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Thursday, November 17, 2011

"Don't Shoot the Dog" lessons for the animal trainer in everyone
by Holly Henry, Director of Marketing

In her book Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert describes her decades spent sublimating herself to lovers with the dedication of “a golden retriever and a barnacle.”

While her self-assessment was an attempt to draw attention to her thoughtless devotion and loyalty, it also struck a nerve in many of us who read the book. Yep, it’s true, we’ve all got a bit of golden retriever in us. Who doesn’t love a pat on the head and an “atta boy?” Likewise, who doesn’t cower at a heavy hand?

As an owner of a golden retriever - black lab I can say that indeed, their blind loyalty, addiction to positive reinforcement and adorable neediness are delightful characteristics that place the breed up there with the most sought-after pets in the world.

But several days into the puppyhood of a golden, one realizes one may need help directing their pet’s energy, lest one wants to come home to a disassembled Christmas tree and a shredded lampshade. (Yes, both happened to me.)

Then a zoo keeper gave me the book Don’t Shoot the Dog, by Karen Pryor. In its most basic sense, the book is about positive reinforcement - mainly for animals from dolphins to elephants to dogs. But Elizabeth Gilbert would be pleased to know its strategies apply also to spouses, bosses, colleagues and teenagers.

In fact, our Director of Animal Management Peter Pruett, suggests all animal care staff read the book.

“It’s as much about people as it is animals,” he said “It’s teaches good management and leadership skills along with positive reinforcement. Every interaction we have with staff or peers or the person in the grocery store can be improved by reinforcing good behavior. Whether you realize it or not, we are training people how to react to us. If I’m grumpy every day to the gas station attendant I’m training him to be negative to me.”

One of the first things that become apparent in Don’t Shoot the Dog is that getting rid of it would be the easiest solution. In essence, if the way to solve a problem is simply to make the source of the problem go away, we could simply get rid of the dog, fire the person or divorce the spouse.

But, both in life and pet ownership, that’s often not an option. And so Pryor guides the reader through positive reinforcement training used to manipulate training subjects into good behavior. Positive reinforcement rewards a desired behavior and causes that behavior to occur more often.

While this doesn’t sound complicated, sadly people often rely on punishment for behavior modification in animals. And, sadly again, we use the same tactics human to human.

There’s a lot I could say about Don’t Shoot the Dog, but mainly this is what I gleaned from it – positive reinforcement gets better results – in unruly golden retrievers and people. And so after reading the book, I began to apply the strategies therein to both. What I found was this – when you say “Bad dog, bad, bad dog” to a dog who tipped over the Christmas tree three hours before you got home, the dog thinks “Wow so I greet you at the door with my tail wagging and I love you more than life itself and I’m a bad dog? I’m sooooo confused!”

Likewise, when we say to colleagues or significant others “You forgot to turn off the lights, put the laundry in the dryer, feed the goldfish, (or insert your crime of choice here) . . .” they immediately think “Hey, what about all the stuff I did right? So I meet you at the door with a smile and the house smells like pot roast and you tell me I parked too close to the garage door? I’m soooo confused and hey while you’re at it make your own darned pot roast next time chump.”

Instead, how about we enter the house and the first thing out of our mouth is “Wow, does that pot roast smell GREAT!”

At the risk of quoting someone far more prominent than I, Don’t Shoot the Dog made me a “kinder, gentler” person and therefore made my relationship with others (dog with lampshade on its head included) just, well, easier.

One reader described Don’t Shoot the Dog as a book “on good relations between intelligent creatures.”

And hey, who couldn’t use more of those?

posted by Keely Johnson at


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