Having spent the vast majority of my working life training animals many people over the years have asked me “whats the best advice you can give for training my ——?”. You could insert any animal into the blank, whether it was dog, cat, horse or husband and my answer was and still is the same: DON’T SHOOT THE DOG! Now I am not just trying to be sassy with that response I am serious.
When I first started as in intern working with exotic animals I was told to read many manuals and handling protocols. I was also told to read up on positive reinforcement training. This was not an entirely new subject to me, having studied animal behavior psychology in school where the effects of operant and classical conditioning are main points of study. However, the best book I have ever read in the theories of training animals did not come as required reading in school, nor was it recommended to me by the dog trainers who helped me with my first pets when I was young. This was an incredible oversight. It wasn’t until I began my work with exotics that the book fell into my hands. It is, in fact, called DON’T SHOOT THE DOG! by Karen Pryor. It may sound like I am glamorizing the book here a little but I kid you not when I say that this is the professional animal trainers equivalent to the bible. Everything you need to know you will find within its pages.
Karen Pryor began her career working as a marine mammal trainer. She had trained all kinds of animals from fish, to dolphins, to chimps, to even humans. Simple tricks, like saying thank you as a reinforcer to your husband for clearing his own plate from the dinner table, to shaping his behavior so that within a few weeks you’ll have him doing all the post cooking dishes, are given and clearly outlined. These tricks can even be used on yourself. Having trouble motivating yourself to go to an exercise class afterwork? Try a small piece of your favorite treat as you walk in the doors or pull into the parking lot.
She also introduces the most effective training tool ever invented. The Clicker. The clicker is a bridge between behavior and reinforcer, the key to its unmistakeable success is the reaction time. Being able to click and note the right behavior at the exact moment that it happens is by far the most important tool in the trainers arsenal (I suppose second to the book that teaches how to correctly use it). Karen also helps in clearing up the age old statement of “it’s not you, it’s me”, when it comes to training. Many dog trainers often mistakenly believe that it is their dogs fault that they haven’t quite learned how to sit on command, or heel when on a leash. But, as Karen clearly describes, it is never, ever the trainees fault, but rather the trainers. When it comes to training animals it is in fact always me (the trainers), and never you (the trainees) fault. “It’s not you, its me” is a saying all trainers need to be able to come to terms with. DON’T SHOOT THE DOG! will help with that.
So if you are having trouble teaching your cat to stay off the counters, teaching your dog to ‘stay’, or wish your kids would learn to put their clothes in the hamper, let me pass on the best advice I was ever given: DONT SHOOT THE DOG, CAT, KIDS, HUSBAND, ETC. and buy Karen Pryor’s book instead.