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Dunbar Dog Handling Seminar Teaches both Dogs and Handlers

Highlights of Dr. Dunbar, the handlers and the dogs anticipating everyone's every move.
Highlights of Dr. Dunbar, the handlers and the dogs anticipating everyone's every move.
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen

Daisy and I attended the Handler Reliability and Games workshop last Sunday in White Plains led by dog training expert, Dr. Ian Dunbar. The interactive workshop was the second half (the first day was for people only) of a two day seminar. First off, I must admit my bias as a Dunbar devotee. One of my sisters did Sirius puppy training with her first Newfie in Berkeley back in the 90’s with Dunbar and when Daisy came along eleven years ago that same sister excitedly pressed “How to Teach a New Dog Old Tricks” on me as the one book to read (advice I now give as well). So, I like Dunbar’s material and use it professionally and personally (ask Daisy).

The handler workshop tested skill levels in working with dogs in a world where mostly we view everything a dog does as “the dog’s fault.” Handler/trainer/owner fault is often what trips up our companion animals most. We neglect to praise and build confidence and reinforce the good behavior in front of us. We ask for other behaviors using our pet’s name instead of the request-“Rover, Rover! Rover!!” will never ever mean “Rover. Sit”. We lecture them repeatedly on what they’ve done “wrong” once they are doing the very thing we have asked for. We expect them to understand the lecture. We take for granted the extreme importance of timing in training where association s with requests asked and behaviors offered and reinforcers are often the only pathways to comprehending just what those request might signify. The list goes on.

Having said all that, it was balm to this dog loving soul to have an opportunity to practice how well our dogs do listen to what we have exactly asked them to do. Exactly being the operative word here. Among a slew of other activities to illustrate how to do things right with our dogs, Dunbar nicely used an exercise wherein the handler asks for a “sit” from a dog with the handler facing the dog. The dogs sit. Handlers are then asked to turn around or lie on the ground and ask for the same behavior. Those same compliant canines mostly do not respond to the backwards facing owner and no one responds to the owner in a prone position. “Sit” is a literal command taking significance from not just the vocalization but also from the overall body position during delivery. If ever an exercise shows how important clear communication need to be in training this is one to do. More importantly that clarity needs to be perceived from both the canine and the human point of view.

What might make perfect sense to us in our primate perceptions does not necessarily have a counterpart in sense making for our dogs. And if we can walk away learning just this –that what we do with our dogs has to be relevant for them, that they have to understand what we are asking them as dogs understand not as humans might-that enabling this understanding is up to us to figure out how to do. The dogs are already trying as hard as they can to please us. If we can learn that the asking we are doing of dogs has to be learned by dogs trying to figure out humans than we are at least halfway there.

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