How to Teach a New Dog Old Tricks
(book review)

This wonderful book could well be the best book currently available on how to raise a puppy to be a civilized and problem free dog who will be a cherished member of your family. The goal of this book is to save the lives of dogs and enhance the quality of life for dogs and the humans who live with them.


by Dr Ian Dunbar , PhD, MRCVS

reviewed by Pam Green ( © 2003)

This wonderful book could well be the best book currently available on how to raise a puppy to be a civilized and problem free dog who will be a cherished member of your family. For those of you whose dog is already an adolescent or adult, it may help you recognize areas of education that were overlooked and need to be remedied to prevent or resolve undesirable behaviors. The goal of this book is to save the lives of dogs and enhance the quality of life for dogs and the humans who live with them. It is clearly and delightfully written, with a pleasantly humorous tinge.


The Introduction clearly sets forth the goals of desirable attitudes and behaviors to be encouraged so as to prevent those problems that all too often result in the unfortunate dog being consigned to the Pound, usually to be killed there. this chapter gives a quick preview of the main topics of the book, which of course is what an "Introcuction" should do.

Temperament Training

Chapter 1, Temperament Training, is the most important chapter in the book, as it deals with the ways in which the puppy's temperament and reactions can be molded to prevent bites. The great majority of damaging and inappropriate bites from dogs to humans are the result of fear. Dr Dunbar presents the concept of bites resulting from several anxiety or fear inspiring stimuli or events, each of which singly might not be enough to trigger self-defense by the dog, happening at the same time and thus adding up to enough fear to trigger self-defensive growling, snapping , or biting. (A similar model is presented in Jean Donaldson's Culture Clash.) Dr Dunbar warns against the dangerous and all too frequent practice of taking away the valuable warning of a dog's growl prior to biting by punishing all growls. Instead the dog must learn that the "threatening" stimulus or event is actually not a threat. Bites are prevented and temperaments are improved by thoroughly socializing the puppy to humans and to other dogs (and to others with whom it will be living, eg cats), by teaching the puppy to accept and enjoy being handled in every part of its body, and by teaching the puppy to inhibit the strength with which it uses its teeth on human body parts. There are also instructions on how to prevent the pup from guarding objects (mostly toys) and guarding food, by teaching the pup that he doesn't have to be afraid that people will steal these things from him though they might want to borrow something for a moment and give it back or exchange it for something even better. Dr Dunbar also encourages what he terms "the Omega rollover", ie teaching the pup to enjoy rolling belly-up for a nice delightful belly rub; this teaches the puppy to enjoy and willingly perform a submissive display towards all the humans in the household. Finally the topic of children and the need to train them in correct behavior towards dogs is discussed.

Behavior Modification

Chapter 2, Behavior Modification, deals with the education of the puppy so as to prevent the most common behaviors considered objectionable by most human families in the context of a dog living in the house as a member of the family. Dr Dunbar's goal is to prevent the pup from the cruel and unjust fate of being exiled to the backyard for behaviors that the humans should have prevented. Generally the way to prevent a dog from doing what you don't want him to do is by teaching him to do something else that is incompatible and that you do want him to do or don't mind him doing. First up is housebreaking, something which should be so simple if properly understood and implemented, but which becomes a real ordeal for many people and their unfortunate dogs. Crating is of course part of the formula for housebreaking without tears. Prevention of undesirable chewing is accomplished by focusing the pup's normal need to chew on appropriate chew toys and by putting all inappropriate valued objects out of the pup's reach. The need to dig is met by providing a legal digging area and teaching the pup to use it. Prevention of obnoxious jumping up on people is done by teaching a more civilized mode of greeting in the sitting position. There is also a bit about barking and shutting up.

Obedience Training

Chapter 3 , Obedience Training, presents the teaching of the basic commands initially through the use of "lures" (food or toy) and rewards (food or toy). However Dr Dunbar quickly stresses that while food is a great way to teach a new behavior , its use as the principal reward should be phased out early in the game in favor of what he calls "life rewards." A "life reward" is the opportunity to do something the dog naturally wants very much to do. These are the things a dog does because (in my terms) "it feels good to his genes," ie the genetically hard-wired behaviors instilled by evolution and by selective breeding. Naturally what behaviors a dog really craves to do will vary by breed and by individual. (And this is one of the crucial factors in making an intelligent breed choice in the first place. It's easier to keep sticks and tennis balls handy for your Lab or Golden than it is to keep sheep of cattle for your Border Collie or Bouvier.) By interspersing commands among other enjoyable activities, such as a walk , that enjoyable activity becomes the reward for performing the commands. Give a simple command, praise for compliance, then release the dog back into the enjoyable activity. In addition to the usual basic commands of Sit, Down, Stand, Stay, Come, and Heel, this chapter covers the equally useful but less often described "settle down and shush" (relax and chill out) , "off" (don't touch something attractive), "take it" (take an object into the mouth) and "thank you" (letting go of an object in the mouth; some people prefer "drop it" or "out" or "let go"), walking on leash without pulling, and a few tricks that are cute or useful. All of the obedience is oriented towards use in the real world , in the home and in public, rather than to competition in Obedience Trials. (After all , we live with our dogs every day of the year, but we only go to Obedience or other Trials on the weekends, or for many of us not at all.)

Training Theory

Chapter 4, Training Theory, runs through all the laws of stimulus , response, and consequence that are so beloved of the behaviorist and that every dog-person needs to understand. This is the short and simple version. (For more details and applications, see Donaldson's Culture Clash and Dogs are from Neptune and Reids Excel-erated Learning.)

Physical Health

Chapter 5 , Physical Health , is brief but deals with some important issues. Dr Dunbar exhorts the puppy seeker to seek out a breeding line that is renown for longevity. Overall longevity of parents, grandparents, sibs and half sibs from previous litters is your best guide to both the overall health your puppy is likely to enjoy and to his own longevity and to the absence of proclivity towards serious behavior problems in the family. We are reminded once more, as several times in the book, that more dogs meet their deaths (usually very prematurely) from owner abandonment due to behavioral dissatisfaction than die from accidents or from all illnesses combined. The health topics covered are vaccination, nutrition, grooming and home physical exams, flea control, and most urgently the benefits and nescessity of castration and spaying. The flea control section is a bit out of date as it preceded the availability of topical flea repellents (Advantage, Frontline) and fails to mention Insect Growth Regulators (IGRs) as an added means of preventing flea reproduction. That is a tiny flaw in an otherwise admirable book.


In summary, this is an extremely valuable book that should be read by everyone contemplating raising a puppy. Every breeder ought to stock up on this book and make it required reading by all prospective puppy purchasers prior to the puppy going home with them. It should also be read by those with adult dogs, as it contains so much that can be used to make a change for the better. While puppyhood is the golden opportunity for these teachings, it is never to late to help a dog learn better behaviors.


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site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 5/26/03 revised 5/26/03
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