Training dogs is something that can go either really well or have us tearing out our hair by the roots. Author Melissa Holbrook Pierson has written a book titled The Secret History of Kindness- Learning from How Dogs Learn W.W Norton & Company Inc 2015 This is not a dog training book, but it will give you insight into the inner workings of how dogs view us, and more importantly why we might be missing elements in our training of them- which can cause chaos.
As a writer, Pierson’s prose flows well and brings forth analytical discourse on effective behavioral methods in a way that reads like a novel. This is not a book to be skimmed by any means. It is a book that begins with Melissa wanting to understand her rambunctious border collie and the concepts of operant conditioning- something that dogs seem to inherently grasp quickly especially as it relates to food. As she mentions in the first chapter ” In attempting to teach her, I would receive the more important lessons. She taught me about learning, and hence about us: the ways in which all beings are similar, and the costs of not acknowledging it.”
In citing BF Skinner and Karen Pryor, it moves through different styles of training, but reinforces clicker training as one of the best methods to connect to dogs. She reveals her personal story, and also reveals that despite discussing the success of training and methods, her dog Mercy still doesn’t have a proper recall. One supposes that even some of the best methods can fail if the owner just can’t do it, but she blames that on instinct. And that’s where some of the weaker points of the book come out from hiding. It’s difficult to promote someone like BF Skinner and get all the facts right about his life and there are certainly a few here in question. I would recommend that one does their own research on his life to get a non-biased presentation of his teachings, one that is a little more balanced than in this book.
I commend Pierson for taking a different direction in this book. This one is really focused on humans and our lack of understanding different species- our rush to have other creatures fall in line with what we want as fast as we want it. There is something to be said about slowing down and really studying that dog in front of us. This book wholeheartedly embraces the concept of human kindness and being positive as much as possible. And there can’t really be anything wrong with that!