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Andrew Barrett
Articles 

Book Review: Don't Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor

January 25, 2008

Book Review by Andrew Barrett: Don't Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor, Amazon subtitle: ‘One of the most beneficial books you could ever read’ 5/5

I first read this book a couple of years ago and since then have recommended it to anyone who would listen. I've also bought four copies and given them as gifts.

I decided recently that I should reread it to reinforce the ideas and to see if it was as good as I remembered. It is.

When I first read this book I can remember being literally horrified at the methods I had been using to try to modify other peoples' behaviour (family, girlfriend, colleagues, etc.). Any time you attempt to change the behaviour of any person or animal you are – whether you realise it or not – attempting to train them.

It turns out that the methods most people use (usually unconsciously or because they do not know better) are both ineffective and unpleasant – especially punishment. It is rare in life that you can change to a different method of doing something vitally important that is both much more pleasant for all of those involved and produces better results. This book demonstrates one of these happy occasions.

All of our attempts to change the behaviour of other creatures can be broken down into three categories: punishment, negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement. Punishment is an aversive applied after the event (such as grounding your kids or putting a criminal in jail). Negative reinforcement is an aversive (punisher) applied when an unwanted behaviour is occurring which is then stopped when the unwanted behaviour stops (such as the use of a choke chain on a dog). Positive reinforcement involves rewarding desired behaviour (for example using praise or food).

Karen Pryor's methods originate with the findings of American psychologist B F Skinner and her work as a dolphin trainer. Dolphins are unusual creatures in that it is not really possible to train them using the traditional methods of negative reinforcement or punishment. Dolphin trainers thus had no choice except to explore what was possible using only positive reinforcement, particularly using the powerful tool of a conditioned reinforcer - something that the training subject associates with a reward, such as a clicker or whistle.

(The advantage of a conditioned reinforcer is that it becomes possible to show the subject precisely what it was you liked because you can indicate without any delay. A lot of training problems are simply due to problems in communication. For example, when you yell at your dog for jumping into the lake and it comes over to you and you then tell it off forcefully, how does the dog know that you are telling it off for jumping in the lake rather than coming over to you when you call? And should you be surprised when you find your dog won't come reliably when you call for it?)

Dolphins were (are?) considered different to other animals in their level of intelligence, playfulness, curiosity and friendliness to humans. I found it absolutely fascinating that Pryor has found that when other animals – dogs, horses, bears and even fish – are trained only using positive reinforcement they show the same characteristics as dolphins. Even more interesting is Pryor's finding that if even a small amount of negative training (all of which involve use of a punisher) is mixed in you lose all or virtually all of the benefits. And what good sense this makes: how could a dog that is regularly throttled with a chain by its 'beloved' owner have the same level of trust, curiosity and freedom from fear as one that was only praised when it did something that was desired? This has extremely important ramifications for our conduct in our daily lives.

One of the principal benefits of Pryor's book is that she teaches us that it is often helpful to make an effort to see the situation from the other side. This sounds trite but is actually the opposite: a simple but very powerful tool. Often problems originate from a communication problem and/or because we find we are actually not rewarding or punishing the behaviour we think we are (as my dog example above shows).

I have found Pryor's methods immensely liberating. Previously I always felt that is was somehow my 'duty' to try to correct unwanted behaviour (whether is was something my girlfriend did, service I was unhappy about at a restaurant, or whatever). Thus I either ended up with an unpleasant situation (when is remonstrating with people pleasant?) or felt that I had given up because I was weak. Now I understand that one can and should just wait for behaviour one wants and deliberately reward it. This is the difference between a life filled with negativity and the total opposite. And the results are also better! What a marvellous gift Karen Pryor has given us.

About the author:

Andrew Barrett
Charlie Tian, Ph.D. - Founder of GuruFocus. You can now order his book Invest Like a Guru on Amazon.

Rating: 3.1/5 (18 votes)

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