Faith, Trust, & Foster Pups

Helping dogs on the road to forever, forever finding ourselves as we walk that road with them.

A Day with Dr. Dunbar


By now, if you’ve spent much time reading this blog over the last few months, it is probably fairly obvious that I have become rather obsessive in soaking up facts, knowledge, scientific studies, and anecdotal stories from people who have dealings with reactive dogs. Thus, I was delighted to learn that Dr. Ian Dunbar, well known for founding the Association for Pet Dog Trainers and establishing the Ian Dunbar Dog Bite Scale, would be teaching an all-day seminar in Salisbury, MD about The Dominance Myth: Fearfulness, Reactivity & Aggression in Dogs.

Salisbury, MD isn’t terribly close by, but the topic and its presenter seemed well worth a 3 hour drive each way, so I went ahead and signed up.

Dr. Dunbar spent most of the morning summarizing his findings during research studies in the 1970s, where he and his team observed dogs living in colonies without human intervention, to see how animal hierarchy was established, and to see how the dogs interacted within that hierarchy. Dunbar speaks in forms of actions, observations, and prognosis. He’s very scientific, but also very entertaining and engaging in his delivery.

There was a lot of information presented, and much of it worthwhile. However, a summary of the entire day’s curriculum would be lengthy and boring for most people to read.

Readings is boring, mama.

Readings is boring, mama.

So, here were a few of my most interesting takeaways:

In terms of the study, there was a clear linear hierarchy with the male dog groups, and there was regular testing with bones done to show this hierarchy and see how the dogs interacted. The higher ranking dog always got the bone. Growl patterns were studied, and basically the most growly dogs were not the “alpha dog” or highest ranking dog, or the lowest ranking dog. Rather, they were the “middle of the pack” dog.

In sum: Growly dog does not equal Alpha Dog. Growly dog equals insecure dog. So, no. Your dog does not think he is the alpha when he is growling…he’s mostly being obnoxious or feeling threatened. And you growling back at him or doing some other behavior to “show him you’re in charge” doesn’t do anything other than that you are either a middle-of-the-pack insecure dog, or that you are looking for an excuse to justify intimidating or putting your hands on your dog in a manner that is neither gentle nor loving, nor a reflection of you being a good leader. Highest ranking dogs have no reason to growl, they are calm and confident in their colonies.

Another interesting research tidbit – the factors affecting “rank” in the dog colonies were (in this order): 1. Age 2. Weight 3. Sex

Puppies were given some license in terms of being able to take bones and get away with playful puppy shenanigans. Until the age of 4 and a half months, that is, at which point the “puppy license” expires. Specifically with males. According to Dunbar at the seminar, and in his article “The Alpha Fallacy” , puppy license expires with the rise of testosterone, and the adult dogs “need only chastise those individuals that do not voluntarily show deference and respect in their presence. Fighting and physical dominance rarely come into play during the maintenance of hierarchical harmony. On the contrary, the major function of hierarchical structure is to lessen the amount of fighting. Once established, the hierarchy provides most of the solutions before problems arise. For example, when there are two dogs but only one bone, the ownership of the bone is pre-decided and therefore, there is nothing to fight about.”

This made me chuckle a bit, since much of what belongs to our older, smaller Ollie was pre-determined when Balton came to live with us, and it continues to amaze me how a 15 lb dog so effectively bosses around a 60 lb dog with a low growl or quick warning snap. But since research shows age outweighs size in the dog hierarchy, it makes plenty of sense how this would work out, and when I feed the boys in the same room, Balton wolfs down his food but doesn’t dare go near Ollie’s bowl, even if the little guy flat out abandons it.


It looks so yummy…but it belongs to big brother and I know better than to try and sneak a taste!

But the puppy license piece really outlines how important this development phase is, and why punishment methods in this phase quite simply aren’t normal or natural with dogs. For one, dogs are not wolves. And for two, even wolf mothers don’t alpha roll or bite their pups on the neck.

Puppies are biologically designed with tiny, pin like teeth that eventually fall out so that they bite a lot, and so that they learn bites cause pain. With this point, Dr. Dunbar talked a great deal about puppy socialization, and why it is so important to socialize, desensitize, and practice bite inhibition. Basically, what he seemed to say was your puppy socialization period expires with the puppy license, and the door pretty much closes on helping your dog be human and dog friendly before the dog gets to 5 months. He strongly emphasizes that puppy socialization and bite inhibition are absolutely critical, and that falling behind on critical milestones in the first 18 weeks can lead to disaster.

Now, while I appreciate and understand the importance of ensuring early socialization in puppies to prevent aggressive behaviors, it isn’t terribly helpful to those of us who are working with adolescent and adult dogs. For a minute, I began to question if Dunbar even supported adoption of adult dogs, but then learned he himself has adopted adult dogs from shelter environments and wrote an article advising on the adoption of adult dogs.

I did take the opportunity to ask about how to help adult dogs who bite people, finding my opportunity within the story of a Spaniel who had two bite incidents in two days. Dunbar notes that for every behavior model, there are half a dozen reasons why one behavior might occur. This indeed was the case with the dog in his story, and he identified for the class some of the subliminal bite triggers.

  1. Nature of the victim: Was it a man? A child?
  2. How did they touch the dog?
    – The top manners/spots in which dogs are handled that they do not like are having their collar grabbed, having their ears messed with, having their muzzle grabbed, touching their paws (especially back paws), hugging, and kissy face (this is particularly true for Spaniels and Rottweilers, who are sensitive about pupil size)
  3. Touching their possessions

In identifying the stimuli that upset adult dogs, Dunbar says it’s important to work with one stimulus at a time, rather than creating scenarios to help desensitize to all stimuli at once. This concept seemed akin to Grisha Stewart’s Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) concept of “Trigger Stacking” – where a combination of stressors creates a reaction much more quickly than any one single stressor (a human analogy would be comparable to my general discontent for flying in airplanes – I don’t like it, but I know there are situations where I can’t avoid it – I can fly with a headache, or the sound of a baby crying in the row behind me, or after a poor night’s sleep, but add them all up and my tolerance level for being in the air is greatly reduced). Here’s a visual from Grisha Stewart’s Behavior Adjustment Training Book:


Dr. Dunbar’s approach to addressing dogs with human bite history is based on a classical conditioning model, and follows a 3 step process and hand feeding meals.

1. Teach bite inhibition and taking treats with “llama lips” – first using a spoon so they learn they have to be careful in not clamping their teeth down on the kibble, then to your hand using similar tips offered for puppy bite inhibition (if he bites, shout out an, “Ow! Gently please” and nurse your injury).

2. Deal with each bite sequence under threshold and handler hand feeding

3. Eventually having the “victim” or victim type hand feed

Determining the nature of training through classical conditioning is based on a prognosis made by damage done to the victim, using the bite scale mentioned earlier, and animated below. In analyzing his cases, he doesn’t care about why the dog bit, but how much damage the dog caused.


The lion’s share of dog bites are level 1 or level 2 (meaning teeth don’t touch/air snap or teeth touch but don’t break skin). Level 3 bites are considered a critical point for dogs in terms of severity, because level 4 and 5 are considered very serious. In Dunbar’s bite scale, Level 3 prognosis is “fair to good” as long as there is 100% compliance by the owner to address the issue and really work on bite inhibition exercises. At level 4, he says “the dog has insufficient bite inhibition and is very dangerous. Prognosis is poor because of the difficulty and danger of trying to teach bite inhibition to an adult hard-biting dog and because absolute owner-compliance is rare.”

Most of Balton’s bites have been level 1 or 2, minus his trail encounter of early April, which resulted in a level 3 bite. This was also my “oh, s**t” moment for him, where I knew that in spite of all our progress to that point, we needed immediate help to keep this from ever happening again or worse, escalating.

Classical conditioning is associative learning, a technique that trains adult dogs and helps them take time, calm down, get used to the world around him and learns to like changes in the environment (and people, other dogs, kids, garbage trucks, etc.) and build up positive associations to the scary monsters of the world. I’ve seen the effects of classical conditioning through our Rowdy Rovers Class, where we are able to repeat the exposure to the people and barking dogs that he sees each week with lots of high value treats. He had a breakthrough this week, where I could see him having fun more than showing stress in class for the first time since enrollment. It was awesome.


The process involves:

1. Feed dog from hand, contingent on performing behavior with stimulus

2. When the stimulus is out of sight, the dog is ignored

3. When the stimulus is in sight, lots of praise and treats for the dog.

He also recommended a “jolly routine” for helping alleviate human stress in encountering a stimulus, where you sing a song and dance rhythm telling your dog how awesome he is, feeding him treats, and covering your fears. I’m not ever afraid of the stimulus, but I am afraid of how Balton will react to it. I will say this has already proved rather helpful in some of our out and about encounters, where I need to fake it to make it.

Well, this was long, and I hope you’re still reading by now. In a nutshell, I was very impressed with Dr. Dunbar, and understand why he is so highly regarded. I bought a book and some DVDs to help me continue my learning, and am so grateful to have been able to spend a day in a room with someone who has brought so much to the world of dog training through positive, reward based methods. Also, for making me feel like I could actually love science and research studies. Add puppies to any subject I may otherwise find a bit boring, and it somehow succeeds in making it fascinating!

More articles and helpful information from Ian Dunbar can be found at and


Author: faithtrustnpups

Faith, Trust, & Foster Pups is a combination blog for animal welfare, humane education/positive training, recognizing the beautiful bond that exists between pets and their people, and other fun stuff. I share information about adoptable pets in the DC metro area, promote animal rescue and resources to support adopters and fosters, and share stories and lessons related to the dogs I care for. Much of my writing is for especially my "foster failure" with some specific fear-based issues. In an effort to help understand often wonderful, sometimes challenging dogs like him better, I learn to understand myself. Together, we share our stories, and walk together, leash in hand, and in building faith and trust within one another and within ourselves.

9 thoughts on “A Day with Dr. Dunbar

  1. Great post! Thanks for taking the time to write it! Where is your Rowdy Rover class? I have been looking for a Growl class for my foster failure.


    • Thank you!

      Our class is at All About Dogs in Woodbridge, VA. It’s a bit of a different model for reactive dogs than your normal Growl dog class – they divide us up in condos where we work independently, and then each dog individually (sometimes 2 or 3 at a time depending on the dogs’ abilities to handle) come out to the middle of the room to work on exercises that keep the dog’s focus on the handler and increase distraction levels as the dog is able to handle them. Many of the dogs in our class are actually reactive to people as well as other dogs, which is wonderful for us since many reactive dog classes are not designed for dogs like him and we would probably be kicked out! The trainers work with each dog’s individual issues, and the size of the class is limited to 6 students max. You can check out their website at


  2. Interesting read.

    I have a small dog – for the 1st time. She is a calm Chihuahua and big [11lbs] for her breed. She is fixed. Today we had a Husky and owner walk up behind us and the dog started howling/barking at my dog. Immediately her tail was between her legs and she put me between her and the big dog. This is her usual strategy when a dog [or person] she is uncomfortable with is around – big or small. I felt bad for the big dog and the owner and wished in hindsight that we had tried walking as a pack for a while. I saw them later on and the same thing was happening with another dog. It seemed that the social part was missing for them.

    Some days I wish my dog was more ‘friendly’ but mostly I think she has the right not to interact. I have never been a fan of having my pet open to strangers. Although I’ve had 2 dogs who where so gentle they allowed anyone to approach them, while they weren’t the kind to bother anyone unless asked. It was a fluke. I had a Doberman who was a nervous dog and was worse than my Chihuahua about meeting strangers. I never left her off leash around strangers. She was a good protector while bike riding in the country – knocking down dogs who chased the bike. She used her shoulder or her front feet to knock them down. She never attacked them with her teeth, which I thought was interesting. Perhaps a female issue. Once she put her mouth on a child’s arm and squeezed, then slunk away. That wasn’t a good day but I am thankful she was only warning the child.

    Training is key – especially with certain personalities. I have begun to wonder if we should have a pack for certain dogs. The nervous ones need dog guidance and the alpha and the ‘greeter/enforcer’ to make them whole.
    Glad you have your older dog to offer balance – but perhaps Balton needs another dog pal who will complete him – a calm and relaxed buddy. My Chihuahua will make the most amazing choices of friends – pit bulls, shepherds, and some Chihuahuas but not many. My dog dislikes assertive high energy dogs and dogs without manners.

    I often play a growling game with my dog – your post has made me rethink what I am doing.


    • Huskies also do tend to have a high prey drive, so it’s possible that your little dog may have triggered that. Hard to say though without knowing either dog. I think you’re doing right by your dog by listening to what she is telling you, and not putting her in a situation where she may feel unsafe or like she has to react to protect herself. and are two sites with complementary blogs I like that touch on how to help your dog and educate others with uncomfortable interactions. I think Balton may have shown some more polite stress signals in a time before he came to us that went unanswered, which is likely a contributing factor why he is now reactive.

      Ollie is actually a really good balance to Balton – he falls on the opposite end of the social spectrum and is very outgoing, confident, and sociable. We began fostering shy dogs because Ollie is so good for them, and Balton is really no exception, even though he shows his fear differently than the dogs we had before him. We don’t really have the capacity for a third dog though, and actually needed to stop fostering with the decision to adopt Balton just because we know our limits. Ollie is our dog that we can kind of take anywhere, and Balton isn’t. And that’s okay. We’re still able to give him a good quality of life, knowing that continued training and management will be lifelong components to that life.

      Thank you for reading, and for your comments!


      • Thanks for the added links. I have thought of fostering but I am a busy person and think a foster needs more attention than my own dog – who I try to take everywhere.


      • Fostering is definitely a commitment and not for everyone, but we did it for two years before adopting and it was a great experience for us! Many shelters and rescues have short term fostering programs as well, where you only take a dog for one night, a weekend, or a week while their regular foster is out of town. Many of my fellow foster friends are some of the busiest people I know, myself included. 🙂


  3. Great post! Ian Dunbar recently visited the great place where we’ve taken Lily for training– The Coventry School ( I wonder if he’s on some kind of tour or something?


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