“I said no cookies,” he says, circling the room. “I saw that hand gesture.”
He pulls a black dog aside to do a quick demo. He strokes the dog’s head and neck. The dog gazes up, like he would follow McNabb off a cliff. “Yes and stay,” McNabb commands, calm but firm. “Yes and stay.”
McNabb, 57, attributes his way with canines to his singular focus. “All I do every single day is see a gazillion dogs and have my hands on them,” explains the father of four. “I am able to read them, understand them, and communicate with them.”
The numbers are staggering. Thousands of dogs pass through his facility each year for puppy, novice, and advanced classes, as well as breeding, grooming, kennel training, doggy daycare, and private lessons. He even makes house calls. First Friend has 22 employees and is open—for dogs—365 days a year. McNabb started working at his Fishers business in 2001 and took over ownership in 2005.
“We’re a bit busy scooping poop and mopping pee every day,” he says.
McNabb concedes his teaching style is not for everyone. Some owners balk at his homework demands. For his novice class, he recommends three 20-minute sessions daily, “eight days a week.” Other pet owners opt for cheaper alternatives.
“Some people say it’s too militant,” McNabb says. “Some people say it’s too fast-paced. It’s too overwhelming. There is too much homework involved. There are two types of training I don’t do: Wish and hope. Wish training is ‘I wish I had done my training’ and hope training is ‘I hope I can do this.’ You’ll never be successful with that.”
Tammy Hensley is a repeat customer. She drives 90 minutes from Seymour for class and has brought 10 dogs to First Friend over the years, including her latest, Emmy, a black Newfoundland. “It’s the best canine training around,” she says. “It’s amazing what they can do in eight weeks.”
Dogs learn, McNabb insists, because they want to. “Dogs want to be challenged,” he says. “Dogs love to have their minds stimulated. I don’t know many breeds that just want to lie by the fireplace and look good 24 hours a day.”
Larry Grant has watched his 15-year-old daughter Reese make strides training their white shepherd, Bär, who is prone to high-pitched whining.
“He just knows his stuff,” Grant says of McNabb. “He knows dog psychology. He comes across as hard, but he’s not. He’s got a huge heart.”
While McNabb says he has never met a dog he can’t train, he has been bitten, knocked out, and bloodied. Some dogs who come through the door are dropouts from other programs, dogs on their last chance. His students use pinch and remote training collars, but McNabb says he never strikes an animal. His wife and business partner Debbie McNabb (pictured with Bruce, opposite page) says their classes sometimes change lives.
“I am proud to say that a lot of times, we get the dogs to where they can be a good member of their family,” Debbie boasts. “People are like, ‘Thank goodness. I did not want to take my dog to a shelter. I did not want to have to put him down. You saved him.’”
The best part about Bruce McNabb’s work? The long-term relationships he maintains with his clients. That, and he feels his job has meaning. Not only does McNabb keep in touch with his graduates, he regularly throws parties for his advanced students and their owners. Some 120 dogs arrive in costume for his Halloween parties. There’s a Hawaiian luau with tiki lights, and a St. Patrick’s Day bash.
“The clients and I have something in common,” McNabb says. “What brought us together was a dog.”