I had the wonderful & exciting opportunity to see Dr. Ian Dunbar in person on the weekend of April 17th & 18th when he presented in Denver. Having never been to a seminar before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I quickly learned that it is a giant classroom full of fanatics who choose to sit for 8+hrs a day to listen to someone speak about a particular topic. And yes, I was one of those fanatics, coming back the next day to do it again. (If only high school classes allowed you to choose the topics of the seminars you attend!).
Being close to a celebrity (in my mind), Dr. Ian Dunbar walked into the room and my first impression was “My, he’s shorter than I pictured!” (I think that has something to do with the ‘height/success dynamic’ that is talked about in psychology classes). My second impression was, “Wow, what a bushy head of white white hair he’s got.” And those salt & pepper eyebrows over bright blue eyes definitely completed the picture of a kindly grandfather-figure with a wonderful bloody British accent.
It quickly grew apparent within the first half hour of talking just how passionate he is about dogs and dog training. You have to admire someone who has dedicated their life’s work to learning, discussing, teaching, debating, writing, and educating for and about a certain topic. And what is more amazing than the dog-human bond in this day in age? Dr. Dunbar talked with his hands, his facial expressions, his mannerisms, and his tone. He was very particular about certain things, such as the colors of the markers he used to draw on the whiteboard. And other things he said with such exaggeration and astoundedness that you could feel it wash over you like a wave and leave you thinking, “Well hell yes, duh, of course!”
Disclaimer: I have attempted to divide the seminar into broad categories for easier readability and understanding.The following post will be a summarization of my notes from the seminar. These notes do not necessarily state my agreement or disagreement with Dr. Ian Dunbar’s views.
The first seminar of the weekend was entitled “Dog Aggression: Fighting.”
Ian started out with the question Why are there more reactive/aggressive dogs these days? The audience gave two main answers: less physical exercise (Ian said no) and less mental exercise (Ian said yes yes yes!). Reactivity is caused by pent-up mental energy that has seen less and less release in dogs in the last 20 years, causing a massive trend towards more reactive/aggressive dogs. Dogs have not, in the strictest sense, been allowed to be dogs.
Puppies & Bite Inhibition
Dr. Dunbar believes this issue has always started in puppy class: A normal puppy class should have a minimum of 50 minutes of off-leash playtime, and preferably more. This allows two key things to occur: teaching the puppy bite inhibition & socializing the puppy with dogs. In order for a dog to live in human society, the top three most important things for a puppy to have are, in order:
1. bite inhibition [learning to inhibit & control their weapons (i.e. teeth!) against their own kind (other dogs) and humans]
2. socialization to people
3. socialization to dogs
Why have people become so afraid of letting their dogs off leash to play with other dogs? Fear! – of their dog getting hurt, of their dog hurting another dog, & of being held legally liable for damages that occur. This is where he stressed objectivity – being objectively aware of the likelihood of such a thing occurring, and of stemming fears & anxieties that are based on blown-up images of harm & legal fees. He seriously stressed the difference between dogs fighting & dogs biting – i.e. the difference between reactivity (fighting) & dangerousness (zero to little bite inhibition, mutilates).
He brought up what he called the Fight:Bite ratio.
Fight = how many fights has dog had
Bite = how many trips to the vet (for other dog) as a result of fight
His opinion is that it is inexcusable for any dog to grow up dangerous to humans.
People will keep a dog that bites
more than they’ll keep a dog
that is not houstrained.
Ian summarized his belief about aggressive & reactive dogs in two answers to one question: Does your dog have bite inhibition?
Yes – you don’t have a problem
No – you have a hell of a problem.
Off leash playtime allows puppy biting. Puppy biting occurs more than any other behavior. Puppy teeth are needle sharp in order to hurt! Communication from other puppies allows a puppy to learn bite inhibition. All puppies should be off leash, interacting with each other, big, small, shy, over-the-top, scared, etc. If needed, the puppy can be socialized to one dog at a time i.e. see a dog –> get rewarded (and repeat over and over as needed). A puppy that appears to be bullying another puppy can be picked up to see if the “victim” puppy tries to initiate play again. He stressed that lack of socialization won’t become apparent until at least 5 months of age because the majority of 8 week old puppies are friendly and social to dogs & people, leading owners & handlers to believe they don’t need to put as much attention on socializing.
Differences in sexes/Dominance
There were 13 men in this seminar and about 90-100 women. It is no secret that the majority of dog trainers and veterinarians are women, although the number of men are rising. Women tend to be better observers, more fluid in their communication, and are less likely than men to get physical with a dog. However Dr. Ian Dunbar stated that the empathy that is a woman’s first instinct for an animal works against them! They need to learn to not show their fear, to learn to change the energy they give off towards their dog. It does absolutely no good for a reactive dog to sense their owner’s fearful energy. “What would the dog say about the owner if we interviewed him?” Ian asked.
In regards to dominance theory, Ian said that dog fights are more frequent in the middle ranking dogs than in either the top dog or under dog (his terms). He stated that dogs do have hierarchies but that they are not maintained by dominance. He also stated the opinion that dogs are more aware than humans of a “potential jerk” on the scene and so seemingly unprovoked (from the human’s POV) attacks on a dog are justified in other dogs’ eyes. [And an extra tidbit: dominance theory (or dominance rubbish, as Ian called it, was first thought up from research by men… who are naturally more aggressive and physical than females because they have more testosterone!]
Dog Trainers & Working with Reactive/Aggressive Dogs
A trainer is someone who changes behavior though consequences. Dr. Dunbar seemed to equate the term “behavior” with “temperament.” Socialization & training is the only thing we can use to change behavior. Dogs learn through feedback. According to Ian, most owners give less than 2 pieces of feedback to their dog. Some trainers give between 15 and 20 pieces of feedback. Ian says he gives roughly 80 pieces of feedback a minute.
Dr. Dunbar described 3 levels of feedback to be used with reactive dogs:
1. S- (stimulus absent) = zero feedback
2. S+ (stimulus present with a reaction) = small feedback (“Ah ah why would you react like that?!” disapproving tone)
3. S+ (stimulus present, no reaction) = lots of positive feedback! (treats, lots of yay!s, happy dance)
He calls this differential classical conditioning (DCC). You are classically conditioning the dog to differentiate between different scenarios (& his reactions to each) by the level of reward & reaction that you as the handler are giving off.
Reward has to be binary – meaning the trainer must tell the dog both what is right AND what is wrong. However, what the dog did wrong should only occur once or twice in every 10 trials. In regards to reactive/aggressive dogs, praise should be given to a dog for NOT fighting. It is harder to notice things that are absent (fighting, which gets negative feedback) versus things that are there (not fighting, which gets praise). Up until the dog is 3yo, every single social interaction should be acknowledged & given feedback (positive or negative). And remember, it is the dog’s perception of positivity or negativity that counts, regardless of what it looks like to the owner or to an onlooker.
Example: If you ask your dog to dog something and he does it, praise/reward him. If he doesn’t do it, *don’t* say “bad dog!” – get his attention and make him do it (i.e. through luring, repeating command).
According to Dr. Dunbar, a trained dog is one that is under verbal control at a distance with distraction and zero training tools (treats, toys, leashes, collars, etc.). A training tool should be judged by how easy it is to fade out and still get the same results. He’s a big advocate of using food as a reward because it is easy to lure with, can be easily used to create a chain of behaviors, and can be easily faded out. He does make the assertion that a reward only influences behaviors that occurred in the last 3 seconds. Any longer decreases the effectiveness of the reward to increase the target behavior.
Any neutral stimulus can become a secondary reinforcer, like the clicker. Likewise, an aversive (to the dog’s POV) stimulus can also be turned into a secondary reinforcer (ex: collar grab = treat!). Turning a stimulus that a dog would normally react to into a secondary reinforcer is one way to reframe the situation for the dog. Dr. Dunbar says that if a dog doesn’t not care for food, it can become a secondary reinforcer for anything and everything else the dog does like/enjoy (ex: treat = go outside to play, go for a walk, access to a treasured toy etc.).
Dog-dog aggression, according to Dr. Dunbar, is predictable by looking at the owner: by not praising good interactions and falling into an emotional puddle when dog gets in a scrap with another dog. He suggests doing something with rhythm when approaching another dog, such as reciting a poem, counting, etc. He also described something as the jolly routine: being overly happy and excited and joyous to let your dog know that you’re happy when another dog is around, and hence that there is no reason to react.
Troubleshooting with the reactive dog
Dr. Dunbar stressed the importance of creating set-ups to train what your dog reacts to before it happens in a real-life situation. For instance, the idea of a “trick walk.” Walk along normally, then slow your pace and treat the dog. Repeated over and over, the dog will begin to associate you slowing down with getting a reward and so will look up at you. This allows you as the handler to keep a sharp eye out for your dog’s particular triggers and prevent a reaction from occurring. The same can be associated with seeing another dog, if that happens to be one of your dog’s triggers. What he calls stimulus locking is rewarding the dog for looking at his hand, allowing him to survey the environment for triggers.
An emergency command such as “sit” or “down” can be used to control the dog’s behavior & body language when the handler is not next to the dog. Ian likes to use “sit” as his emergency command over a recall because it stops the dog from moving.
The following are links Dr. Ian Dunbar mentioned during the seminar.
Dog Star Daily
And I believe I covered all the major and minor points in this seminar that I could absorb and write down! If you made it all the way through, congrats and thanks for reading! 🙂
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my first ever dog training seminar. The topic, the speaker, and the information were all extremely worth it and definitely gave me a lot to think about.
Please, share your thoughts below! Have you ever been to a Dr. Ian Dunbar seminar? What do you think of the information I have in this post? How could you use it in your life? What do you do differently? What do you agree or disagree with?