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Q&A with Melissa Holbrook Pierson
Author of The Secret History of Kindness
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When critically acclaimed author Melissa Holbrook Pierson decided to write about the joys of clicker training, she didn’t realize that her journey would lead her, first, into the dark history of dog training and later, into the more affirming laboratories of B.F. Skinner. We spoke with Pierson about her extraordinary new book, The Secret History of Kindness: Learning from How Dogs Learn (Norton, April), covering such topics as why so many prominent trainers are “crossing over” to positive reinforcement methods, why and how we can be positively (or negatively) reinforced by our own training methods, and why and how science has proven that kindness is indeed the best approach—to dog training and to life.

B: I was encouraged to learn that the use of electric shock devices has been banned in Wales, and that other parts of the UK are considering similar legislation. Why are these devices ineffective, even dangerous?

MHP: Shock collars are imprecise and flawed tools for several reasons. Pain induces fear and anxiety, which have neurological effects that impede learning. Use of shock collars is correlated with increased aggression and anxiety. Finally, it is incredibly difficult to time the shock properly, which causes confusion and often, learned helplessness.

Another undesirable outcome is the unintended associations a dog may make between the pain and what’s in the environment at the time it’s experienced. For instance, a dog can’t know that when he was zapped, it wasn’t caused by the child who happened to be riding by on a bicycle at that precise moment. The next thing you know, your dog develops a fear of children on bicycles, and eventually, bites a child riding by on a bike. People say, “It was completely out of the blue.” Not to the dog.

B: You refer to a number of trainers who “crossed over” from using punitive/coercive methods to positive reinforcement. Could you tell us about that?

MHP: I cite a very well-known trainer who describes a seminal moment in her training career, in which her own dog—with whom she did competition obedience—actually ran and hid from her when it was time to begin a training session. In that moment, she asked herself, “Why is my dog hiding from me?” Then it hit her: her dog was afraid of her.

B: So this trainer realized that she herself was a stressor—a source of fear and pain—in her own dog’s life. As you point out, this is an unfortunate but common side effect of coercive training methods.

MHP: Yes, but before we get to that, I want to clarify that it’s not a matter of people being unkind, or not loving their dogs. These people love their dogs every bit as much as anyone. But living in a culture saturated by coercion, in which so many social institutions are structured to use threat or punishment to modify behavior, can blind us to what we’re actually doing. Coercing comes naturally to many of us because that’s what we’ve always known. We then visit the same sort of treatment on our own children—among whom many of us include our dogs.

For centuries, all sorts of punitive and abusive methods have been propounded as being the “right”—indeed, the necessary—way to raise our dependents. Twenty years ago, it was practically impossible to find a book on dog training that did not instruct you in the methodology of abuse.

That’s why I give the example in my book of my own childhood dog. She was truly the soul of sweetness, with no behavioral issues to speak of. But since we didn’t know how to properly housebreak her, we took the advice of a standard “How to Raise Your Puppy” book. Now, I can hardly bear to think about what we did to this dog, who was uncomprehending and completely at our mercy. We loved her. But did we know any better? No.

B: A lot of us can empathize with that guilt. But, as Maya Angelou said, “You do your best, and when you know better, you do better.” Now we do know better; science has proven—and you go into great detail about this in your book, from many angles—that positive reinforcement is the most effective training method. Can you elaborate?

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Lee Harrington is the author of the best-selling memoir, Rex and the City: A Woman, a Man, and a Dysfunctional Dog (Random House, 2006), and of the forthcoming novel, Nothing Keeps a Frenchman from His Lunch. emharrington.com

Photo by Raphael Pierson-Sante

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