Q&A with Melissa Holbrook Pierson

Author of The Secret History of Kindness
By Lee Harrington, February 2015

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?

MHP: It’s more effective because it’s true. I don’t want to sound sanctimonious, but in every case history can provide, things become easier and better when we work with fact rather than tradition, which, for lack of an alternative, often makes things extremely difficult. When you believe the Earth is flat, you are not aware that it might be easier to head west in order to gain the east. Teaching is so much more fluid, and kinder, to both student and teacher when it follows the laws of operant conditioning as well as other discoveries in natural science. We are in a great moment, one in which neurology continues to complement Skinner’s findings in illuminating how the brain works.

B: One thing I was startled to discover in your book is that the military uses positive reinforcement to train their marine animals. Does that mean that even they no longer cling to the outdated dominant, alpha-male, punitive model?

MHP: You’ve hit on one of the most interesting paradoxes in the whole thing. Critics of positive reinforcement call us “cookie pushers” and criticize us for being too kind, too lenient. But if we just look at what works, and strip away all the value-laced judgment on technique, the fact is that in almost all cases, positive reinforcement turns out to be the most efficient, most effective method. Believe me, if the navy could find a better way to train, it would; all it cares about is what works.

Several countries, such as Belgium and the Netherlands, are now reputed to use only positive reinforcement training in their military canine programs, and in the U.S., we are moving solidly in that direction. Reliability is the sole factor driving this movement. As I say in the book, it is not sentimental foible to train without coercion. There are data proving that it works best.

The topic of the crossover trainer is a seminal example in the whole revolution toward positive reinforcement. These are individuals who were at the height of their power and careers. They had no reason to change their methods because what they were doing was “working,” so far as they knew. But something cracked open in their hearts once what I can only call empathy opened their eyes to the way their dogs’ reactions told them something was wrong.

So I think the crossover is not fundamentally crossing from one technique to another, but rather, crossing from an egocentric point of view to an empathic one, where you actually look at what the dog is expressing, and realize: “I was blind, but now I see.”

B: Your book is full of wonderful “light-bulb moments.” Can you share some examples?

MHP: Almost everyone I know who tries clicker training experiences one moment when he or she sees the dog “get” it—an undeniable expression of happiness and eagerness. It’s the learning moment, when the doors of communication open wide. And you literally get high on it. When you see someone you love happy because of something you’ve done or given, that’s something you want to replicate. Seeing them happy makes you happy. That’s what happens with a clicker and a dog. You see this transformation and you become transformed, too.

It’s hallelujah, it’s eureka, it’s everything all at once. In a way, it’s the big bang. It’s the creation of a new universe, gaining a new language. Suddenly, you’ve discovered something. Using the language of learning results in such beautiful moments.

B: Can one experience similarly joyful moments using punitive training methods? In other words, do punitive training methods employ this language of learning?

MHP: The effect on the learner, both in the moment and later, is dramatically different. First, the nature of punishment is such that it only stops a behavior; it does not give instruction on what is desired. Then, there’s its effect on the brain. Pain (or the threat thereof) triggers a response from the reactive part, the amygdala. In moments of imminent crisis, it’s where we quickly decide what to do: fight, flight or freeze. Stress hormones are released to get us to act. In moments of fear or pain, the reasoning and rational parts of the brain shut down to conserve resources. We can’t learn; we need to save ourselves. The brain of a dog cowering or feeling pain is caught in a neurochemical stress cycle. Not a condition conducive to figuring things out.

On the other hand, a dog who anticipates a reward, who tries to figure out how to get the good stuff, is fully able to engage the thinking part of his brain. All this thinking and learning makes him happy. If you remember times when learning excited you, you know the feeling. It’s the moment when you can almost feel your mind stretching to get more of that sensation of wonderment.

This is almost visible in clicker-trained dogs. They start to play, to try novel behaviors. They manifest an eagerness to learn more. This is the opposite of what happens in a moment of terror, or even milder forms of distress. Fear forecloses options. Imagine asking people to do crossword puzzles as they’re fleeing a burning building. In stressful situations, we cannot access the part of our brain that is capable of such work, and neither can dogs.

B: This leads into the notion of “learned helplessness,” which we see in dogs trained using force.

MHP: Exactly. Learned helplessness occurs when you don’t understand when or why the punishment—the literal or figurative electric shock—is coming, because it seems to be random. The safest course of action is simply to offer no behavior at all, to stand pat. This kind of freezing is sometimes mistaken for “calm submission” in dogs who have been forced to submit. But they haven’t truly learned to be calm. Rather, they’ve learned to avoid an arbitrary unpleasantness by doing nothing.

You also see this in students engaged in traditional pedagogy, which often relies on threat of punishment for misbehavior instead of reinforcement for desired behavior. Kids learn to toe the line, but they don’t do much else. I personally think it’s sad; by choosing a coercive methodology, we deprive our students of the great possibilities of exploring their brain’s farther reaches.

B: Your book reminded me how much fun positive-reinforcement training can be, both for the trainer and the trainee. And conversely, how unpleasant it can be to use punishing, coercive methods. For many of us, using punitive training methods makes us feel terrible.

MHP: That’s because, from a behaviorist perspective, reinforcers act both on the subject and the teacher. Punishment, as I learned to my astonishment, can act as a reinforcer to the person who practices it: that is one of its dangers. You can end up practicing it because it is reinforcing to you. It certainly has immediate effect, which can feel good. And as Skinner taught, what feels good ends up being repeated.

But then you see its effect in your subject. Deciding which path to take brings us to the subject of empathy. Is your goal to understand how your dog understands? The revolution in kindness will continue to grow, I think, if people simply stop and ask themselves, Would I like this done to me? I dare say very few people, projecting themselves into their dog’s mind, would actively choose to have their windpipe constricted every three minutes over learning how to walk on a loose leash. Especially if being walked on a loose leash involved treats or being released to go sniff an interesting smell.

B: How does positive reinforcement reinforce the trainer?

MHP: A great bonus of positive reinforcement is that you first have to watch and learn: your dog is called upon to tell you what she finds reinforcing. It causes us to open and embrace, rather than close down and demand. It’s a gift to both parties.

B: What are the most important things you’ve learned from clicker training and/or operant conditioning?

MHP: The most important things that clicker training can teach, finally, are about life. First, maybe, is the importance of self-control. The more I can do that, the better teacher I am, also the better human being I am. In a philosophical as well as literal way, it’s about orienting to “yes” instead of “no.” Yes is a bigger place, full of potential, full of joy. It’s a little like focusing on gratitude, on what you have as opposed to what you lack.

Clicker training leaks into all aspects of life. I can be a better friend, a better listener. It teaches compassion. It teaches the importance of recognizing that so many of the things we believe are essential are really rather arbitrary. For one, language. We realize that our language is not universal at all.

The importance of understanding the language that our beloveds speak is a crucial aspect of positive reinforcement. An ancillary gift is that it causes us to consider someone else’s desires as equal to our own. Why should my desire that my dog do this or that take precedence over her desires? In order to use this methodology successfully, you have to ask your subject: What do you want? Then stop and look and listen to find out.

I think it’s a huge privilege to have this glimpse into another species’ world. With other training methods, you don’t really get that privilege.

B: Can you share one useful training tip for those readers who might be new to the joys of clicker training?

MHP: One of the most powerful tools I found actually comes from classical, not operant, conditioning: associate your dog’s name, spoken with a specific intonation, with the receipt of something good. This simple act has allowed me to give my dog some of the freedom she craves because I’ve greatly increased the chances that she will come back to me. She understands that coming when she hears this particular sound is going to result in a pleasant outcome.

I can let my dog off leash (only, of course, in areas that I know to be as safe from man-made hazards as I can humanly determine), and it all started in the kitchen. I would say her name and give her a treat; my particular dog has informed me of the paramount value of edibles, while to another dog, a tug toy might be preferred. I could see fireworks exploding in her brain. I could practically hear her think: You mean, all I do is go to her when I hear that sound and I get a reward? Then I can go away again and have more fun? Oh boy!

This to me is the best and simplest tip. Once you’ve successfully associated the dog’s name with something good, be careful in the future to avoid pairing it with something negative or undesirable. Otherwise you get what is called a “poisoned” cue.

B: This makes me think of your wonderful statement: “It all comes down to: do you want to train with yes or with no?”

If I had to boil down the whole book to one word, it would be “yes.” Isn’t it what we all want to hear, more than anything else?

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.