By Marika S. Bell, Director of Behavior and Rehoming
Originally published in 1984, Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog! became an instant must-read for any dog trainer, educator or coach. It outlines, in plain, easy-to-understand language, how dogs learn.
If you are interested in why some training methods do or don’t work for dogs, children or even adults, than you will find this book extremely interesting. I train using force-free methods, and this book will explain why with clear and understandable examples.
- “Shoot the Dog” – Pryor isn’t actually suggesting that you shoot your dog, but she is using the imagery to suggest that this solution does in fact solve the problem. This method obviously solves your behavior issue but is not the most appealing way to go and it teaches the subject nothing. Other similarly not-recommended solutions to everyday problems are – break up with your spouse, put your kid in boarding school, or surrender your animal to a shelter. None of these are great solutions, but they do in fact solve the problem behavior because you no longer have to deal with it.
- Punishment – Pryor talks about how punishment does and doesn’t work to change behavior (turns out, it doesn’t work that well).
- Negative Reinforcement – Removing an unpleasant stimulus when you get the behavior you want. This method is used by many trainers, whether they realize it or not. For example, pulling a horse’s reins to the right makes the horse turn right, in order to avoid the uncomfortable pulling sensation from the bit.
- Extinction – No longer reinforcing a behavior you don’t like. This is a REALLY hard one to implement unless you have an iron will. If the behavior you are trying to extinguish is barking incessantly, than you must be willing to outlast the dog by ignoring the behavior and the inevitable “extinction burst” that comes along with it. Although people are frequently told to ignore bad behavior and it will go away, this is only a partial truth for most behaviors.
- Train an Incompatible Behavior – I love this one. It involves a lot of new habit forming in both you and your pet, but once in place, it is very effective. Here is an example: Your dog jumps up on everyone who enters the house. You show your dog that it is more fun (rewarding) to go to his crate for a pig’s ear instead. This behavior is completely incompatible with jumping up. You didn’t have to punish the behavior you didn’t want. You just had to more strongly reinforce the behavior you did.
- Put the Behavior on Cue – A bit of reverse psychology here. Put the barking on cue, then only reinforce the barks you want. The dog stops barking unless asked to. Very nice!
- “Shape the Absence” – You reinforce every behavior other than the one you are trying to get rid of. I do this a lot when first teaching people about clicker or “marker” training. I will ignore the jumping up behavior while capturing (with a clicker) every other behavior the dog demonstrates – sit, down, eye contact, walking away. Everything except the jumping up.
- Change the Motivation – You convince the dog to want to do what you want them to do. Everybody wins! This is the method most used by successful trainers.
After outlining these eight methods, Pryor goes on to show how to implement them in many different real world situations. In this new edition of the book, she also has added a chapter in clicker or “marker” training. She discusses when and how to use this type of training most effectively and why it works so well.
Pryor is one of the leaders in animal training and by writing this book in 1984, she was incredibly ahead of her time. The ideas that she spells out in Don’t Shoot the Dog have been world-changing, and if it is possible, the book is even more relevant today than it was almost 30 years ago.
You can also check out her more recent book on how to become a clicker training enthusiast called Reaching the Animal Mind (2009).
For further elaboration on Pryor’s topics, pick up your own copy of Don’t Shoot the Dog.
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