I Curse You, Dr. Ian Dunbar!

Man in hat holding a golden retriever puppy.

He doesn't look too smart. I sure hope he knows what he's doing.

When Honey came to live with us as an eight week old puppy, we limited our puppy reading. We didn’t want to get overloaded.

Our book of choice? Before and After Getting Your Puppy: The Positive Approach to Raising a Happy, Healthy, and Well-Behaved Dog by Ian Dunbar.

Giving Your Puppy a Good Start

Dunbar’s book covers all the basics of what a puppy most needs to grow into a great adult dog:

  • socialization
  • house training
  • bite inhibition
  • learning to use a crate
  • basic behaviors like sit and lie down.

But here’s the thing. Dr. Dunbar is gentle and forgiving toward puppies. They can do no wrong. They’re just learning and it’s up to us to guide them in the right way.

But his standards for people are pretty exacting. Anything a puppy does wrong is ALL YOUR FAULT! And this is never more true than when he’s talking about house training.

Dr. Dunbar calls it “error-free house training.” By that, he means that if you follow all the guidelines in the book, your puppy will never have an accident in the house. And if she does, IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT!

We did ok with Honey. No, we didn’t get all the way through house training without a single accident. But she had very few. And it helped that she was sleeping through the night about a week after she came home.

Of course, we were very motivated. Honey was going to live with us the rest of her life. And anything we did wrong would be part of our lives together for many years to come.

But what about taking care of puppies who are only with us a short time?

Enter the Foster Puppies

foster puppy Scooter


You may recall I recently made the list to foster puppies for the local SPCA. And, in the short time I had Scooter and Buster before they were ready to be adopted, I took my caretaking responsibilities serious.

I took house training so seriously that I refused the piddle pads offered me and vowed to follow all Dr. Dunbar’s guidelines for error-free house training:

  • Limit the puppy’s freedom when you can’t watch him.
  • Take him out after meals, playtime, nap time, and anytime you see him looking for a place to pee or poo leave a gift.
  • Always carry him outside so he doesn’t stop on the way.
  • After he does his business outside, throw a big party of joy and treats no matter what it feels like to be standing in the snowy yard at 3:00 a.m. in your bare feet and pajamas.
  • Repeat 470 times throughout the day.

Generally, when I was home alone with the puppy and Honey things were fine—meaning, no accidents. Of course I did nothing else but monitor the puppy–sniffing behavior, activities, even the pucker of his anal region (I’d swear, it looks like it’s winking at me).

It was a different matter when Mike came home.

I had been tied to the house all day watching for signs of puppy accidents so I assumed he’d share in the watching while I tried to get caught up on some work. Sure enough, seconds after sitting down, the puppy would squat.

Isn’t it strange that almost every puppy accident we had occurred when both of us were home to keep watch?

Tag Team House Training

Buster the foster puppy


We’d settle into the office where I’d try to do some work while Mike went on puppy duty. Every few seconds, I’d look up to see where the puppy had gone while I noticed Mike absorbed in a book or the laptop or a snack. As I spied the puppy turning the corner, I’d ask Mike, “Where’s he going?” just as Scooter (or Buster) squatted. Mike would grab the puppy mid squat and rush him outside to complete his task while I’d go running for rags and vinegar to clean up what we weren’t fast enough to prevent.

When Mike and the puppy returned, we started the implied lesson in Dr. Dunbar’s book: “Figure out who’s to blame.”

My marriage has survived stresses brought on by twenty years of caring for a mentally ill family member, waking up to gunshots on the other side of our party wall, and bill paying sessions between a frugalista and the man who never met a dollar he didn’t like (to spend). But we were almost defeated by small puddles of ammonia-scented liquids and warm, mushy piles of carbon-based waste.

Dr. Dunbar’s Passion

Ok, I don’t really mean to curse Dr. Dunbar. He’s done a lot of good work, starting with developing the first puppy kindergartens for socialization and training.

Dr. Dunbar sees millions of dogs surrendered to shelters and ultimately killed because their people couldn’t (or didn’t want to) live with them.

He’s fighting the pervasive notion that cute puppies grow up to become great dogs without any work and if they don’t, there’s something wrong so you should get rid of this one and get a new one. I get it. Your language is strong to pierce the denial that we bear any responsibility for our puppy’s (and dog’s) behavior.

But c’mon Dr. Dunbar, you create a lot of pressure on a girl. What do you think? When you revise your book, could you soften the language a little bit? Maybe tell us that if we try to do everything right our puppies will rarely have accidents?

Or maybe just include a coupon for 50% off online marriage counseling.


[My tongue-in-cheek post is not intended to disparage Dr. Dunbar. I think he’s done more for our understanding of puppy raising than anyone. You can check out his puppy raising books for free by downloading them at DogStar Daily. Just check your ego at the door.]

Hop on…

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  1. When Margie came home as a 9-10 week old puppy pulled out of a closed dumpster behind a Wal-Mart, I ran for Dr. Dunbar’s book. I’m one person who works – no Mike to help (or not – HA). What I remember is the puppy proof crate – I put a very small crate with a pad and toys in the Great Dane size crate, her food and water out front to the side and round the back, puppy pads. Later, I moved to a lent X-pen. When I couldn’t watch her, I kept her in her crate/pen. It worked – and I used the system for two more sets of puppies. Currently, not using it for Tigger, 5 mon. old 40#, Plott hound puppy; he seems to be doing OK with the “after sleep, after play,…”
    I remember my second dog here in MO – Emma, who hated, hated the crate – ate her pad and pooped green foam for three days (thank God, no surgery needed). I thought I would never have her house trained (I had never before house trained a dog; my other dogs came already HT or my mom did the deed). After 3 months of yes, vinegar and white paper towels and almost despair, the evening of New Year’s Eve I caught her just as she began a squat. Like you and Mike, I zoomed her outside, saying “outside, outside” cheering after she did her business. A light bulb went off in that head. Every two hours the rest of the night, I was pawed at to go outside. I tried to remain enthusiastic but was failing by morning. She was perfect till the day she died after that.
    Yeah for you, Honey and Mike – plus the fosters. And the fosters – you never know from where really they come and why they sometimes don’t follow the program…can’t be you all the time :).

  2. I like Dr. Dunbar too, but I see what you mean. I think some of the positiver trainers in their perfectly correct push to get owners to see that dogs and puppies are not to blame can be a little harsh on us humans. Positive reinforcement works both ways and just as it works with dogs it works with people. I took two training classes iwth Bob when he was a puppy, both positive. One trainer was very harsh on a lot of the human students, frequently telling us we were doing things wrong. She was great with the dogs and praised them a lot, but in my view just not positive towards the people. I didn’t really like the class. The second trainer was positive with everyone and her class was vastly superior I left it every day feeling great about myself and my dog. As for puppy accident I think the best attitude is no ones perfect and there will be ooopses. Ping had a urinary tract infection as a pup that lasted several months and caused lots of problems, she was not house trained at all until she was almost year old. Now she never has accident. That experience taught me that eventually it will all work out.

  3. I’m laughing out loud here! You have NO idea how timely this is… I was awoken at 5.30am to the sound of Flo peeing in the bedroom. She has NEVER done that before. She’s had plumbing ‘issues’ recently as a result of some drugs she’s been on, so I took her downstairs at 1am for ‘wee wees’ (must be said in a high and patient voice no matter how many mosquitoes are attacking your feet) and she went, but I suspect that she cut it a bit short because she knew I had a bit of minced beef in my hand to give her when she was finished. Anyway… 4 hours later I didn’t hear her get up and pad around (which I’m sure she did) or whine (which I don’t think she did) before finding a convenient spot. Ian Dunbar was echoing in my head as I leapt out of bed, flew across the room and ushered her through the house and out the door without sounding annoyed, so as to prevent her from becoming a ‘secret pee-er’! I suppose at least I know that her incontinence is clearing up because she woke up when she needed to go! Yay; I think. :)

  4. lol you crack me up! I’ve generally had an easy time of housetraining my dogs mainly because 1. I work from home so I’m here all the time 2. I have a small enough house that it’s easy to know where the dogs are all the time. 3. I have mostly had one dog at a time. I think having two puppies doubles the challenge. Didn’t Ian Dunbar give you some bonus points for that?!

  5. I love your point – positive reinforcement training is just as important for people as it is for dogs. After all, aren’t we learning just as much as the dog when we read a book or attend a class? If we knew it all instinctively, there wouldn’t be a need for Dr Dunbar’s fantastic book. I totally agree with you on this one!

  6. Oh, I’m laughing so hard right now! We have SO been there! Kuster is four and a half months old now and we’re still together, though. *snort*

    I can understand the message he’s trying to teach and then reason behind it. However, I’d like him to have met Kus about three months ago. The boy wanted to be out with us and the big dogs all the time. He learned that if he pooped in the ex-pen, it was a get out of jail free card. We had to take him out of there to clean up the mess, since the little devil loves eating paper towels. It took a good month to disavow him of the notion by taking him out and putting him straight in his crate, but he finally decided it wasn’t worth it.

    I wonder what Dr. Dunbar would say about the boy’s shoe, sock and underwear fetish… Apparently, I smell fantastic, because it’s only mine that are ever stolen!

  7. I haven’t read this guy’s book, so I don’t feel I can curse him. But I will say that I’m tired of people being shamed because they don’t do “it” right. It’s as bad as baby books! I mean, come on! Jen had no clue what she was doing when she house-trained me at almost 1 yr of age, and yet here I am, accident-free since then.

    There are so many unrealistic expectations for you humans now. You’re not feeding us the right food. You’re not giving us enough exercise, or the right kind. You don’t socialize us enough. You got get us enough of the right kinds of pet care. You don’t train us right.

    Honestly, are you trying to turn us into the super-brats like the offspring of these parents that are trying to be perfect?

  8. Found you on the BlogHop this morning. You are a very funny writer! Can’t give you any info on puppies. Reba is 16 yrs old and I can’t even remember back that far!

  9. I’m also a fan of Dr. Dunbar, but I always wonder if when the puppy does something wrong, it’s all right to yell really loud at ourselves for being such bad trainers. Something like “Bad human.”

  10. Perfect way to present Dr. Dunbar’s most important message! I, for one, give you tons of credit for what you’ve been through – and accomplished. Funny (in a curious way) how having the responsibilities of a pet in the home can bring out the differences in the human residents, isn’t it?

  11. We love your post, Prudence is 7+ years and we still share “poop reports” when she’s taken out for her walk. She’s usually very good, but as a puppy….

  12. This post really cracked me up. I’ve never raised a puppy, but I’m familiar with Dr. Dunbar’s methods and he’s awesome. Sorry you were Dunbar failures. 😉

    I have to give you a lot of credit for fostering puppies, that’s the most work there is, and right when you start to see some improvement – you let them go – AND – take another one. Pat yourselves on the backs, and cut yourselves some slack. You’re doing MUCH more than someone who just raises one puppy, and then gets to enjoy an adult dog for 10 – 15 years….

  13. I didn’t have a book for Sampson, I know I made mistakes in house breaking but he turned out to be the best dog I’ve ever had.

    Stop beating yourself up, accidents happen.

  14. LOL, we house trained Kolchak with help from Ian Dunbar’s book and our trainer (who was trained by him). Wouldn’t you know it, every darn accident was during the hubby’s supervised time.

    Finally, I started crating Koly when I couldn’t watch him, along with a whole lot of umbilical training. As much as I wish I could say the man of the house was a big help, h wasn’t. It definitely worked for us though.

  15. I didn’t have a book when I had kids and I never got a book when I had puppies. I just always thought it would put too much pressure on me. So I guess we winged it, but I know I felt exactly like you with training a puppy. Watching every move diligently, ready to run them outside and couldn’t understand why my hubby wasn’t on top of it like me. I really had to laugh at your comment about the butt winking at you because my husband and I to this day know when the dogs have to go ’cause we’ll say Mr. Winky is awake! LOL! Great post!

  16. I KNOW what you mean–training puppies isn’t the easiest, even if you are home all day. At 10-weeks (when we rescued her), Sage hated the crate, even though we tried and tried and tried. And I read several books, to no avail. Finally, after a month of sleepless nights, or sleeping on the couch with Sage beside me, I opened the crate door and we’ve been sleeping fine ever since. So, was it us or was it something in Sage that said she didn’t want to be separated from her pack? Same with potty training. We had our share of accidents, but just kept at it and soon she was doing great.

  17. Accidents happen. And this is why, should I ever start investing, I’m investing in Nature’s Miracle, Simple Green (love their pet stain remover as much as regular Simple Green), Folex, and Bissel.

  18. Oh, lol, been there, done that so often in my puppy raising days. I can so relate to all your hard work going down the gurgler when men get engrossed in something other than puppy watching. I am an Ian Dunbar fan too:)

  19. I purchased that very same book when I decided we were ready for a dog. I read the entire thing, cover-to-cover, at least three times. Since I didn’t end up bringing home a puppy but a fully grown dog full of issues due to lack of socialization and bite inhibition, my reading didn’t prove very helpful. Shiva didn’t know much when she came to our house, but thank the gods she was house-trained!

    I would still recommend his book to anyone considering a dog, no matter what age, as he definitely does a good job of outlining the sheer amount of work it takes!

  20. Oh, man! I hear ya!! When you’re house training a puppy – or even an adult dog – the wins never seem enough to outweigh the losses. I’m currently working with one of my younger dogs who doesn’t understand how to ask to go outside and is terrified of the bell I’ve been trying to teach her to ring. It’s frustrating…she’ll go weeks and weeks without incident and then she’s peeing in the floor every single day. Imagine my surprise (not!) to realize that her accidents coincide perfectly with my being overextended and overtired.

  21. Great post – enjoyed it! Dr. Dubar is brilliant, but he can be a bit hard with imperfect humans! 😉

    One key about housetraining is to make sure the floor is completely de-odorized after any accidents. If that scent is left on the floor or carpet, it can be like a magnet to draw them back and mark there again.

  22. I kind of got distracted after the bit about the winking butthole. (bwahaha) Cardigan buttholes are obstructed by their jodhpurs, which probably accounts for 10% of their puppy poo accidents (as in I didn’t see them winking). 😉

    Seriously though, although I didn’t read this particular puppy book, I read way too many others (which did make me an anxious mess), and all of them put the accident blame squarely on the owner(s). My own husband, who didn’t read any puppy book, by the way, never could buy into that. Why does poo and pee have to be so divisive? :-/

  23. Your post has been shortlisted for February’s Deccy’s Excellent Blog Award!

  24. lol! marriage counseling discount!! love it.

    dr. d was just in a forbes article, too: http://www.forbes.com/sites/allenstjohn/2012/03/01/the-dr-spock-of-the-dog-world-reveals-the-secrets-of-training-the-perfect-puppy/

  25. Sorry I’m so late commenting, but I just had to say that I’m proud of you and Mike. Potty training a puppy isn’t easy and you guys have signed up for it multiple times for dogs that will only be in your lives for a short time. Getting people to realize they’re responsible when they’ve not done their part to train their pet is important – but there is no question in my mind that you and Mike did your very best. Sometimes accidents happen … and it’s no one’s fault.