Thursday, September 19, 2013

Dr. Ian Dunbar

Earlier this month I attended a seminar by Dr. Ian Dunbar in Iowa City and found it ... interesting. Especially considering I just went through a week-long, pretty intensive, seminar on Operant Conditioning at Shedd Aquarium. The differences were amazing and I have to say, I didn't agree with a lot of what Dunbar said.

Ian Dunbar with his dog Dune.
First, I was slightly irritated because his seminar was titled Common Sense and Cutting Edge Concepts, but nothing he covered was cutting edge. It was all pretty old school focusing on classical conditioning and seemed geared toward a pet owner with no training knowledge. I guess I was over qualified for his seminar :).

Second, almost everything he discussed revolved around puppies. Well, that doesn't really work in our world of rescues and shelters. We deal with adult dogs that already have baggage, not 'blank slate' puppies with owners that obviously care enough to put them in a puppy class to start with! Now I feel like I sound jaded and I hate that, but it's the reality for right now.

And lastly, he totally failed on his use of the science of learning terminology. For example, you can't change the definition of a primary reinforcer. I'm sorry but changing terminology to fit what you are talking about to a certain audience does that audience a disservice. Especially well-established terminology that is industry standard :). The correct terms for what he was talking about are conditioned reinforcers or secondary reinforcers. He also decided to rename a training technique to magically make it seem like it was something Sue Sternberg and him came up with. Um, sorry Dr. Dunbar the capturing/scanning training technique has been around for a long time, you didn't just invent it when you decided to call it "All or None" reward training. But nice try :). For someone not familiar with learning theory, they wouldn't even have noticed and that doesn't start them off on a very good foundation.

But lest you think it was a total bust, I did walk away thinking about a few things:

  • Emergency recall vs. Emergency sit/down: I like the idea of an emergency stationary position because sometimes it is also dangerous for them to try to get back to you. I will be investigating this idea :).
  • Condition (for emergency cues) that louder is better: We all know that when you get into an emergency and your adrenaline is flowing we tend to shout. Word just burst out at full volume and sometimes that can scare our dogs or make them think that we are angry with them. So this idea is to condition them to think that the louder the voice the better. The louder I yell a cue at you, the better the reward will be for listening. Interesting thought process.
  • Using problem behavior as a reward: Dogs express many problem behaviors because it feels good to them, so putting it on cue and then using it as a reward is interesting. Like barking - it can be very self-rewarding for dogs, so he says to put it on cue and then teach an incompatible behavior (like quiet). Then when your dog has performed something wonderful and it's appropriate for them to bark, you can give the bark cue and it will be self-rewarding. I have put bark on cue before (with Monday) but I have never used it as a reward. Again, an interesting thought.
Dr. Ian Dunbar is considered one of the most innovative trainers in the field. He has done a lot of impressive things - wrote 6 books on training, developed one of the earliest puppy training courses in the country, and in 1993 founded the Associate of Pet Dog trainers (APDT) whose mission is to promote better training through education - but I wonder if the times have caught up with him.

Well I can cross him off my 'seminar bucket list' :). You can always check him out on


  1. Thanks for sharing. I love the emergency recall too, I learned that from his book. I never thought about an emergency sit down. I feel so behind when it comes to training our dogs.

    We live in a rural area and I need our dogs to listen to me regardless of my tone and I've managed to accomplish that - they come back when I'm panicked and they're running after a deer or heading to the Centennial Trail.


  2. I like your blog on this topic is well-written and original. I would never have thought of this. Your information is really interesting to all readers. Hope you continue to keep up with this blog and will provide us some more information like this.Training Dog Calgary

  3. I have to say I've never read any of his books, and I definitely should. Thanks for sharing what you learned from the seminar. I've always wanted to teach my dog "quiet." I've successfully taught him to bark on command, so I should be able to reinforce "quiet" as well.