Dog whisperer: Bruce McNabb trains dogs and their owners


By Suzan Davis

“He’s so cute; can I pet him?” A fellow dog walker beckons to Spartacus, who sees this as an invitation to launch eight-feet forward, pulling his owner, Savannah Neary, of Carmel, off her feet. Once again, she returns home with grass-stained elbows.

Neary’s dad, Dennis, is knocked off balance when Spartacus bolts down a flight of stairs off the patio.

Neary’s mother tries another technique; when walking Spartacus, she crosses the street to avoid on-coming canines. Result: road rash.

The family concludes that more public practice is needed. As the six-month old, 70-pound German shepherd pounces on a Pomeranian in Petco, a customer urges the family, “First Friend – Google it. Call today. Ask for Bruce.”

Bruce McNabb, of Noblesville, is patriarch of his family-owned training, boarding and breeding facility, First Friend K9, in Fishers.

His demeanor is a mixture of disciplinarian, educator, drill-sergeant and dog whisperer. Like a tireless triathlete, he marches around for an hour, drenched in sweat, in a room loaded with 25 breeds of dogs and 25 breeds of owners.

He is described by his human students – some who drive more than an hour to be there – as a balance of passion and compassion, enthusiasm and empowerment, who is also remarkably patient.

McNabb’s motto is, “avoid avoidance.”

For Spartacus, there is no avoiding other dogs. The current trend of apartments and condos allowing residents to own canines combined with the housing increase in Hamilton Co., has resulted in a denser pet-to-people population.

According U.S. Census, State and County Quick Facts, between Westfield, Carmel, Fishers and Noblesville, 41-to-44 percent of the population has a dog.

Orientation, the first of the eight-week class schedule, lasts three hours without the dog. Owners realize the pet is not the only one under new management – it’s the entire family. Handlers exit with clear expectations and abundant information – like 25 toxic people foods, potentially lethal pet toys and chews, and a manual of the skills and advice.

“Watching the growth and transformation from the first night to graduation, and seeing the confidence in the owners as their dogs respond to them is very rewarding,” McNabb said. “I realize my regimented training style is not for everyone at first, but in order to train 25 people and 25 dogs, I must be focused, consistent and detail oriented.”

Between classes, McNabb and his staff offer phone support to any challenge that comes up, including harassing the family cat.

Classmate mini-golden doodle, Penny, owned by Westfield’s Chuck and Nikki Pulfer, is among 25 new students. McNabb trained Pulfer’s boyhood dog 15 years ago.

“I appreciate his straight-forward style,” said Nikki, “Twenty-five dogs obey with lots of distractions. Bruce’s knowledge is incredible. I love that he demonstrates new techniques with different dogs from the class.”

“If I use a well-trained dog to show a new skill, it is not fair,” McNabb said. “Picking out a student dog that may not do well, keeps me honest; it reminds me of how hard training can be. It also helps the handler mentally and emotionally, when I have to repeat the demonstration over and over.”

Classes have assistant trainers, closely monitoring the group. The transformation from chaos to calm happens quickly.

“I was intimidated at first with so many dogs, the responsibility and the work. After the first four weeks, that turned into self-confidence,” Neary said. “Without Bruce, I would continue to live in fear of walking my dog and having my parent’s house torn apart. Like the treat bag we wear in class says, “You’ll love a trained dog!” I can truly say, ‘I love my trained dog.’”

First Friend K9

12401 Reynolds Dr., Fishers


Training – 12 classes offered per week, year round: puppy, novice, advanced, agility

Boarding, breeding and numerous pet services

Staff: 22

Owners, Bruce, wife Debbie, four sons

Puppy class fees $125, Novice $150