The dog trainer’s trainer

Kelly and Ian Dunbar with Casey, one of DogTime’s office dogs.

Chances are you’ve heard of Cesar Millan, Hollywood’s famous dog whisperer. In recent years, he’s taken the world by storm, starring in National Geographic Channel’s Dog Whisperer and putting out a variety of training books and DVDs. Millan’s philosophy? We, as humans, must act as dominant pack leaders; our dogs should behave as submissive followers.

Chances are you haven’t heard of Ian Dunbar, soft-spoken Northern California behaviorist. Rather than physical corrections and alpha rollovers, Dunbar advocates a trusting, less subservient relationship, treating dogs as companions and family members. Dunbar’s training methods don’t make for dramatic television, but watching him quietly train–without so much as wagging a finger–is riveting to anyone who has ever tried to teach their dog anything.

A different approach

Ian Dunbar has been winning over dogs, dog owners, and dog trainers for years with his accessible, effective positive-reinforcement approach. Talk with the most respected names in the dog training world and you discover Dunbar’s impact is unparalleled.

“His contribution to this field is immeasurable,” says Patricia McConnell, author of The Other End of the Leash, co-host of NPR’s Calling All Pets, and founder of Dog’s Best Friend Training. “Ian Dunbar created an entirely new perspective about dog training. He deserves tremendous credit for teaching us to be loving with our dogs and to have fun with the training.”

Let’s not get physical

Dunbar’s hands-off, reward-based approach stands in contrast to Millan’s dominance-based philosophy and physical corrections. He emphasizes that communicating with your dog is far more satisfying than dominating your dog and stresses that even children can use his positive reinforcement methods to become able trainers.

“Ian carried the torch for lure-and-reward training,” says Sue Sternberg, founder and owner of Rondout Valley Animals for Adoption in upstate New York and author of Great Dog Adoptions: A Guide for Shelters and Successful Dog Adoptions. “He converted an entire generation of yank ’em, crank ’em dog trainers into better communicators.”

Doctor, teacher, trainer

Raised on a farm in England, Dunbar’s connection with animals formed early and undeniably. After attending the Royal Veterinary School in London, he earned his Ph.D. in animal behavior at the University of California, Berkeley, merging–what at the time were–two very discrete aspects of animal study: medicine and behavior.

For him the pairing was natural–and long overdue. “People don’t bite their hairdressers or the ob-gyns,” says Dunbar. “But biting’s an issue for vets, so it’s in our best interest to know a bit about behavior.”

He moved to Berkeley in 1971 and later taught a dog behavior course, which was the first time he realized how hungry dog owners were to understand their own pets. Discouraged that he couldn’t find a training course for his own young puppy, he started a school, Sirius Dog Training in 1981. (With 19 locations, it’s become one of the country’s biggest training centers.) Dog training was changed forever.

Groundbreaking ideas

He didn’t know it at the time, but Dunbar introduced a concept so revolutionary he’s credited with launching what is now commonly regarded as the modern era in dog training: Train puppies before six months of age–off leash (the way they live at home)–and use rewards rather than punishment to teach proper behavior.

Today, the notion that very young puppies can not only be trained, socialized, and handled, but that doing so actually prevents most problem behaviors from developing, is a founding truth of modern dog training.

“Ian Dunbar understood that problems up front lead to problems down the road and he pounded the podium talking about early socialization and enrichment,” days Nicholas Dodman, author of The Well-Adjusted Dog: Dr. Dodman’s Seven Steps to Lifelong Health and Happiness for Your Best Friend (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) and Professor, Section Head, and Program Director of Animal Behavior Department of Clinical Sciences at Tufts’ Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

Building on success

The soundness of Dunbar’s methods garnered worldwide attention and his techniques were embraced by trainers everywhere. In 1993 he founded the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, an international organization devoted to promoting human-canine relationships based on trust and respect. Along the way, he’s written six dog training books and hosted the popular British television series Dogs with Dunbar.

In 1999, Dunbar met fellow trainer (and future wife) Kelly Gorman, cofounder and president of Open Paw, a nonprofit dedicated to keeping cats and dogs out of shelters and in loving homes. Though their techniques differ slightly, the Dunbars’ philosophies towards dogs meshed perfectly. By 2000, they were living together in Berkeley, California as a family and married in 2004. Dogstar Daily, the online arm of Open Paw, was born shortly thereafter in February 2006.

Different methods for different dogs

At this point it’s worth asking: With so much experience, and the respect and veneration of so many of the field’s most renowned figures, why is Dunbar still relatively unknown and Cesar Millan a household name?

“Cesar works with aggressive dogs, and that’s sexy these days,” says Patricia McConnell. “But Ian’s methods are successful for the average dog owner. What’s more, they have been used by professionals for years to successfully treat serious aggression problems. And, they’re fun.”

With more families than ever bringing dogs into their homes, and more dog trainers embracing Dunbar’s accessible, family-friendly techniques, 2008 may well mark the year that the “dominance mentality” takes a back seat to the reward-based training, which promotes understanding and living peacefully with one’s pets.

“The biggest development in the world of dog training is that people are actually training their dogs, and the popularity of Cesar may be responsible for that,” says Claudia Kawczynska, editor of Bark magazine. “But the fact is, people are enjoying training more and the amazing bond that develops through training, and that move toward positive reinforcement started with Ian Dunbar.”

Visit the Dunbar Training Center: Everything you need to know to raise a well-behaved dog