Three of the World’s Top Trainers Share the One Thing They Wish You Knew About Training Your Dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • To celebrate National Dog Day, today I’m chatting with three world-renowned positive dog trainers, and asking each of them the same question: “What are some of the top things you wish owners would do for their puppies, but don’t?”
  • Dr. Ian Dunbar is my first interview. Dr. Dunbar is a world-renowned veterinarian and pioneer in the field of relationship-centered positive dog training
  • Next is Britain’s own Victoria Stilwell, star of the hit TV show “It’s Me or the Dog”
  • Last but certainly not least is Tamar Geller, author of the New York Times bestseller “The Loved Dog”

By Dr. Becker

Today, in honor of National Dog Day, I’m very excited to be interviewing some of my favorite dog trainers. To kick things off, I have the pleasure of talking with the one and only Dr. Ian Dunbar. Dr. Dunbar is a world-renowned veterinarian, a very successful dog trainer and he also has a doctorate degree in animal behavior from the University of California, Berkeley.

Dr. Dunbar founded the first off-leash puppy socialization program at his Sirius puppy and dog training school. He’s a pioneer in relationship-centered positive training and has been a long-distance mentor to me for many years. One day I was watching his TED Talk (again) and I realized I’d really like to pick his brain some day.

I thought to myself, “If I could talk to him for just one minute, the question I would ask this brilliant veterinarian and trainer is, what are some of the top things you wish owners would do for their puppies, but don’t?” Since I had such a burning desire to ask this question of Dr. Dunbar, I emailed him. He graciously responded and now he’s here with us to answer the question, and I have to pinch myself!

Training Your Dog Should Be Easy and Fun

“I just want people to engage their dogs,” says Dr. Dunbar. “I want them to enjoy their relationship. I find it so sad that a lot of people don’t get the most out of their relationship with their dogs. It’s not a vibrant, fulfilling relationship. This all has to do with the right way to communicate to the dog, because training is essentially teaching ESL, English as a second language. Communication is really important, because dogs speak their own language. Then comes motivation.

You know, I think 5 percent of training is teaching the dog what to do and explaining it the way they understand. But a good 95 percent of training is motivating the dog to want to do it, to want to be on your side.”

Dr. Dunbar points out that all the information anyone needs is available on the Internet, for free. But dog owners have to be motivated to want to train their pets. “I tell them ‘This is fun; you’re going to have a lot of fun,’” he says.

“I want owners to be like masters of their own destiny, guardians of their canine companions and kitty companions too,” explains Dr. Dunbar, “and to search for a method that is the easiest, quickest, most effective and most enjoyable way to train.”

“Complicated methods are no good,” he continues. “I’ve had 45 years doing this, so I teach really easy techniques that are quick, otherwise the owners won’t be so inclined to do it. They’re techniques that don’t require the owner to be consistent or have good timing, because most owners aren’t consistent, like me for example. It’s a well-known fact!”

Is It Punishment … Or Harassment and Abuse?

Dr. Dunbar wants his training to be effective. He asks owners:

“How’s that working for you? You’re punishing the dog for soiling the house? How many times have you done this? Every day? Is that working for you? No, it’s not working.”

By definition, if a punishment doesn’t inhibit the immediately preceding behavior, then technically it’s not a punishment. So what is it? Just harassment or abuse, but it’s not punishment. It’s not working, so let’s use Plan B or Plan C. Above all, I want training to be enjoyable. It’s got to be fun. Why not? Education should be enjoyable.”

I absolutely agree, and it should be enjoyable for all parties. Everyone should be having fun — you, your dog and anyone else who’s involved.

“When people watch me train my dog, I mean, they crack up laughing because it’s funny,” says Dr. Dunbar. “But if you dissect what the dog is doing, the dog’s actually being very responsive and very obedient, very compliant, but the dog is happily and willingly compliant.

Of course that’s the only kind of compliance that works in family dog training, because a little boy or a little girl can’t physically force the dog. They have to use brain, not brawn.”

Socialization Is Crucial to Normal Brain Development in Puppies

One thing I hear a lot from new puppy parents is that their veterinarian recommends delaying any socialization or training until the puppy is 6 months of age. However, I always recommend having plans in place even before puppy comes home, and start training on day one, minute one.

“I think it’s insane and inhumane to deny a puppy an education,” agrees Dr. Dunbar. “That’s like saying, ‘Let’s not send our kids to school until they’re 21.’ They may have just lost their start in life. The owners now can’t communicate to the dog to get them to do things. I mean it’s just such a silly, stupid, cruel idea.

With puppy training, we include puppy socialization with people. That’s the hurry. I don’t care so much about socializing them with dogs. But they’ve got to meet a lot of people, be handled by a lot of people, be trained by a lot of people before they’re 8 weeks old at the breeder’s kennel, and then before they’re 3 months old.”

Dr. Dunbar came to the U.S. 45 years ago specifically to join a study to learn the effects of experience on a dog’s brain. What happens when a puppy is handled, stroked, trained?

“It changes the brain’s anatomy,” he explains. “It does it instantaneously. The dendritic spines are always moving — one dendritic spine from one cell plugs into another. This pretty much happens in real time.

I mean when I sort of looked at this research 45 years ago, you were just looking at gross changes in the cortex of the brain, you know, and looking at electron magnification of brain cells after three weeks. But now, they know it happens within seconds.

To deny a puppy normal brain development is just a disaster. It will never develop the social savvy and confidence to be around people. It will be anxious. I think that’s the worst thing we could inflict on any dog or person, that we don’t raise it in a way that it has confidence. Instead, it has to face its biggest fears every day, which, of course, are people and the human environment.”

Classical Conditioning Is a Quick and Easy Way to Begin Training Your Dog

Dr. Dunbar says that no matter the age of your dog, whether he’s an 8-week-old puppy or a 10-year-old you just adopted, you should start training on day one. The past is the past in the case of an older adopted dog, and there’s nothing to be done about it.

“But what you CAN do is start training today,” says Dr. Dunbar. “Right now. What I like to show to people is, in one session, you will have a different dog. I’m training an assistance dog for a veteran right now who’s very wiggly and wouldn’t sit down. I tried a technique I call all-or-none reward training, and in five minutes we ended up with a 20-second sit stay.

Owners may not have good timing in terms of the skills of responding consequentially to what the dog does, so I try and use techniques where good timing and consistency aren’t that important, because they aren’t strong points for most people. We use all-or-none reward training techniques and lure-reward training techniques.

I never start out with, say, clicker training or shaping. Owners don’t have the technical toolbox. They don’t have the skill. They don’t have the timing. They don’t have the academic knowledge. Those are training techniques where you need to have a lot of skill before it works well.

But classical conditioning, anyone can do it. A 4-year-old child can do it. You can start changing that dog’s temperament, i.e., the way he feels towards you and people, immediately.

Then next would come all-or-none reward training, where you just look at the dog and you ignore everything he does that’s wrong and look for anything he does that’s right. Then you say, ‘Good boy,’ pet him, and give him a treat. It starts changing the behavior so quickly.”

The Key to a Good Training Class: The Dogs Have a Good Time Getting Trained

Since there are so many often conflicting schools of thought on the best way to train dogs, so many different training styles and techniques — some very beneficial, others potentially damaging — I asked Dr. Dunbar what a new puppy or dog parent should look for in a training approach.

“First and most obviously, the puppy or dog should be having a good time getting trained,” he responded. He advises observing classes you’re considering, and if the trainer doesn’t allow observers, go elsewhere. What you want to see are puppies who like the trainer and the training. The interactions between the trainer and the dogs should be enjoyable to watch.

“Number two,” says Dr. Dunbar, “how much does the dog’s behavior improve in one session? What I like to show people is we do most of our training off-leash, unless of course we’re teaching leash walking. Maybe we have a puppy who has no recall. The puppy doesn’t even realize his owners are on the same planet. Ten minutes later, the puppy is happily doing off-leash recalls in a group of 11 other puppies, also off-leash.

We ask another puppy to sit stay. He won’t sit still for a second. But after a short while, he’s doing a 10-second sit stay, a 20-second one, and a 30-second one. I always like to count and objectively quantify the dog’s performance so I can prove to the owners and also to myself that training has taken place and it happened quickly.

We do off-leash training so all human family members learn to use their superior human brains to teach the dog to understand the words they say and then to happily and willingly comply.”

Where to Learn More About Dr. Dunbar’s Dog Training Programs

If you’re interested in learning more about the brilliant puppy and dog training programs Dr. Dunbar has put in place, he suggests visiting Dog Star Daily, which is a free multimedia information website for dog owners.

“You’ve got oodles of free videos, free books you can download and a training textbook that takes you from the first day you get your puppy, all the way through to adulthood,” says Dr. Dunbar. “It’s a free site. It’s definitely the place I would go to start.”

I’ve been to the website and I agree, it’s loaded with wonderful information. If you’re thinking about getting a puppy or an adult dog, or if you have a dog already but feel you’ve had ineffective training, I really can’t recommend Dr. Dunbar’s website and books enough. Dr. Dunbar was way ahead of his time in his approach to dog training. Sadly, in recent years we’ve seen a move backwards to an archaic dominance approach, even though Dr. Dunbar’s positive reinforcement techniques are time tested and proven effective.

His approach is to focus on the relationship between dog and owner, establishing clear communication between the two, built on a foundation of trust. I appreciate all that Dr. Dunbar has done for the dog training world and the nearly 50 years he has contributed to moving our profession forward. I can’t thank him enough for joining me today.

The First Thing You Should Do With Your New Puppy or Dog Is …

The next wonderful surprise I have for you is Britain’s most well-loved and well-known dog trainer and star of the hit TV show “It's Me or the Dog,” Victoria Stilwell! I asked Victoria the same question I asked Dr. Dunbar: “What are some of the top things you wish owners would do for their puppies, but don’t?”

“First of all,” she responded, “what I’ve seen in my training is that there’s more emphasis, it seems, on people teaching their animals how to do things, rather than on relationship. I don’t think people are playing enough with their dogs. I think there’s too much emphasis being put on training them rather than building that bond. I say that’s number one.

I also think that, not just in the United States but really in many different countries around the world, there’s still too much emphasis on more punitive training methods that really kind of exacerbate a lot of behavior problems and can really damage relationships. So I definitely think people need to work on their relationships with their dogs before they do anything else.”

Playtime Is a Great Relationship Builder

Next I asked Victoria how new pet parents can make the relationship the focus of their commitment to a brand new puppy.

“Well, even though it’s important when you get that puppy or that new dog coming into your home, whether it’s an adult from a rescue shelter or any dog, is that, yes, it’s important to teach them life skills, as I call it, but focus on that relationship first,” she replied.

“The best way to do it for most dogs — not all dogs, but for most dogs — is play. That’s what I really encourage people to do. It’s to play more with their dogs. Because when you do that wonderful interactive play, that truly is something that, as a team, you’re working on.

Tug is a great game, for example. I know that’s like a bit of a hot button issue because there are people who say, ‘You should never play tug with your dog,’ or ‘If you do play tug, you should always win, you should never let your dog win.’ Well, I don’t agree with that. I think tug is a great game.

Of course, there have to be boundaries with any type of play. If the dog gets too hyper or too over-the-top with it, maybe displaying some of that more aggressive growly stuff, then you need to tone it back a bit. But the whole thing about play, especially between dogs, is that it is give and take. There’s a winner and a loser, and a loser and a winner.

This is wonderful give and take. So, sure, when you play tug with your dog, sometimes you don’t win, sometimes you win. But the boundaries come into play when you teach your dog not to become very protective over things.

The fact that you’re playing means you’re sharing and that that thing that he’s got in his mouth can be shared with you. You’re not a threat. Tug is not just a relationship builder. It’s also a way to help your dog understand that, ‘Hey, when I’m playing with mom or when mom wants to have something that I’m holding in my mouth, it’s okay to give it up to her because it’s a fun thing to do, rather than a negative thing to do.’”

Encouraging a Reluctant Rescue Dog to Play

Several people have mentioned to me over the years that their rescue dog literally doesn’t know how to play due to something in his or her background. I asked Victoria how to engage a spirit of playfulness in a dog who is either shut down or has never been exposed to traditional dog play.

“There are a lot of rescue dogs that come into homes and don’t really want to have that type of interaction with their new families,” says Victoria. “They’re a little scared, a little nervous and watchful.

What I do with these dogs in my own home or when I’m teaching people with one of these dogs, is lay off. Just lay off. Give that dog time to acclimate to his surroundings. Don’t add pressure by having too many people coming round. Don’t expect him to interact with you all the time.”

Just let him be for a while. Let him transition. As much as you’re transitioning having that dog in your home, your dog is also transitioning. Give the dog some time. I think that’s the number one thing that you do. Then, what I like to do is I like to sort of lay some toys out maybe. Let the dog choose what toy he wants. Maybe it’s a ball that he wants to play with. Maybe it’s an interactive puzzle toy that you hide food in.

Put some toys out and maybe play hide and seek. Start with play that’s low-key and calm. That way, you’ll be able to maybe see what your dog chooses. It’s not what you’re putting on your dog. It’s your dog’s choice. From there, you can build up to a game.”

As Victoria points out, some dogs simply don’t like to play tug. Maybe they like to retrieve instead, or maybe they like to go search for things.

“Most dogs love to use that nose to go search for things,” she says. “You find what your dog loves to do and you don’t overwhelm her by either pressuring her into doing something she doesn’t want to do or doing something too much.”

Finding a Positive Dog Trainer

When it comes to finding an ethical, relationship-centered dog trainer, Victoria suggests a couple of things.

“Ask what equipment that trainer uses,” she says. “Ask how that trainer punishes and uses discipline. What kind of methods. If the trainer uses choke chains, prong collars or shock collars to train, run away.

Now, when we’re talking about positive training, people get mixed up. My definition of positive training is that, yes, we train with reward-based training. We make dogs feel good. We motivate them to learn. We encourage learning by encouraging that dog’s seeker system. We make the dog feel like we’re the best things since sliced bread. That’s a British expression.

But also at the same time, we still use discipline. But we use discipline to guide dogs into making better choices rather than causing fear and pain. We don’t use any physical discipline. We’re not shouting at the dog. We’re not causing the dog to be fearful.

If you do find a trainer who uses any of the techniques that could possibly cause fear or pain in your dog, that’s not a positive trainer. You want a trainer who is very much into motivating your dog to learn, allowing your dog that element of choice, and using discipline to guide rather than instill fear.”

Many thanks to Victoria for joining us today and sharing a few of her top dog training tips. You can learn more about Victoria and her approach to training at her Positively website.

How and When to Use Your Dog’s Name as a Relationship-Builder

My last guest today is the beautiful, wonderful Tamar Geller, author of the New York Times bestseller, “The Loved Dog.” I have the same question for Tamar that I asked Dr. Dunbar and Victoria: “What are some of the top things you wish owners would do for their puppies, but don’t?”

“The thing of it is that if you think why people get dogs, it’s because they want to be able to give love and to receive love,” says Tamar. “So you get a dog because you want love, but then you become nasty to him with obedience, make him submissive, you dominate and command and all of that, it doesn’t make sense.

I like to figure out how I can build a relationship with a dog. One of the most important things that we have in a relationship with our dog is the dog’s name. When we talk to the dog, when we call the dog, when we want the dog’s attention, what do we need to do? We need to say the dog’s name.

Yet, how many people, unbeknownst to them, teach their own dog to ignore his/her name? They are desensitizing the dog to their name. How do they do it? By simply saying the name the whole time when they’re talking about their dog. Let’s say I just got a puppy and I’m on the phone, ‘Oh yeah. I got that little rescue! I named him Roxy. Roxy, Roxy, Roxy, Roxy, Roxy.’ Roxy is learning when you say Roxy to pay attention to you.”

Tamar recommends not saying your dog’s name all the time.

“Keep it sacred unless you’re addressing your dog. When I say my dog’s name, my dog knows immediately I’m talking to her. Then I take it to the next level, where I call a dog by her name and a bunch of dogs come running. I give a treat only to the dog whose name I called. I mention it again, ‘Come, Roxy,’ ‘Come, Roxy.’ The other dogs are looking at me and I say, ‘I did not say your name.’

Then when they go away, they’re like, ‘Could you please say my name? Could you please say my name?’ You’re really turning it around where the name becomes the most yummy sound to the dog.

That’s the most important advice I can give to people — to be aware of how difficult it is to say ‘My little black and white dog,’ or ‘My little blonde dog,’ and not say the dog’s name. It’s very difficult. I ask them to be mindful of how we show up in the relationship with our dog. Do you show up as a source of pleasure or a source of pain?

You have to be mindful to catch yourself when you say the dog’s name without thinking, unwittingly. Because I want you to be in your body. I want you to be present in your relationship with your dog. The goal is to not say your dog’s name unless you’re talking to her. It’s a lot of fun.”

When Praising Your Dog, Be Specific

Tamar would also love it if people would stop staying “Good dog,” “Good boy,” “Good girl” and so on. “The reason why is because it doesn’t give enough information,” she explains.

“One of the things about being mindful — because that’s what I do, I do mindful dog training because I believe in mindful relationships with two-legged people and four-legged people — is to be very clear with our communication.

As we know, even with people with whom we speak the same language, we can have communication breakdowns. People say, ‘That’s not what I meant,’ ‘That’s not what I said,’ or ‘You didn’t hear me.’ Can you imagine how much more difficult it is for a dog who does not speak the same language?

If the dog goes to the bathroom and you say, ‘Good girl,’ and the dog comes when you call and you say, ‘Good girl,’ and the dog sits at your request and you say ‘Good girl,’ how the heck will she learn English? We have lots of research that shows that cognitively and developmentally, dogs are very much like a human toddler. And just like a human toddler, they can learn words. We know that on average, a dog can learn, I believe, 150 words.

Instead of saying, ‘Good girl,’ or ‘Good dog,’ instead be specific. Say, ‘Good sit.’ Or don’t even say ‘good.’ Just say, ‘Sit, sit.’ Show up with your tone of voice. Show up with your facial expression. That’s the place where we get to practice expressing love fully and fiercely without being judged.

It’s the same, I think, as with all the research that’s available on how to build emotionally intelligent kids. I bring it into my dog training of how to build emotionally intelligent dogs. And words and how we use them, again, the being mindful is on us.”

If You Allow It, Your Dog Can Teach You to Be Present in the Moment

“I believe the dogs are angels of God, angels of the universe, who came into our life, people’s lives, to teach us how to open our heart and how to expand it, and, again, how to learn, receive and give love,” says Tanar. “I’m looking at them as our training wheels, because we are babies in the ability to receive love and to give love wholeheartedly.

What I’m doing is I’m using dogs to teach people how to show up in relationships. What they do after they’re comfortable, it becomes like a muscle memory in their own body how to smile and how to be happy, which honestly is not comfortable for most people.

Then they can do it with their children. They can do it with a significant other. They can do it with their coworkers. There’s not one day that I do not say to Janice, my sister, or tell her throughout the day, ‘I’m so grateful to you. Thank you for being in my life.’ Because I’ve trained myself to live in a state of gratitude, to see what is there.

It wasn’t natural to me. I wasn’t born that way. But through working with dogs and constantly seeing what it is that’s amazing about them, I’m learning how to notice what is working, what is there and what is beautiful.”

Actually, this is good advice for all of us — to focus on living in a state of gratitude. Animals naturally live in the here and now. They’re naturally present. Dogs are not fearful about tomorrow. They’re not worrying about anything other than what’s happening at this moment. Tamar says she also doesn’t pet dogs in the traditional way — she truly connects to them.

“This little angel came to me a few days ago,” she explains. “She was rescued from Mexico. Her name is Mona, Ramona. She was completely afraid. She didn’t want to be touched. What I did is I just showed her that coming to me and being touched by me is very gentle. It’s very sweet. I do not pet her like a dog.

I really connect with her the way I would connect with any human being. I really want her to know that I see her, and that I get her. I touch her a lot at her third eye, the face and everything.”

Pay Attention to What Your Dog Is Doing Right and Acknowledge It

The third thing Tamar would like dog owners to do is look for what their dog is doing right and acknowledge it. “Then if you want to touch them, touch them slowly,” she says. “Lower your voice. Be more intentional, as if you are singing them a lullaby, as if you’re talking to a loved one. Go into a really loving space.” That’s good parenting no matter what type of species you’re parenting. Praise the good. Focus on what they’re doing right.

“I have dogs who come here to live with me for what we call training vacation,” Tamar continues. “These dogs have never trusted people, have never trusted other dogs. They come here and it’s an environment that is about mindfulness and gratitude.

What happens is the energy here is such that they are being appreciated for what they are. I do not put demands or commands on them that they need to obey. Because they associate learning with such an experience of joy and understanding — it’s predictable, it’s safe — they thrive.”

Tamar’s ultimate goal is to role model being a blessing to all the animals and people around her. She focuses on relationships and good behavior follows. I very much appreciate the role Tamar plays in modeling peaceful, relationship-centered interaction with dogs. It’s greatly needed in a world filled with insensitivity and harshness. If you’d like to learn more about Tamar, her dog training programs and other services she provides, you can visit her at The Loved Dog.