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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