The Dunbar Index

We have concluded the Dunbar series. I thought it’d be useful for us to create an index for those that wanted to quickly revisit Dunbar stuff at any point.


Training Philosophies

The #@*$ing Four Quadrants

Schedules of Reinforcement

Dog training doesn’t happen in a laboratory!

Reward Training Techniques

We have lost the words from dog training.

On Classical Conditioning

On Punishment


Training and Behavioural Strategies

Lure Reward Training

Separation Anxiety

Food in Dog Training

Praise Kongs!

Repetitive Reinstruction

Put Your Problem on Cue

Solving Problem Barking

Seven Steps to Off Leash Reliability

Fearful Dogs

Dog-Dog Aggression

Messages for Dog Trainers

Other Training Comments



Dog breeders: Don’t produce lemon puppies

Puppy Socialisation

Bringing Home a New Puppy

Puppyhood: The Time to Rescue Shelter Dogs

Puppy Classes

Long Term Confinement Area for Puppies


Other Dunbar Stuff

Open Paw (A Dunbar Project)

The Importance of Bite Inhibition

Other Dunbar Comments (that didn’t fit anywhere else)


Dunbar Leftovers

This post is part of the series in response to Dunbar’s 2012 Australian seminars. See index.

Dunbar talks a lot.  He’s a great speaker to listen to, because he has no hesitation in going off topic or talking about relevant experiences that are clearly not in his notes.  However, this means I have a lot of good little bits that don’t really belong in my other posts!  So let’s talk about some of them briefly.


  • Dogs should be integrated into society as much as possible, and dogs need good temperaments to do this.
  • Vets don’t know enough about dog behaviour and socialization.
  • We don’t really know if off leash play between dogs is beneficial.  It’s hard to measure, and no evidence exists.  Dunbar suggested that off lead play may even be beneficial for people.
  • The APDT foundation funds research into dog training.
  • Dunbar talked about teat appropriation in puppies. By 10 days of age, some puppies have started to ‘claim’ certain teats and hierarchies have begun to develop.  The bigger ‘brutish’ puppies push their way to their favourite teats.  The smaller puppies have to use their brains and think about how to get a feed, and normally move to another teat.  The bigger puppies are normally less intelligent than the smaller puppies, who had to use their brains from an early age.
  • Dunbar described dog sex as a “massive temperament test”.  That is, dogs who can’t mate naturally because they are aggressive, disinterested, or just unskilled, shouldn’t be bred from as they have poor temperaments that aren’t worth replicating in their offspring.
  • Dunbar said “no male dog is worth more puppies than a bitch can have in her lifetime”.  That is, a dog shouldn’t have more than about 6 litters in their lifetime.
  • He advocated waiting for 10 years before using a dog at stud.  A dog that is a ‘good dog’, structurally and temperament wise, at 10, is a dog worth breeding from.  (Personal comment: While I agree with this in principle, unfortunately many dogs will become sterile before 10 if they are not used.  There is a bit of a ‘use it or lose it’ case for dog fertility.)
  • Apparently, someone called “Thelma” (a scientisit, name suggestions welcome!) theorized that dogs would eat human faeces and that’s the source of their domestication.
  • Dunbar suggested that breeders, when screening puppy buyers, should ask, “Why problem behaviours to you expect to see in your puppy?” (as breeds have typical behaviours that are often problematic).  From there, the next question should be, “How are you going to stop these problems occurring?”  This is a means of testing the buyer’s knowledge of the breed, and also ascertaining the risk of the puppy ending up in a shelter at a later point.


Then questions that I thought as I listened:

  • Dunbar talks about his dog Doon, and how his dog will never fight another dog.  Dunbar described a number of scenarios where Doon ignored aggression from other dogs.  While I think it’s nice to have a pacificist dog, it also brings a degree of responsibility that an owner must have to protect the dog from aggressors.  The stories Dunbar told made me doubt Dunbar’s proactive prevention of Doon being the subject of other dog’s aggression.

Thank-you for working through our Dunbar series! I will soon summarise all the posts to help you navigate through the mass of content from three days with Dunbar.


General Training Bits (Dunbar)

This post is part of the series in response to Dunbar’s 2012 Australian seminars. See index.

There are a lot of little training bits that Dunbar mentioned that don’t really go in any other post… Here they are for you:

  • In the ‘big wide world’, dog owners should always carry treats for classical conditioning. Always. For the life of the dog. You can perhaps relax a bit after the dog is 3 years old, but it certainly should go beyond 3-4 months of ‘puppyhood’.
  • We should aim to remove food lures (but this is not the same as classical conditioning, where we need food all the time).
  • A dog that will play fetch or tug are more reliable off lead, as they often seek people to engage in play.
  • Dunbar stated that he did not support using behaviour-ancedecent-consequence (that is, BAC) in training as he finds it ineffective.  That is, as a dog sits, you say “sit”, and hope they associate the word with the behaviour.  (In my personal experience, I have captured behaviours using this method and put them on cue in very few repetitions… I find it quite effective.)
  • Sit and lie down are great solutions to almost any problem – as long as you’re still there.
  • Fixes for humping:
    • Tell the dog to do something else (e.g. sit, drop, fetch).
    • Cue the dog to “off” and withdraw from the environment if the dog continues to hump.
    • Along with ‘put your problem on cue’, put humping on cue! (Jean Donaldson did just that.)
    • If your dog really likes humping, give your dog a ‘humpy cushion’ to reward them for good behaviour.
  • For teaching a dog to ‘take stuff’, then associate the cue with them taking good treats from your hand. The dog will form a habit, and will automatically take less-good-stuff when presented.
  • Tugging can be vamped as a secondary reinforcer.
  • Punishment is insufficient.  Punishes inhibits behaviour only.  Training is not just stopping undesirable behaviours, but also quickly getting back on track into more appropriate behaviours.
  • “Sorry behaviour” exists. Dunbar used the example of young horses who, when kicked out from a herd for a short time, return in an apologetic way.  This can be a way to strengthen relationships.
  • Dunbar described ‘back chaining’ as “moving to a position of strength”, and used (people) learning poems as an example. That is, if a person was to learn the last bit of a poem first, and work their way back, they’re likely to learn it quicker.
  • Dunbar advocated teaching dogs that a gruff or loud tone of voice means “better treats”, which helps to protect against dogs running away or acting unfavourably in situations when their owner’s voice becomes tense.
  • Suggested putting running fast on cue, and using it in recalls and dog sports (like flyball).
  • As a safety behaviour, teaching dogs “not my daddy” when people go to open their crate: anti-theft training.
  • Training is:
    • Changing the frequency of behaviours, and
    • Putting behaviours or absence of behaviours on cue.


  • Dunbar advocated using a stern voice (as a punisher) to teach dog boundaries – particularly, not to go out the front door and not to go out the front gate.
  • Dunbar suggested that we are ‘hung up’ on etiology (work out why the dog is doing what it’s doing) instead of actually working to fix the program.  In Dunbar’s words, “Just get on with it and train the dog!”
  • Mental exercise tires a dog quicker than physical exercise.  Nosework is the ultimate in mental exercise.
  • For dogs that greet people in a problematic way, they should be taught ‘shush’ and ‘sit’, and people coming into the house should be schooled to cue these behaviours.
    • Furthermore, these dogs can be taught that people arriving is a cue for quiet.
    • In Dunbar’s opinion, ignoring and back turning doesn’t stop jumping up – but saying “sit” often does.
  • Dunbar’s summary (para-phrased) of dog training ‘these days’:  There is a lot more food, and a lot more classical conditioning.  Dogs are getting friendly and safer around people.  But, dog-dog aggression is increasing because of lack of off leash training.  Lots of people who begin clicker and luring training keep these tools forever.
  • Though lure-reward training or clicker training is a good place to start training behaviours, these behaviours need to be phased out.
  • He said, “If we phased out our reward tools, we’d blow punishment out of the water.”
  • As you move away from a dog, their comprehension of the cue decreases.
  • Flooding is only okay when the rewards are justifiable. Puppies can be flooded.  Dogs that are human aggressive should not be flooded.
  • Rewards drive behaviour!
  • He likes the simplistic law of effect from Thorndike’s: Rewards increase frequency of behaviour, punishments decrease frequency.  Really, Dunbar argues, this is all there is to training.

Continue reading


Dog training doesn’t happen in a laboratory!

This post is part of the series in response to Dunbar’s 2012 Australian seminars. See index.

Along with Dunbar’s criticisms of the four quadrants of operant conditioning, he also criticised learning theory for being “mostly irrelevant” to pet dog training.  ‘These days’, learning theory is common knowledge for most dog trainers, but Dunbar considers it to be mostly irrelevant in the ‘real world’ of dog training.


Outside of the laboratory is a whole wide world of training environments and possible rewards. So why are we so caught up on learning theory?

Much of learning theory has been established by computer-use of reinforcements and punishments.  To Dunbar, this means the findings of learning theory, as delivered a lab, is only relevant to lab settings.  In a laboratory, the subjects are normally rats or pigeons, computers control the training, and the animals are contained.  In the real world of dog training, humans are not computers (they are inconsistent), dogs are more complex than rats and pigeons, dogs escape from people (aren’t contained), and dogs bite!

But humans have an advantage: Humans have voice and can moderate their tone to reward and punish.  Computers cannot use verbal rewards or punishments, and so research on verbal feedback is almost entirely neglected.  Dunbar encourages verbal feedback to train recalls, and claims it is easy to do.  He believes that verbals are more expressive than clicks, jerks and shocks.  Verbals can describe how desirable behaviour was and also an appropriate alternative behaviour.

Punishment may be effective in a laboratory, but (to quote his handout) “people are inconsistent and so the dog quickly learns those times when he will not be punished, i.e., when the owner is physically-absent (dog at home alone), physically-present but functionally absent (dog off leash), or physically-present but mentally absent (owner day-dreaming or making a phone call).”  On top of this, owners normally have bad timing, and dogs learn to be separated from their owners to avoid punishments.  (See also: Dunbar’s thoughts on punishment.)  Dunbar described people as “screwed before we start” if we seek to replicate laboratory settings in real-world dog training. Continue reading


The #@*$ing Four Quadrants (Dunbar)

This post is part of the series in response to Dunbar’s 2012 Australian seminars. See index.


Dunbar has a clear opinion on the four quadrants of operant conditioning: Ditch them!  Dunbar feels we have entered into a time of ‘quadrant worship’ when, in reality, the quadrant was only ever designed to be a memory aid. The quadrants have also led to a division in the dog community, with half the people worshipping positive rewards and negative punishment (i.e. “positive trainers”), and the other half worshipping negative rewards and positive punishment.


Here’s a little theory:  In the quadrants, positive means “you give” and negative means “negate” or take away.

Dunbar used this table to illustrate the quadrants:

Start Stop
Reward Positive Reinforcement Negative Punishment
Punish Positive Punishment Negative Reinforcement


Dunbar thinks this is a complicated way of viewing things.  He says that the dog doesn’t assess anything other than “did the environment get better or worse?”  He believes dogs have a binary outlook to life.  They see things as good or bad. Continue reading