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Bring the dog and get the most out of an Ian Dunbar workshop

First dogs, Sunny and Bo hopefully benefited from superior training
Olivier Douliery/Getty Images

This coming Sunday, April 27th, the British trained veterinarian and esteemed animal behaviorist, Dr. Ian Dunbar, will be hosting a “Handler Reliability & Games Workshop” in White Plains, New York. As of this writing, there is still availability to attend the seminar for the eligible and interested handler and dog (Daisy and I will be there). Which according to host and handlers is both a good and a bad thing.

The workshop promises to “improve the quality of relationships between dogs and their people” and “fine-tune all basic obedience skills.” This behaviorist and trainer was thrilled to be able to find space available and feels secure in saying that, Daisy, no doubt would agree. As I look forward to working with Dr. Dunbar I also look forward to being able to apply the principles of training/learning and more importantly to the observation of what works with what dog and why; often answered in the technique of the handler. Our techniques all might, no doubt, benefit from scrutiny. Better, more meaningful techniques benefit our skill as trainers and more importantly the dogs who are being managed.

But as Ian Dunbar points out in a recent Facebook post, not all trainers welcome the opportunity to refine their skill levels:”…I probably won't schedule too many more workshops 'cos when I allow people to bring their dogs I only get a third of the attendance than if I gave a people-only seminar. Strange. People keep saying, "More workshops, more workshops" but when I offer them, the attendance is often slim and it's difficult to demonstrate with dogs if there aren't many dogs. A great shame… I am mystified ... why don't trainers bring their dogs to workshops?”

Numerous comments resulted, notably among them, the following:

-“ Maybe because there is a fear of not performing well with your own dog in front of your peers?”

-“ It's a rare trainer that genuinely wishes to help their peers. It's something that really has been hard for me to cope with, at least early on, through my career. Seems so many are judging and constantly in competitive mode. I loved your seminars, I'd love to go to one of your workshops with a dog (come back to DC!), I don't really worry about being judged and want to learn. However, I can understand how many could be reluctant because of how horribly vicious people in this field can be. It's a sad state that I hope can change in time, it should be about the dogs, we should all want to help.’

-“I think trainers might feel a bit intimidated having Dr. Dunbar and other trainers see how well/or not well trained their dogs are. They shouldn't feel that way. As far as attendance numbers, I'm not sure but I don't think that there was enough marketing done at least for the Hamden, CT. workshop. I don't know how the marketing is done. It's a shame because it's not very often that you have the opportunity to attend a workshop with someone as prestigious as Dr. Dunbar.”

Animal trainers get in the business of training animals mostly because they love being around them. Good trainers take the time to learn what it looks like when animals love being around them in return and what to do, and how to act to ensure that. All that talk about things like indirect gaze and sideways approaches and happy voices comes from seeing what effects that kind of stuff has on the pets around us. While some trainers may believe that the love they feel for the animals they work with is readily apparent it may not be. Cats and dogs are mostly adept at reading our body language and not our minds. Best to cater to feline and canine thinking in ways they can understand.

People skills are also vitally important for dog trainers. After all, it is the pet owners who arrange for services and who also need to be trained to best interact with their companion animals. And then there are our people skills with other trainers. Few who are fortunate enough to earn a living training companion animals would deny the fierce, almost unforgiving nature of the competition amongst dog trainers. What is interesting is that the competition is frequently not on technique but on opinion and ardent insistence of individual interpretation, heavily reliant on anthropomorphism. All kind of human attributes are heaped on dogs who do not respond to dog trainers, from the dismissive insult “socially retarded” to the overused “aggressive.” Not nearly enough focus is on our own methods. Objectivity needs to be the belle weather in our work with animals along with responsibility for how effective we are personally as humane educators and trainers. Seminars like Dr. Dunbar’s are a good place to start – with a dog.

Frania Shelley-Grielen is the author of Cats and Dogs; Living with and Looking at Companion Animals from their Point of View. Visit her website at

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