Thursday, June 5, 2008

Don't Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor

(This blog originally posted on 7/22/2006.)

Well, I've done something I don't often do. I've read a book twice. And not a fiction book either.

Don't Shoot the Dog is a collection of Karen Pryors' opinions, observations and conjecture regarding the real-life application of certain scientific principles of positive reinforcement.

The middle section of this book, Chapter 4 to be precise, is rare and useful resource. Ms. Pryor creates 10 typical household scenarios from a grouchy spouse to a cat that won't stay off the table. For each scenario, she presents a way to address the problem using a wide range of approaches from pure punishment to purely positive.

This section is absolutely invaluable to anyone who has to deal with other people or animals. It gives a way to say "if I do this... what might happen?" Or "so and so does this, I want them to do this... how can I change their behaviour?"

When I first read this book, I was new to the whole world of behavioural manipulation. Now many years and much wisdom and experience later, I read it a gain with a new and suprisingly more objective perspective.

I have never been convinced that the purely positive approach is our evolutionary destiny, and Don't Shoot the Dog reinforced me. There are wonderful things you can do with positive reinforcement, but most of the successes seem to come from the timely use of a marker signal. And when the subject does the right thing, of course he should be rewarded... But I digress. This is a review of Ms. Pryor's opinions, not mine.

For an ethologist, or anyone trying to sew together evolution, biology and behaviour, there are a lot of frayed edges in this book. But average Joe and average Jane, looking for a way to make dinner with Grandpa tolerable, will quickly pick up on the books main theme.

Reinforce the behaviours you want, while giving minimal attention to those you don't.

The most novel thing about this concept is that the behaviourists think they invented it. The underlying principle however, is really the foundation for that other social institution we call "manners". Judith Martin has written advice columns for the past few decades reflecting this approach over and over and over.

The behaviourists did explain it to us though, and gave us insight on how it works and how to refine and perfect it.

Ms. X recommends: Don't Shoot the Dog is good advice for getting along with grandpa, grandma and that annoying Aunt Bee. Chapter 4 alone is worth the price of the book."