Can you train a chicken to dance, or a rat to run an obstacle course? Karen Pryor has done both and she is the author of Don’t Shoot the Dog, a highly reviewed book on the science of behavior and the use of positive reinforcement in training. I recently read this book and it changed the way I train my dog, my horses, my riding students, and even how I motivate myself.
As I mentioned earlier, I have become increasing interested in positive reinforcement training. One of the first books that I read on the science of behavior was Don’t Shoot the Dog. This book discusses positive reinforcement training in a variety of situations from teaching your dog to sit and training a chicken to dance to reforming a crabby boss or irritable child.
The book starts with what reinforcement is and what constitutes positive or negative reinforcement. Reinforcement is something that increases a behavior. Positive reinforcement causes an increase in the behavior as the subject works to increase the positive stimulus (praise, food, comfort), and negative reinforcement causes the subject to work to avoid that stimulus (pressure, scolding). Both types can be used to shape behaviors, which was the next chapter in Don’t Shoot the Dog. Shaping is the process of reinforcing a behavior to make it what you want. I found this very helpful and applicable to horse training. For example, when we first ask our horse to step on the trailer, we praise the first forward step towards the trailer. The praise reinforces going towards the trailer. The next time we may require several steps before we stop and praise, thereby shaping the behavior or making it better. Or back to the chicken, a treat and reinforcer are given each time the chicken happens to move to the left. With patience and good timing, the chicken can learn to do circles to the left (accomplishing chicken dancing). (By the way, I have never trained a chicken, but we do have a homing pigeon at the farm, so perhaps I should start with him!)
Throughout the book, there is discussion of how understanding our own behavior can help us learn new skills and get rid of bad habits. For example, when learning a new sport, we will pick up the skills much faster if we give ourselves praise and a mental “pat on the back” when we succeed and ignore the mistakes. The more we hound ourselves over our own mistakes, the slower our learning.
What also really struck me in this book was the author’s experiences in training animals such as dolphins, rats, and chickens. I believe the success that trainers can have with these animals prove that positive reinforcement works and gets great results. You can’t put a bridle on a dolphin to direct it, or scold a chicken, that just won’t work! The only way to train these animals is through positive reinforcement, so why not use more with our horses? In short, I highly recommend this book for anyone to read. Even if you don’t train animals, understanding the basic concepts and motivations for behavior is something that everyone needs.