Now in its third edition, Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog is still regarded as “the book” on positive reinforcement. As someone who is new to the subject, I can hardly disagree. The book offers plenty of insight and technique on what is known as “clicker training.” However, Don’t Shoot is not a “how to” manual. There are no step-by-step instructions on how to teach pets new tricks or behaviors. Instead, the reader is given a series of principles and asked to find their own way and methods.
Although Pryor mentions other types of reinforcement, she focuses most of her attention on the power of the positive type. This is a system that is defined as rewarding an animal (or person, she notes that humans operate by these same rules) immediately after a desired behavior occurs. In this method of training, timing is the most important aspect and the key to success. Animals can easily link their action to the immediate reward and will repeat the action to continue receiving the reward. It is then up to the trainer to bring the action under command by giving either verbal or physical cues when the desired behavior is occurring until the animal recognizes the cue as the sign to perform the action.
For tricks or behaviors that require multiple steps, Pryor suggests using a sound or something the animal can recognize easily as being associated with success and a potential reward. Thus, “clicker training” was born. The clicker is simply a noisemaker that is a signal for the animal to continue doing what it is doing.
The book also mentions negative reinforcement, but Pryor strongly cautions against its use as it can too easily be confused with punishment, something that rarely works. Again, Pryor goes back to timing saying that the animal cannot tell for what it is being punished.
An example is a dog that pees inside when its owner is gone. If the owner comes home and rubs the dog’s nose in the mess or paddles it, the dog doesn’t know whether it is being punished for the act or simply where the act was performed. Because of that, the dog may continue to have future accidents elsewhere in the house, just not in that particular spot.
However, giving a dog a treat when you come home and find there is no puddle to clean up would be equally as ineffective because the animal would have nothing with which to associate the reward. This is where Pryor suggests some alternatives to the reward based system of training. Sometimes prevention is the best method of stopping an undesired behavior. In the case of the dog above, Pryor would suggest the animal be taken on an extra long walk or spend more time outside before being left home alone.
The use of a cue or “reinforcer,” as Pryor calls it, is the heart of Don’t Shoot however she also describes in detail “The Ten Laws of Shaping [Behavior]” and various methods on how to “untrain” behaviors that are already occurring. Most of the latter being clever methods for using positive reinforcement to make people or animals stop doing something you don’t want them to do.
Here though, Don’t Shoot falls short as an instruction manual. Although multiple examples are given of various behaviors, no clear first step is given. The book, while informative, feels like it would be better as a reference for someone who already has experience in animal training or is taking a course on the subject. However putting some of the covered ideas into practice seems a little hard to imagine for the novice.
If you have a desire to learn more about animal training and human psychology, Karen Pryor’s book hits the mark, though. It is informative, an easy read, and filled with some great ideas. Just make sure you have a well thought out plan or a coach to help you before you begin training your pet or family members. –Reviewed by Mike Griffin
Don’t Shoot the Dog: The New Art of Teaching and Training
By Karen Pryor
202 pages, 1999, Bantam Books