Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training by Karen Pryor

An entertaining book on operant conditioning.  Yes, for real.  Oh, and getting what you want from animals, people, and yourself.


You’re going to think I’m nuts for even recommending this because because technically, this isn’t a dog training book, though it can be used to train dogs.  It can be used to train cats too.  And people.  Yes, people, including yourself.  Maybe you know Karen Pryor as the animal trainer who brought clicker training to the dog training world from the dolphin training world (yes, she did that).  However this is not a how-to manual for clicker training your dog, cat, or baby human.  Though there is a section of the book for that purpose, there are better books for learning clicker training.

I’m about to get all technical here but bear with me for just a minute.  Back in the day, BF Skinner developed operant conditioning, which consists of 4 basic ways to modify behavior:

  • Positive reinforcement
  • Positive punishment
  • Negative reinforcement
  • Negative punishment

You’ve already heard blab on and on about the virtues of positive reinforcement and probably have a vague idea of what it means.  But I’m still in technical mode here so I’m going to define it for real.  Here, negative and positive don’t mean bad or good.  Negative means that something is taken away, and positive means something is added.  Reinforcement means a behavior is increased, and punishment means a behavior is decreased.

Positive reinforcement encourages a particular behavior by giving something pleasant when that behavior is performed.  For example, you ask your dog to sit, he sits, you give you dog a treat.  Negative reinforcement is removing something unpleasant to encourage a particular behavior.  When your seatbelt buzzer goes off in your car, you fasten your seatbelt because that sound is obnoxious and doing so makes it stop.  In both cases, the behavior you want increases, so it’s reinforcement.

Positive punishment is adding something unpleasant to stop a behavior.  If your dog is walking into the street in front of a car, you may yank his leash and drag him back to safety to prevent him from being killed.  Negative punishment is removing something pleasant to discourage a behavior.  You may take away your teenager’s car keys if you catch him speeding.  In these cases, the unwanted behavior decreases, so it’s punishment.

The cool thing about this book is that we all- people, dogs, cats, dolphins- learn pretty much the same way.  And this book helps you apply the principles of operant conditioning to pretty much everything.  There is a lot more to it than that- discussion on timing, what is pleasurable for the giver is not always perceived that way to the receiver, and so on.

I love this book for the universal principles it uses how it opens my eyes to how to get people and critters to do what I want.  Sometimes you don’t even think of what you’re doing in those terms.  But get this.  I started a subscription plan for preventive care that my clients can use to spread out their veterinary bill over monthly payments.  My goal was to increase the number of clients who get yearly preventive care for all their pets.  I removed some of the pain in paying for vet care, and increased the number of pets getting care.  Negative reinforcement!

You’ll like Pryor’s easy writing style and get a kick out of the examples she uses throughout the book.  You’ll have fun learning and geeking out like I did!

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