Sunday, April 27, 2014

Book Review: Don't Shoot the Dog

Far more than just a dog training book, Karen Pryor's Don't Shoot the Dog is an amazingly thorough introduction to the concept of behaviorism. It explains the science behind why all creatures do what they do, and how their behavior can be altered.
Photo by Erin Koski

Karen Pryor is a former dolphin trainer, and this is the field in which she originally developed the concept of clicker training that can be applied to any animal. Traditionally, dogs were trained through force and intimidation. Cesar Milan uses traditional force training and flooding exercises,  along with a nebulous concept known as "leadership" that is somehow supposed to solve behavior problems. However, the Dog Whisperer's methods can only be applied to animals that can be controlled or forced. Dolphins cannot be forced to do things they do not want to do, so clicker training was developed as a way to teach them what their handlers wanted.

Don't Shoot the Dog does discuss dogs and how to train them, but it also describes the behavioral concepts behind how and why these training methods work. Knowing the science behind the training allows prospective trainers to alter their methods as needed to fit a particular situation. When Brisbane was a puppy with spinal disc issues, he used to growl at people who sat next to him on the couch, anticipating them touching or moving him in a way that hurt. Conventional training, and the Dog Whisperer would have had me revoke his furniture privileges, or attempt to "be a better leader" and see if this somehow taught him that the couch did not belong to him. Don't Shoot the Dog taught me to train an alternate behavior, I taught Brisbane to get on and off the couch on command. When he growled, he was told to perform his getting-off-the-couch trick, and praised for complying. Very quickly, Briz learned to leave on his own when he didn't want to sit with someone. What could have been labelled a "dominance" issue or sign of poor leadership was simply a matter of teaching Brisbane a better way to handle a situation that made him uncomfortable.

One of the most delightful parts of Don't Shoot the Dog is the way it applies the behavior concepts to humans. The science of behavior is universal across species, we all do things we find rewarding and avoid things we find unrewarding. Don't Shoot the dog explains how to use various training methods to training yourself to stop biting your nails, to get your roommate to pick up their dirty laundry, to get the kids to be quiet in the car. It gave me a whole new view of human behavior, and changed the way I interact with other people.

I highly recommend Don't Shoot the Dog to anyone and everyone. I think the world would be a better place if everyone read this book. I think it should be a required text in high school, maybe in science class, where everyone could try training each other.

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