog to reinforce desirable behavior. However, punishment is not particularly effective and it’s hardly sufficient. We don’t want to simply inhibit natural doggy behaviors we don’t like (such as barking, jumping up, playing boisterously, etc). If we look at it that way, we only end up inhibiting the dog himself. And that is not what we want! Rather, the goal is to stop a dog from doing what we don’t want him to do, and then getting him back immediately on the right behavioral track. This may be accomplished comparatively easily by using our voice and not even having to raise it. A single word may convey these two pieces of information. For example, if he is about to pee indoors, say “Outside!” If he is chewing on the carpet, say “Chewtoy!” If he’s about to jump up, say “Sit!”
JBY: What are the short and long term benefits for canine health, both mental and physical, of positive reinforcement training? And what distinguishes the results, and thus the benefits, of PRT from those who advocate the archaic, punishment-rich techniques associated with dominance hierarchy regimes?
ID: So much of what I do concerns relationship training. We must properly condition the dog. By this I refer to classical conditioning, which is all about forming associations with the training process. If we do it properly, the dog will love the trainer and the training. I have always believed that the greater part of training concerns the relation a dog has to the members of his human family. Does he like them? Does he like their friends? And does he like the environment they have created for him? Some trainers and owners tend to forget that a dog actually enjoys, or should enjoy the training process. When it’s finished, he values the company of people all the more. People also get hung up on manners training, so much so that they believe they have to dominate or hurt a dog just to get him to conform. But a happy dog is one who likes his family, not one who lives in fear.
JBY: With regard to building the relationships you refer to, between a dog and the members of his human family, what then are the fundamental lessons his new owner is obliged to teach him?
ID: You have to teach a dog household etiquette, , such as where to pee, what to chew and when to bark, etc. And we have to teach the dog very basic manners, such as come, sit, stand, lie down and roll over. Basically, this is a three-step process:
1. The training process involves first teaching a dog what we want him to do, i.e., by teaching him English words for doggy behaviors and actions, that is, by teaching him English as a second language.
2. Once he knows what we want him to do, we have to motivate him to want to do what we asked him to do. Clickers and treats are barely sufficient. When it comes to motivating, playing with other dogs, walking and sniffing and interactive games such as fetch and tug are far more effective as rewards. Then you’ll have a dog who not only knows what is wanted of him, but is also willing to do it.
3. Eventually, we need to let the dog know that on occasions, absolute compliance is essential. Signal to your dog that compliance is essential by calling him by a formal name (different from his pet dog nickname), and then calmly insist that your dog follows your instructions. There’s no need to get into an argument! If you have to repeat the request, then your dog has to repeat the exercise! It is essential that your dog learns to pay attention and be reliable on command.
JBY: There has been much talk, by opponents of positive reinforcement theory, about the supposed importance of “dominating” one’s dogs. The idea, which makes the assumption that dogs and wolves are the same animal, has gained a great deal of currency in recent years, no matter that it proceeds from seriously flawed studies of wolves in captivity made more than sixty years ago. And yet the social needs of dogs are hardly dependent on some draconian notion of oppressive authoritarian strong-arming as much as it is on guidance, consistency of communication and training, and cooperation. After some 15,000 or more years — actually, according to recent archaeological findings, it was 130,000 years ago when burgeoning homo sapiens first bonded with wolves, long before genetic and physiological mutations came to distinguish the two species — dogs have come to live with humans in harmony. Most experts today agree that dogs crave companionship and compassion, not domination. What are your thoughts on this?
ID: I am probably among the few who has actually made a study of hierarchies and domesticated dogs. Certainly, dogs have their hierarchies, but these are not maintained by physical dominance. The entire dominance idea comes from an utter misunderstanding of the richness and subtleties of dog social structure. That single bit of misinformation has probably ruined the lives of more dogs and dog owners than any other. Rather than living with dogs who they like and who like them, proponents of the dominance model instead treat their dogs as adversaries. It’s so very sad and stupid. The way you raise a stable and friendly dog is to socialize him before he’s three months old. During this period he should meet at least two hundred people. Do that, and you won’t have a problem. It’s really that simple. Dominance theory is nothing more than a lack of basic husbandry gone wild.
JBY: I recently heard a celebrated advocate of dominance hierarchy theory say that “dogs don’t think”. That statement strikes me implicitly demeaning, as it devalues a dog’s abilities to make judgments, and figure things out on his own. And that is the very definition of thinking. How do you respond to that?
ID: There isn’t a person on this planet who even knows what another person is thinking, let alone what dogs are thinking, or whether dogs think or not! However, what a dog is thinking is irrelevant to what we are talking about. If you ask a dog to sit, if he has been sufficiently trained, he will sit. Behavior is both observable and quantifiable, as opposed to thoughts, intentions, and motivations, which are unseen and speculative.
JBY: What kind of training collar do you recommend for puppies? Of course, there is truth to the old saying that any training implement is only as good as the skills of the person who is using it. What are your thoughts about this?
ID: I prefer to make things easier. When you get a puppy, just do the training off leash, which is what we do in my puppy classes. Owners live with their dogs off-leash at home, and so we teach them how to train their puppies off leash. Leashes and collars quickly become crutches, which makes off-leash training very difficult. If you get into the habit of jerking him around, you will find you have no control when he is off-leash. So just train him off-leash from the very outset. Once you’ve done that, you’re finished. As for collars, I prefer a leather buckle collar. I can also recommend a nylon Martingale collar. I don’t care for metal collars, nor am I fond of halters and harnesses, as I find that these are too often used as a way of managing, rather than training a dog.
JBY: What would you say to those who advocate shock collars, or other physically uncomfortable but coercive methods, as a means to achieve compliance?
ID: I think it’s really important to first check whether the dog has actually been trained to be compliant off-leash without the continued use of the collar. Far too often we see people who jerk or shock their dogs, yet such actions fail to decrease the unwanted behavior. Obviously the jerking or shocking cannot be defined as punishment because it didn’t decrease the frequency of a behavior. Unfortunately, very few trainers actually quantify the effectiveness of their training, and so they fail to discover that their training is not particularly effective. This of course is a disaster if they are using aversive stimuli.
JBY: What is your experience with, and opinion about clicker training?
ID: In recent years, so many trainers have morphed into technicians who rely on clickers and treats. Clickers are wonderful for precisely marking behaviors, if the user has precise timing. Clickers can let the dog know what is right but they are not very good at communicating how well the dog did. Personally, I prefer verbal feedback to communicate to the dog what is right, what is better and what is best. Also, clicker training is not very effective at eliminating undesirable behavior whereas verbal feedback can do this in an instant. I use clickers for teaching specific behaviors, but always my first choice is verbal feedback, which is infinitely more effective in terms of communication and for enriching the relationship.
JBY: Given the huge responsibility that goes along with caring for a dog, what do you have to say to those who, by virtue of wealth or privilege, believe it’s perfectly alright to adopt a puppy for its looks, breed “prestige”, or other superficial reasons, only to abandon him when things become too frustrating or time consuming? We encounter such attitudes only too frequently among some very high profile people. What kind of message does that send, and what can be done to expose it?
ID: Our infatuation with coat color, confirmation, and cuteness is akin to the way humans select life mates. It’s not the best way to do things. But I did this myself when I got Claude, a Coon Hound/Rottweiler mix who was just a big red dufus! Though I also chose Claude on the basis of his personality, when he got to our house, I said “You’re here forever, mate!” How you select a dog to live with is one thing and here I am willing to grant people a certain amount of leniency. However, giving up a dog is inexcusable. Yet no matter what I do, I’m not going to change people. My job is not to select a dog for you, but once you find one, I will help you train him in the quickest and most effective way I know. Most behavioral issues are easily resolvable. As for those who disregard and abandon dogs, it’s a disgusting practice. It teaches everybody that dogs are merely disposable.
JBY: Regarding hyperactivity in the playful breeds, such as Labs, Setters, Terriers, etc. what do you survey? Is training enough to calm them down, or does such behavior likely to diminish as a dog grows older and matures? Should medication ever be proscribed to calm a dog, or is regular exercise and mental stimulation a far better alternative?
ID:I can’t think of anyone who would proscribe medication to calm a dog down! That’s way beyond what a veterinarian should be doing. No, no, NO! Medication as a cure-all for normal hyperactivity is not acceptable.On the other hand, medication for an anxious dog is something else. Let’s not confuse the variables. If a dog is hyperactive, medication is certainly not the answer, as these issues are easily taken care of with BASIC TRAINING. Just as a dog trainer is not allowed to proscribe medication, a veterinarian who uses drugs to deal with hyperactivity has overstepped his bounds.
JBY: There is no dearth of products on the shelves of every pet store that promise to calm dogs down. I refer to pheromone sprays, herbal remedies, and other “organic” products. Are these products effective, and have they been proven safe? Or are they merely the canine equivalent of snake oil?
ID: As I’m interested in alternative treatments, I read just about every scientific study that I can find. But I haven’t found a single study offering concrete evidence that such counter remedies work. That said, I remain open minded; so long as they do no harm, then why not try them? It’s just that science has not convinced me that they are effective. I call them “sexy” remedies because people are drawn to the notion of herbs and pheromones. But they are nowhere near as effective as simply training a dog to be calm; they are not even in the same playing field.
JBY: What then would you specifically recommend to calm down a hyperactive dog?
ID: If you want to calm a dog down, then why not just — calm him down? Teach him to lie down and stay; it’s simply basic training or, if you have a hyper active dog that needs reprogramming, just get rid of his food bowl and moisten his food, stuff it into hollow chew toys (kongs or squirrel dudes), freeze over night and give them to the dog in the morning. Magic! Now your dog is spending most of the morning lying down calmly.
JBY: What should new dog owners know about a proper canine diet? Is there any advantage, in your estimation, to feeding a dog grain-free kibble? Where some experts say that dogs need a lot of protein, others advise against it as, in their view, too much can make a dog hyper. Do you have any general recommendations about diets for the puppy and growing dog? Should he be kept on a diet of dry kibble only, and how often, if ever, should he be fed safe and healthy human foods, such as vegetables?
ID: I would feed a dog what they would naturally eat, were they living in the wild. I feed a combination of a prepared, freeze-dried raw diet and vegetables, or an exceptionally high quality air-dried raw food diet, such as Ziwi Peak from New Zealand. The canine digestive system has not evolved to eat grains day after day after day. Nor, for that matter, has the human digestive system. It’s only been about 4000 years since grains were stored and eaten on a regular, year-round basis. We’ve simply not evolved to eat them as often as we do. As for protein, dogs are looked upon as being carnivores, but more accurately, they are omnivores. They forage and even when they eat an animal, they eat everything, including the gut contents (vegetable matter). Thus a diet that is heavy on grains is not natural. Lots of concentrated grains are not good for dogs or people, and will cause lots of massive health problems in the next fifty years. Though the western diet for pet dogs is really bad, it’s not nearly so bad as the western diet for people!
JBY: With regard to raw diets, which some so vigorously advocate, is there any truth to the claim that they have tremendous health benefits? Your thoughts?
ID: First of all, you need to know what’s in a raw diet. Read what is listed for the first half dozen ingredients; you don’t want to see grains in the top five. If there’s meat, you’ll want to see the by-products as well. I want to see bones, gristle, and gut in the contents as well. There are some really unhealthy dog foods on the market, and most of those are heavy in grain. Once you look into alternative foods and raw diets, you’ll find there is an enormous array. Of course, you have to match your pocket book with the dog’s health and taste; dog ownership doesn’t come cheap when it comes to the provision of behavioral and physical care. I won’t feed my dogs anything that contains an appreciable amount of grain.
JBY: As it is in the beginning, so it is in the end. Perhaps the toughest thing about living with a being so noble as a dog is the grief one experiences upon losing him. It’s tremendous, and can be overwhelming. How would you counsel dog owners to deal with it?
ID: My approach is to consider what is common, and what is not, what is happy and positive, and what is sad and negative. What comes to mind is an article I wrote in the 1970s, the title of which says it all: “Those that we grieve tomorrow, are alive and well today”. The point is that losing a dog or a person is inevitable. There is no magic formula for getting over it. Many of those who are reading this may have lost a dog long ago, and though it may not hurt as much now as it did then, it is not forgotten. For those who have gone through it, I suggest recalling how you felt when you lost your last dog, then magnify that feeling by ten. Then release that feeling — all that love if you will — to the dog you have now, but magnify it in a positive way. Don’t take anything for granted.
There should be no second guessing. If you second guess your own decisions, blaming yourself for having failed in some way to prolong his life, it’s going to be very damaging. It’s far better to throw yourself into all the good memories. For example, you might put together a photo album; allow yourself to experience the grief, and cry a lot until it begins to subside. You will get over it. When it comes to grief, the only thing that really works is the passage of time, because it allows you to both think and talk about your dog without hurting quite so much. Eventually the pain and the loss become manageable. But again, there is no magic cure. So just enjoy your dog now, today! Of course, the big lesson in all of this is to enjoy all the people around us too, who we too often take for granted. Relish what you have right now. I think that’s such a good philosophy of life. After all, it’s a cool world we live in…..
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Ian Dunbar’s books and DVDs are available at: www.jamesandkenneth.com