San Francisco Chronicle
The Anti-Cesar Millan
Ian Dunbar's been succeeding for 25 years with lure-reward dog training; how
come he's been usurped by the flashy, aggressive TV host?
Sunday, October 15, 2006
Ian Dunbar: The original dog whisperer.
It's late afternoon at Point Isabel, prime time at the Bay Area's popular
off-leash dog park, and the man some call the most innovative in the field
of dog training weaves unnoticed through the two- and four-legged throngs.
No one recognizes the slight, snow-haired man dressed in Berkeley-esque
traveler's clothes (well-pocketed shirt and cargo pants) as Dr. Ian Dunbar,
the man who wrote the book -- rather, six books -- on pet dog training and
the guy who developed one of the earliest puppy-training courses in the
country. Dunbar is 59, and though he's been away from his native England for
decades (since 1971), he carries the air of an English gentleman.
Occasionally British colloquialisms slip into conversation. "I was
gob-smacked!" is how he explains his recent shock over a case of dog-owner
With an eager border collie obsessively dropping a ball at his feet, Dunbar
scans the Point Isabel regulars. It's hard to imagine he's not passing
judgment on particular behaviors, but mostly he smiles at the four-legged
passers-by. Thirty-five years of studying dogs has not dulled him to simple
"Bay Area dogs are so cool, so friendly and polite," he says. When a brown
fluff ball approaches jauntily and sniffs his pant leg, he genuinely gushes.
"What a cute puppy!" Then an incessant barker demands attention. "We've
heard," he says firmly to the lab. "Haven't you got anything else to say?"
Though they probably don't know it, Dunbar's training methodology has
probably influenced the pet-owner relationship of almost everyone here at
the park. He says he was the first to preach the once revolutionary idea of
training puppies off leash (formerly only those six months and older were
thought trainable) and also says he was the first to stuff food into a Kong
(the conical shaped rubber chew toy and object of desire of most chewing-age
puppies), thus saving table legs and Italian loafers worldwide. More
important, his methods and theories have saved dogs' lives. Dog training is
his passion, but it's not simply because he finds a well-trained pet a thing
Training, he says, saves dogs' lives.
"Without training, the life of a puppy is predictable: chewing, soiling the
house, digging up the garden, followed by a trip to the shelter where, if
it's lucky, it gets another try," he says, wearily. "Without training, that
dog will be dead in less than a year."
There is a quiet battle being fought in dog-training circles, and Dunbar,
though he didn't pick the fight, represents one side. The mild, very
mannered Dunbar is armed with degrees and scientific study: a veterinary
degree and a Special Honors in physiology and biochemistry from the Royal
Veterinary College of London University, a doctorate in animal behavior from
the psychology department of UC Berkeley and a decade of research on the
olfactory communication, social behavior and aggression in domestic dogs.
All this, plus decades of dog-training experience.
Impressive, yes, but his opponent in this training controversy is backed by
big business, Hollywood celebrity and, even worse, some say, the power of
charisma. Cesar Millan, a.k.a. the Dog Whisperer, has his own television
series on the National Geographic Channel and is churning out a burgeoning
enterprise of videos and books. The subject of a recent New Yorker profile
by Malcolm Gladwell, Millan is often photographed on high-tech in-line
skates, leading a pack of pit bulls, rottweilers and German shepherds. The
sexy Millan's dog-handling credentials include an upbringing on a Mexican
farm, an "uncanny gift for communicating with dogs" and his Dog Psychology
Center in Los Angeles. There, with a pack of 50 dogs, he rehabilitates
Besides foreign roots, there is little these two men share, except, as
Dunbar points out, the bedrock belief that all dogs can and should be
trained. If this were a dogfight, it would be the unlikely match between a
pit bull and a border collie -- unlikely, because those who know dogs know
the border collie would simply leave. In this case, however, those watching
the fight keep pushing the smart dog back in the ring. Top dog trainers
nationwide have expressed dismay that Millan is the current face of dog
training, and most say that Dunbar should be the one with the empire. It's a
perennial conflict in training discourse. Are results best achieved through
rewarding good behavior or punishing bad?
Millan subscribes loosely to the idea of the pack, a dogs-as-wolves theory
that had long ago fallen out of favor with many trainers. Touting dominance
by pet owners, and the dictate to create "calm submission" in their charges,
Millan says owners are essentially pack leaders. "I teach owners how to
practice exercise, discipline and then affection, which allows dogs to be in
a calm, submissive state," he explains when asked to clarify. "Most owners
in America only practice affection, affection, affection, which does not
create a balanced dog.
"Training," says Millan, "only teaches the dogs how to obey commands -- sit,
roll over -- it does not have anything to do with dog psychology."
In his recent best-seller, "Cesar's Way," Millan writes that there are only
two positions in a relationship, leader or follower. "I work with dogs all
the time that are trained but not balanced." Included in Millan's repertoire
is a snappy touch that he claims mimics a corrective response by pack
leaders, "alpha rollovers" (forcibly making a dog show its belly), and
submission to being rear sniffed.
"Never heard of that," says Dunbar when asked about bottom sniffing, but he
is loath to completely discount Millan. Indeed, both trainers advocate any
techniques that are humane and work for the dogs and the owner.
"He has nice dog skills, but from a scientific point of view, what he says
is, well ... different," says Dunbar. "Heaven forbid if anyone else tries
his methods, because a lot of what he does is not without danger." "Don't
try this at home" messages are flashed throughout the show, and in
September, the American Humane Association requested that the National
Geographic Channel stop the show immediately, citing Millan's training
tactics as "inhumane, outdated and improper."
Writer Mark Derr, in a recent New York Times editorial, went as far as to
call Millan a "charming, one-man wrecking ball directed at 40 years of
progress in understanding and shaping dog behavior."
Nicholas Dodman, program director for the Animal Behavior Clinic at the
Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and author of
"Dogs Behaving Badly," goes even further. He calls Millan's techniques
"abuse." A TV producer claiming his dog was injured while training at the
Dog Psychology Center is reportedly suing Millan.
While distaste for Millan might be growing, Dunbar focuses on discounting
the myths such training ideas foster. Dogs aren't wolves, Dunbar says,
generations of evolution separate the two animals. "Learning from wolves to
interact with pet dogs makes about as much sense as, 'I want to improve my
parenting -- let's see how the chimps do it!' "
Dunbar claims compliance, the goal of all dog training, is most often
achieved through positive training methods. His lure-reward methods -- using
treats and praise -- have an even higher rate of success if there is puppy
socialization. Indeed, puppies put Dunbar on the dog-training track. In
1981, after buying an 8-week-old malamute, Dunbar sought a puppy class. He
cast out as far as Sacramento and Carmel but came up with nothing. At the
time, common understanding was that dogs couldn't be trained until they were
5 or 6 months old, but from his studies, Dunbar knew dogs were learning
behaviors long before that. Though his academic interest was in dog
olfactory research and sexuality ("dog humping," he shorthands), Dunbar soon
found himself venturing out of the ivory tower. He found that he enjoyed
educating pet owners and began developing a training program using positive
feedback, games and treats.
Sirius Dog Training, as Dunbar called it, showed proven positive results
from early off-leash training. His classes, and the resulting video, were
embraced by trainers and owners alike. Many say Sirius spurred the demise of
punitive, punishment-based training that was the vogue after World War II.
In 1993, Dunbar founded the Association of Pet Dog Trainers whose mission is
to promote better training through education.
The return to dominance training such as Millan's, Dunbar says, is a
disservice to dogs more than anything else. Though Millan gets results,
Dunbar notes that most people don't have Millan's strength or skill, and
even fewer keep dozens of dogs. "I teach methods that a supervised
4-year-old can use," Dunbar says. Having been called as a witness in
high-profile Bay Area bite trials -- he was one of a team who evaluated one
of the dogs involved in the deadly attack on Diane Whipple in 2001 -- he is
all too familiar with the violent underbelly of dog aggression. Fear, he
underscores, doesn't train a reliable dog.
Claudia Kawczynska, editor of Bark magazine, is one of Dunbar's many fans.
"It's irritating to see Millan treated as the expert. Ian is an animal
behaviorist with decades of experience," she says, "He should be where
Millan is." Kawczynska likens the Millan cult of personality and popularity
to the anti-science, anti-academic sentiment she sees prevalent in American
culture and politics. "Millan lived on a farm, so what? He's good looking,
but he's not smart about dogs. It seems people don't want their experts to
Dunbar refuses to comment on whether his lack of profile is due to his
weighty credentials, though a Millan fan on Gladwell's blog says the
backlash against the Dog Whisperer is "because Malcolm had written about the
unschooled Millan rather than a string of PhDs that the average person has
never heard of -- and never will."
Jean Donaldson, director of dog training at the SFSPCA and author of
"Culture Clash," a book about the human-dog relationship, views the history
of dog training in pre- and post-Dunbar eras. "Ian is the man," she says.
"He revolutionized the field." She, too, thinks Millan is tapping into
something deeper in the current culture -- and his machismo is only part of
it. "It's a backlash against political correctness," she says. "People are
angry and life is frustrating and [when] someone tells them it's all about
dominating something smaller and weaker? They'll go for that."
"Dunbar puts training in the owner's hands," says Aishe Berger, co-owner of
SF Puppy Prep, a puppy day care facility that promotes Dunbar's theory of
early socialization. "His methods are based on science and learning theory,
not the kind of 'magic' touted by the gurulike Millan."
But if the magic works, who wouldn't want magic?
There's the catch: Since Millan's program has gained popularity, Donaldson
reports, the SPCA has been flooded with calls from confused and frustrated
owners who want her to decipher -- and give them the scoop -- on Millan's
Dr. Patricia McConnell, author of "For the Love of a Dog: Understanding
Emotion in Your Best Friend" and the animal behaviorist on Animal Planet's
"Petline," goes as far as to say that Millan has put dog training back 20
years. "Dunbar is a world authority," she says, "and he should be the one
with the celebrity."
Dunbar doesn't argue with that. Though he hosted five years of a TV training
show in England, "Dogs With Dunbar," Hollywood never bit on it, or on his
other ideas, several of which are tinged with the odor of ever-popular
reality TV. "Shelter Dog Makeover" ("We'd groom them, train them and find
them a new home!") and "Train That Dog" (trainers compete to train a dog to
do various tricks and obedience trials in the least amount of time) were two
he thought most promising. Dunbar says Animal Planet mucky-mucks said they
turned tail at his foreign accent, but he doubts that was the real truth.
After all, the channel vaulted to popularity with hosts from Down Under.
As for books, of which he has sold hundreds of thousands, his first
experience in publishing colored his view of New York representation. Dozens
of publishers turned his first book down, but the one who finally came
through soured him to New York publishing. He bemoans the editing that was
done on his work, and the publishing experience itself disappointed him. The
numbers of books sold, he said, never really added up to what was reported
-- and what he knew himself had moved.
Some local experts lament Dunbar's failure to go mainstream, citing his
unwillingness to lose control over every aspect of his work, including
For himself, Dunbar has almost given up on the megamedia, though he says he
could name 20 excellent and attractive trainers who could make a show fly.
He's got other ideas. One groups experts from many fields -- a psychologist,
a puppy trainer, a hostage negotiator and a grandmother with the wisdom of
life experience -- who would be presented with a problem such as a husband
who won't come home from the bar after work. Each expert would devise a plan
and the favorite would be implemented on the show.
"All training is negotiation," Dunbar says, "whether you're training dogs or
spouses." Indeed, a recent article in the New York Times titled "What Shamu
Taught Me About a Happy Marriage" hit a nerve when the author, Amy
Sutherland, who writes on exotic animal training, admitted using training
techniques on her partner. Dunbar agrees with Sutherland's premise that
training is training is training. "You can instill fear in your kids and get
them to mind, but they won't function better in the world and your
relationship will suffer greatly," he adds.
"Problems that need correcting are the thin end of the wedge," he says,
"with dogs and people." It doesn't take much, he claims. A smile, a kind
word. "You don't have to give M&M's all the time. People -- and dogs -- are
dying to be trained."
Dunbar has a 23-year-old son, Jamie, a wooden dory river guide, with his
first wife, Mimi, and says his family configuration is "very Berkeley" --
both his current wife (and former dog-sitter), Kelly Gorman, and his ex-wife
are on friendly terms. Gorman, also a trainer and a founder of Open Paw, an
international humane animal education program for pet owners and shelters,
has done a good job of training him, he reports. Currently in the midst of
giving up his much-loved cigars, Dunbar muses that Gorman is actually the
better trainer of the pair. Two of the couple's three dogs are hers: Dune,
an American bulldog, and Ollie, a rescue from Chicago Heights Humane
Society. The third, Claude, a 110-pound rottweiler-coon-hound mix from the
SFSPCA, is what Dunbar calls a "special needs" case. "We train him one day,
and the next day we start over again. He's more than not bright."
Despite a lack of publicity, Dunbar's recent talk on dog aggression at a
local bookstore brought out a full house of fans, many with pen and paper at
the ready. With little sign of any training controversy, there is, however,
evidence of Dunbar's status as local cult leader by the standing-room-only
crowd. During his hourlong lecture, Dunbar explained the physiology of dog
aggression in a way that showcased his British humor. He easily charmed the
audience with jokes and witticisms; his dog impersonations, including a rear
view, full-bottom wiggle, kept the audience enthralled and grinning. Though
every move he made was carefully watched and met with nods of knowingness,
at times he looked a tad silly. He giggled, he gushed and he panted. Having
just returned from Tokyo, he contorted his face in an impersonation of a
Japanese dachshund. Could an American TV audience have embraced this kind of
At the end of the hour, Dunbar had to leave to get ready for yet another
seminar, this time in the Midwest, one of the few left to which he has
committed. With 850 full-day seminars behind him, Dunbar is winding down
touring. He's considering living in southern France or traveling for
pleasure, one of his passions. He's passing his baton to others who will no
doubt continue the struggle over dog-training particulars. But without
Dunbar's engagements to drive the sales of his training guides and videos,
it's easy to imagine that flashier, more commercial materials will easily
eat up his market. Whether those will reflect his ideas -- or Millan's --
it's hard to say.
At least half the audience still has questions for the expert, but despite
raised hands, Dunbar uses the last minute to reiterate his training
philosophy. "We need to thank our dogs for being good," he says, launching
into a wrap-up more spiritual than practical. "Every morning I give thanks
for waking up -- the alternative is not so good. Too often, we forget to be
thankful." Clearly, he's from Berkeley, not Hollywood.