Don’t Shoot the Dog! (A book review)

Don’t Shoot the Dog will change the way you think about behavior, teaching and training. If you’ve ever wondered how to change the behavior of a pet, a child, a spouse, a co-worker, or even your own behavior, then Don’t Shoot the Dog is the book for you. You’ll learn how to keep your cat from jumping on the counters, how to teach your kids to say thank you and pick up their dirty socks, and how to get your dog to stop pulling and start walking politely on a leash.

Don’t Shoot the Dog was one of the first books I read about the science of behavior, before I knew anything about applied behavior analysis or clicker training. Even though I’m working on a master’s degree in behavior analysis now, I still think Don’t Shoot the Dog is one of the best introductions to the study of behavior and training. I still even refer back to it from time to time.

Last semester I had fun reading back through the book with several friends at school. So, I wanted to do a brief review of the book while it is still on my mind. I love Don’t Shoot the Dog because it’s easy to understand, even for those not familiar with animal training or people training. Although the book is wide-read in the dog training community (probably because of the title), it will appeal to a broad audience. Karen Pryor did not originally intend the book to be for dog trainers and the examples throughout include all sorts of animal species, including people.

Don't shoot the dog book cover

What you’ll learn from this book.

In the first half of Don’t Shoot the Dog, Karen Pryor explains reinforcement, shaping, and stimulus control. If you understand these three concepts you will be well on your way to becoming an awesome trainer or teacher. Most good trainers and teachers intuitively understand these concepts, although many can’t explain the details or science behind these principles.

The fourth chapter “Untraining: Using reinforcement to get rid of behavior you don’t want” was one of my favorites when I first read Don’t Shoot the Dog and is still one of my favorites. Karen Pryor explains 8 totally different methods for getting rid of unwanted behaviors, everything from punishment and shooting the animal to more humane methods, such as changing the animal’s motivation or training an incompatible behavior.

What I love about this fourth chapter is the examples. Karen Pryor picks 10 examples and explains how each of the eight methods could be applied to each example. I think this chapter really helped me start thinking about how, even with a seemingly impossible training problem, there are often actually many possible solutions. Great trainers are creative problem solvers. They can come up with unique and individualized training solutions in any situation. This chapter will really help get your creative juices flowing.

The last two chapters of Don’t Shoot the Dog provide lots of examples about how to apply reinforcement and the other principles in the book to the real world. Karen Pryor also includes a short introduction to clicker training. One thing that I like most about Don’t Shoot the Dog is that it is filled with real life stories. The examples in the book deal with a wide variety of species, settings and training situations, which really helps illustrate the importance and usefulness of the principles described in the book.

Can You Train a Chicken?

Here is one of my favorite quotes, from the end of the introduction of the book:

“Using positive reinforcers in one situation may show you how to use them in others. As a dolphin researcher whom I worked with sourly put it, “Nobody should be allowed to have a baby until they have first been required to train a chicken,” meaning that the experience of getting results with a chicken, an organism that cannot be trained by force, should make it clear that you don’t need to use punishers to get results with a baby. And the experience should give you some ideas about reinforcing baby behavior you want.”

People were training animals using positive reinforcement and clickers before Karen Pryor wrote Don’t Shoot the Dog. However, Don’t Shoot the Dog is largely responsible for starting a positive training revolution and bringing clicker training and positive training to the dog and horse training worlds. So, whether you train horses or dogs, or even humans or chickens, you’ll find Don’t Shoot the Dog a delightful and entertaining read. Even better, you’ll find ideas and answers for improving your teaching skills and your relationships with both animals and people.

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  • Phillips Map

    Don't shoot the dog was my first introduction into behaviorism as well. I was working in a text book store between field jobs and it was required reading for some education courses. I picked it up on a whim. It changed the way I think about training, and how I approach life too! I realized that my passion for animals, my hobby of riding, and my aspiring science career could all be combined into one thing! Being on the biology side of behavior it had never occurred to me before!  Now I am completely hooked and wondering if I should have done my masters in applied behavior since I love it so much!

    I try and keep a copy of the book handy to give away. I gave my last copy to a woman who lived below me in my complex with a new pitbull puppy. The puppy was a handful and I could hear her yelling along with loud thumping noises (!!!) coming from her apartment day and night. I gave the book to her and I hope she read it. I need to get a new copy now…

    • My background is biology, as well. So, I knew a lot about “natural” and “instinctive” behavior and about studying behavior from a biology perspective, but absolutely nothing about behavior analysis and operant conditioning.

      I actually had a copy of Don't Shoot the Dog (that I had bought or someone had given me, don't remember which anymore) that sat on my bookshelf for probably over a year before I read it! Once I read it and realized how cool it was, I felt really silly for waiting that long to read it. It totally changed the way I think about behavior and training and let me to pursue my master's in behavior analysis.

      I have given many copies of DSTD away to friends and as gifts. I think DSTD is a great intro for people because there are so many examples that cover so many situations. I think this helps people see how positive training can apply to their life or to any training situation.

      I hope the gal with the pit bull gave clicker training a try!

      ~Mary

  • Radal16

    Such a good book! I can't believe I waited so long to buy it. Now if only I could get my husband to read it…

    • I hope you can get your husband to read it eventually!

      I got my mom to read it a couple years ago and she loved it.

      Still trying to convince my brother that he needs to read it. 🙂

      cheers,

      Mary

  • I am visiting your site for a past one month. I feel happy by reading these blogs.

  • This is such an appealing review!

  • This is nice. Though it sounds creepy yet I think this would be good. Thanks. Will try to have some copies of it.

  • I'm pretty sure I have this book and have read it, but it's been so long ago I don't remember it.  I'll have to go find it and read it again though because you've got me curious lol.  Thanks for the review!

    • I'd be interested to hear what you think if you read it again time.

      As I learn more about training, I find that if I reread training books, different things stick out to me that I didn't stop to think about the first time I read the book.

      cheers,

      Mary

      • I'll definitely let you know.  😀  I might even do a post on my blog.

  • Its very interesting to read,excellent information you shared here,thanks for sharing.

  • This book sounds superb and i like this reviews, Great points you have shared here.

  • Training nothing but we should have to train all animals also. 

  • Such an eye catching title for a dog lover like me . Thanks for sharing a blog like this . You've helped a lot in enlightening one's mind . 🙂

  • Karen Pryor

    Dear Mary, thanks for this lovely review! I am always so happy when new people find Don’t Shoot the Dog, get the picture, and start applying it not just with animals but in real life. And thanks for your productive website! Karen Pryor

    • Hi Karen,

      Thank you so much for stopping by and leaving a comment! I’m glad you enjoyed my review of Don’t Shoot the Dog. It is always the first book I recommend to people when they are interested in learning more about behavior or training, whether for people or animals.

      Also, I just bought a plane ticket to Connecticut for the March ClickerExpo! This will be my third Expo and the program this year looks especially good. How cool that ClickerExpo is now in it’s 10th year. Won’t it be exciting to see what happens in the field of animal training in the next 10 years?

      cheers,

      Mary

  • These review is really helpful. And as I can see this Book could be really handy when it come to training pets. Is there an e-book version of these?

  • Rhonda

    I just bought Don’t Shoot The Dog! I have a rescued pitbull who had all sorts of problems due to his lengthy stays in shelters and foster homes. He was approximately a year to a year and a half old by the time he came to us and had never had a home! Thank God for the Internet and people like you who offer so much help for pet owners with behavior problems! My little guy made a complete turn around in just a few short months using clicker training and positive reinforcement and we wouldn’t trade him for the world! I’m super excited about getting this book and receiving even more insight into why animals and people do what we do! Thanks Mary for this site and reviewing this book!

    • Hi Rhonda,

      Thanks for the kind words about my site.

      And awesome! I’m glad you are reading Don’t Shoot the Dog. I think that you will enjoy it. 🙂

      Poor pup to spend the first year of his life in shelters and rescues. Sounds like he was lucky to find you.

      I would love to hear what you think of the book when you are finished with it and also about how your training continues to go with your little rescued guy.

      Best,

      Mary

      • Rhonda

        Hi Mary,

        I will definitely let you know how I like the book. It should be here sometime today 🙂

        My Brodie boy inspired me to blog about training rescued dogs and I’m writing a book about him, his escapades (there are many) and the training techniques that I used to bring out the perfect dog I knew existed in there somewhere.

        I don’t know if you allow links in your comments? or I would leave it for you and your readers to check out.

        Thanks again for your site and newsletter, your expertise is invaluable to me 🙂

        Talk Soon,
        Rhonda

        P.S. The pic is of my boys, Luke on the right and Brodie’s on the left wearing his what are you doing look 🙂

  • Melanie Watson

    I recommend this book to all my customers when I have their horses in for training. Its the easiest one for basic understanding on the market which covers everything I need them to get their heads round…. in such a brilliant way.

    • Hi Melanie,

      That’s so great that you get your clients to read Don’t Shoot the Dog. I agree with you — I think it’s a great introduction to positive reinforcement training and the science of animal training.

      It’s actually one of the first books I read about the science of training and one of the books that helped me switch from traditional horse training methods to clicker training / positive reinforcement!

      Best,

      Mary