Ian Dunbar: Are We Training Dogs All Wrong? Animal trainer Ian Dunbar says we need to see the world through the eyes of our dogs if we want to really communicate with them.
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Are We Training Dogs All Wrong?

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Are We Training Dogs All Wrong?

Are We Training Dogs All Wrong?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, animals and us - ideas about what our relationship with them tells us about ourselves.

So could you tell me about your dogs?

IAN DUNBAR: We have three at the moment. We have an American Bulldog.

OK, you want to say hello, Dune?


DUNBAR: Called Dune.

RAZ: Hello, Dune.

DUNBAR: And then, Hugo. He's a little French Bulldog.

RAZ: Oh.

DUNBAR: And then we have Zuzu, who's our latest acquisition. She's a rescue. She's a Beauceron.

OK, that'll do.

RAZ: If you are going to be a dog, you would probably want to be owned by Ian Dunbar.

DUNBAR: I come from England. I graduated as a veterinarian and then came to the States to do a PhD in dog behavior.

RAZ: Ian trains other people how to train their dogs.

DUNBAR: I try to teach people how to communicate better with their animals so that they can live happily with people and people get to enjoy them more.

RAZ: And when you think about it, is there any animal that we're more connected to, more invested in, than our dogs? I mean, is there any animal that loves us back in the same way that we love them? Well, Ian Dunbar would say, no, and he thinks that we need to be a lot nicer to them. Here's the opening from his talk.


DUNBAR: Dogs deserve better. You see someone in the park. And there's the owner in the park, and their dog's over here. And they say, Rover, come here. Rover, come here. (Yelling) Rover, come here, you son of a bitch. The dog says, I don't think so. (Laughter) I mean, who in their right mind would think that a dog would want to approach them when they're screaming like that? Instead, the dog says, I know that tone. I know that tone. Previously when I've approached, I've got punished there.

Dogs get so abused. The reason for this actually has to be watching people train puppies and realizing they have horrendous interaction skills. Puppy jumps up, you open the dog book. What does it say? Hold his front paws. Squeeze his front paws. Squirt him in the face with lemon juice. Hit him on the head with a rolled up newspaper. Knee him in the chest. Flip him over backwards. This is insanity.

RAZ: OK, this sounds, like, totally harsh and cruel, but a lot of people still train their dogs this way, right?

DUNBAR: You have so hit the nail on the head. So let me give you examples. You know, a dog pees in the living room. Most people go (screams) grab the dog and rub his nose in it, which - and all that teaches the dog is that your owner's pretty damn weird. I mean, if you want some doggie voices, this puppy goes down the garden to talk to an Akita through the fence, say, oh, Mr. Akita, I got a real problem with my owners. The Akita says, you know, what's that, grasshopper? Well, I was just peeing in the living room because the carpet soaks up the urine and I don't get my feet wet, and they came running at me and grabbed me and just rubbed my nose into it.

RAZ: Who knew, Ian, that there were Akitas from the East End of London?

DUNBAR: (Laughter) Yeah.

RAZ: So here's the thing, right? Like, your dog pees in the living room, and then you discover it, like, an hour later. Like how do you teach the dog not do that without, you know, sort of getting angry at him?

DUNBAR: Well, you always go with the dog to go pee. And when he does it, then you give him treats and you take him on a walk. Rather than walking the dog until he does it and then when he does it, you end the walk, thereby punishing him for doing it. I mean, the dog, again, will go down the garden to the Akita and say, oh, Mr. Akita, can't believe my owners; every time I go pee, they give me free liver treats. Wow. If I had known I could cash in my urine and feces for liver treats, well, I would have hold it, you know, when they were at work.


DUNBAR: And this, to me, is always what training is. So we really motivate the dog to want to do it, such that the need for punishment seldom comes up. And the stages are training first. The first stage is basically teaching a dog ESL. I could speak to you and say, laytay-chai, paisey, paisey. Go on, something should happen now. Why aren't you responding? Oh, you don't speak Swahili. Well, I've got news for you. The dog doesn't speak English. So the first state in training is to teach the dog ESL - English as a second language. And now the dog knows that sit means sit, and you can communicate to a dog in a perfectly constructed English sentence. Phoenix, come here. Take this, and go to Jamie please. And I've taught her Phoenix, come here, take this and the name of my son, Jamie. And that dog can take a note, and I've got my own little search and rescue dog. He'll find Jamie wherever he is. You know, so your husband is just as easy to train. Your kids are easy to train. All you got to do is to watch them, to time-simple the behavior and say, every five minutes you ask the question, is it good, or is it bad? If it's good, say, that was really neat, thank you. That is such a powerful training technique.

RAZ: Wow. So you can actually use these techniques on your own family?

DUNBAR: Yes, yeah. I was really, you know - if you asked me, what's the thing your proudest of, I would say it was the interaction I had with my son when he was growing up. I can honestly say I never got angry with him once. I never had an argument. And I was very conscious of this fact. I didn't want to do it. It's not me. I don't want to get angry. I don't want to argue.

RAZ: So wait. So you never had an argument with your son. Like, I'm thinking about this, and I'm thinking, like...

DUNBAR: You don't believe it.

RAZ: Well, I mean, even small things, like, that that - you're on, like, a long drive, and he's, like, 7. And he's, like, kicking the back of your chair. And at a certain point, you're just like, stop it.

DUNBAR: I mean, the solution to many of the annoying things that children do actually came from dogs. It's an exercise we do in adolescent dog classes. And I say, right, what we're going to do is put craziness on cue, 'cause your dogs are crazy. They're active. They're noisy. They bark all the time. You can't control it. So all right, have them - jazz them up. I want all dogs, all four paws to leave the floor, lots of vocalization. Humans do it, too. Act crazy. Then I say, settle them down. I did this with my son. We called it silly time. And I put silliness on cue.

RAZ: Wow.

DUNBAR: So now when he's acting silly or noisy, what I say is, you know the car is a non-silly when it's moving. I said, if you need to be silly, we can pull over. You can pull out and be as silly as you like because, you see, children screaming, it's a normal behavior. What are you going to do, put a shock collar around their neck? I mean, it's ridiculous.

RAZ: Yeah.

DUNBAR: You know, we have to respond to the needs I think.

RAZ: At any point in your son's childhood - and I don't want to get too, like, you know, like, psychoanalytical on you - but did he ever say, like, dad, I'm not a dog?

DUNBAR: No. Well, he has - we have joked about it. But I spend all my waking life thinking about more efficient and effective ways to train an animal, taking into account the animal's point of view. And so it was very easy and really enjoyable for me when, you know, I had my son to then use the same principles on him. And so I guess that's dogs and all animals have taught me keep your cool.

RAZ: Ian Dunbar, PhD and dog trainer. Check out his full talk at ted.com.

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