Early in 2017, I started doing some casual research on dog training because I wanted to teach Yoshi some new tricks. It ultimately led me to some great dog training forums, which led me to researching clicker training, which led me to books on positive reinforcement training. After reading these two books, I realized I have much more studying to go to truly understand the animal that shares my home.
I’m reviewing these two books together because of their similarities and they’re both by the very experienced animal trainer, Karen Pryor.
Don’t Shoot the Dog!
I immediately disliked the title for the book, and I liked it less the more I read. This isn’t a problem solving manual for dangerous animals. (Get a professional opinion on your options if you own such a dog.) Instead, it's a deep dive into positive reinforcement training theory. It focuses on the psychology behind why such training works and what needs to be done in order to “click,” or cue, correctly. The title is just an attention grabber, and Pryor mentioned in Reaching the Animal Mind that she hates the name, too. Her publishers won on that.
Don’t Shoot the Dog! also acts as an exhaustive dictionary on the terms that come into play in positive reinforcement. It was very thorough, and even though I understood the concepts pretty quickly there were always more examples to read so I think it could've been edited for redundancy a bit. That's why I lowered my rating, but the content is still solid.
Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Reaching the Animal Mind
Reaching the Animal Mind assumes you already understand the basics of clicker training or positive reinforcement training. It's less of a psychology book and has more stories from Pryor's work training various animals, such as horses, many dogs, feisty dolphins, and cats. She even worked with autistic children on occasion. I loved her observation on the mutually beneficial relationship between the fishermen and dolphins in Brazil. The anecdote about guide dog schools converting to clicker training after proven success for the dogs might’ve made me tear up a bit.
As an FYI: Pryor did do a lot of her early research in the 60's and 70's with dolphins that had been captured or born in captivity at a Sea Life Park in Hawaii. If that's something that bothers you, I get it, just be aware that much of her dolphin studies were there although she did do a good amount of wild dolphin observation. As much as zoos and water parks make me sad, I know we wouldn't understand animals as well without them and sometimes they're necessary for endangered species. With all these stories and insights, Reaching the Animal Mind is probably the best summary out there on Pryor's career.
“Animals trained in the new way are apt to be curious and friendly, instead of reserved and evasive. They take an interest in what you are doing. They are always willing to experiment and to learn new things.”
Reaching the Animal Mind made me feel like I could become an animal trainer if I only I had the time. It's an encouraging, positive look at the relationship between humans and all animals and how clicker training broadens and strengthens that bond.
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
If you’re a believer in alpha dog theory and that animals need physical force to listen, I very strongly recommend reading one or both of these books. It's easy to assume Ceasar Milan-esque training is the most recent research because of his famous name, but dominance training is out. It’s been out for decades and popular media hasn’t caught up. These books will enlighten you to the modern science of dog training.
I taught Yoshi several new tricks after reading these, each just taking a few sessions no more than ten minutes long. I saw the light bulb “Aha!” moment go off in his eyes when he understood what clicking was after just a few clicks, and it was so rewarding! Any confusion on his part is always clearly my fault for not communicating well (he's a German Shepard, he's smart). He’s always happy to let me work on my training skills because it means treats. Clicker training WORKS.
You can learn the things in these books by watching YouTube videos or reading articles from reputable sources and training forums (like r/dogtraining). Most of those, however, won’t go quite into the depth that Pryor does which is why I recommend these!