The best books that prove we don’t deserve dogs

Melissa Holbrook Pierson Author Of The Secret History of Kindness: Learning from How Dogs Learn
By Melissa Holbrook Pierson

Who am I?

I was one of those little girls for whom all imaginary best friends were animals. I fantasized about running away to the woods with only a dog. I daydreamed endlessly about horses (and grew up to write a book about the strange and compelling relationship between women and horses). When I was adult enough to get my own dog, the love exploded like a firecracker. I wanted to learn everything I could about her—which of course led to learning perhaps even more about myself. My interests extend to the junctures of the natural world and that of humanity; I’ve also written books about the nature of home (The Place You Love Is Gone) and motorcycling.

I wrote...

The Secret History of Kindness: Learning from How Dogs Learn

By Melissa Holbrook Pierson,

Book cover of The Secret History of Kindness: Learning from How Dogs Learn

What is my book about?

Once upon a time I got a difficult—and scary smart—puppy. I was in immediate need of help (Mercy was, in her view, perfect as she was). And so began a journey to the origins of the psychology of behavior and how to apply it to teach with kindness. Mercy led me to some of the great minds of contemporary dog training, whose science-based modality is known as “positive reinforcement.” Its foundation is B. F. Skinner’s The Behavior of Organisms, which lays out the law of operant conditioning. All higher animals, from pigeons to humans, learn exactly the same way. Barely a day goes by now that doesn’t see an article trumpeting a new discovery about how we get addicted to technology or gambling or food...but Skinner had already explained it in a 1938 book.

Listen to dogs. They have much to teach—about them, about us, about kindness.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Don't Shoot the Dog: The Art of Teaching and Training

Why did I love this book?

Karen Pryor has done more to popularize the application of Skinner’s ideas through “clicker training” than anyone else. In proof, this entertaining and eminently approachable book has been continually in print since 1984. Curiously, for a book that has been so influential among dog trainers, there is little in it about dogs outside of the title. Instead, Pryor, who began her career as a trainer of marine mammals, focuses on basic techniques for making anyone an eager learner. Whether it’s your teenager or your Doberman, the principles of positive reinforcement are the same: learning itself is a profound reinforcer. It feels good to “get it.”

When a dog (or your child or husband) figures out which behavior gets the “click,” you can practically see the light go on in their brain. Don’t Shoot the Dog helped me understand why Mercy was overjoyed to see the clicker in my hand. Although I liked to think of my dog as a canine Einstein, the fact is that most dogs are much smarter than we think. Only by teaching in the way their brains are hardwired will their true intelligence fully reveal itself. Implementing the principles of behavior modification so clearly laid out by Karen Pryor is the first step.

By Karen Pryor,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Don't Shoot the Dog as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Karen Pryor’s clear and entertaining explanation of behavioral training methods made Don’t Shoot the Dog a bestselling classic with revolutionary insights into animal—and human—behavior.

In her groundbreaking approach to improving behavior, behavioral biologist Karen Pryor says, “Whatever the task, whether keeping a four-year-old quiet in public, housebreaking a puppy, coaching a team, or memorizing a poem, it will go fast, and better, and be more fun, if you know how to use reinforcement.”

Now Pryor clearly explains the underlying principles of behavioral training and reveals how this art can be applied to virtually any common situation. And best of all,…

Book cover of The Culture Clash: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding the Relationship Between Humans and Domestic Dogs

Why did I love this book?

Jean Donaldson may be the most brilliant, certainly the most blunt and forthright, thinker on the subject of how dogs are, rather than how we wish them to be. In The Culture Clash, she lights dynamite under some of our fondest myths about why dogs do the things they do. The book reads like a manifesto. It forms a foundational philosophy for modern, evidence-based training, and it vigorously takes apart every dissimulating notion that dogs don’t already know what’s best for themselves. Reading this book for the first time was literally thrilling for me—my copy is filled with double underlinings and multitudes of stars in the margins at so many of the pronouncements that amount to a bill of rights for dogs. She knows whereof she speaks: she is the founder and principal instructor of the Academy for Dog Trainers, and a scintillating speaker at conferences promoting the humane education of our companion animals.

By Jean Donaldson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Culture Clash as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The book that has shaped modern dog training and ownership with its unique and scientifically sound recognition of the "cultural" differences between dogs and humans. Dogs can't read so you need to in order to really understand your dog.

Book cover of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend

Why did I love this book?

There is always something more behind the image of the celebrities we love to watch on the screen, and it’s even truer when the star is a dog. Susan Orlean writes in her signature propulsive style of the life and times of the German shepherd who became an American icon. Of the puppy who was discovered in France by an American soldier in World War I, Orlean says, "He was born in 1918 and he never died." Rin Tin Tin was in many ways a symbol—the aspirational vessel for a nation’s striving—even as he was himself, a loyal friend to the man who saved him, receptive to any amount of psychic weight humans asked him to bear. This book is a beautiful portrait of how a dog can rise to the highest occasion. 

By Susan Orlean,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Rin Tin Tin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Rin Tin Tin was born on a battlefield in France towards the end of WW1. He died in 1932, supposedly in the arms of Jean Harlow, the original 'blonde bombshell', epic in death as he was in life. In his prime, he was one of Hollywood's the biggest stars. He received two thousand fan letters a month, had jewels, furs and a private driver, had his paw-print set for posterity on Hollywood Boulevard and was credited with saving Warner Brothers from bankruptcy - twice. His owner, Lee Duncan, was so completely devoted to him that when his wife sued for…

Book cover of Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon

Why did I love this book?

By turns celebratory, heartbreaking, and multilayered, Bronwen Dickey’s examination of the changing status of the pit bull over time forms a portrait of a changing society itself. A dog breed can be a mirror to human culture and concerns, and perhaps no breed has shown us our own image—in all its valor and its blackness—with quite the sharpness as the pit bull. Dickey’s book is a masterpiece of the journalist’s art, with a big dash of heart and an even greater passion for truth.

By Bronwen Dickey,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Pit Bull as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The controversial story of one infamous breed of dog--a New York Times Bestseller ("Animals" list).

When Bronwen Dickey brought her new dog home, she saw no traces of the infamous viciousness in her affectionate pit bull. Which made her wonder: How had the breed—beloved by Teddy Roosevelt and Helen Keller—come to be known as a brutal fighter? Dickey’s search for answers takes her from nineteenth-century New York dogfighting pits to early twentieth‑century movie sets, from the battlefields of Gettysburg to struggling urban neighborhoods. In this illuminating story of how a popular breed became demonized--and what role humans have played in…

Book cover of The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs

Why did I love this book?

You’ll have picked up a theme here: dog behavior is pretty simple. It’s human behavior, illuminated by how we act toward dogs, that’s damnably complicated. In this book a supremely well-informed behaviorist and trainer turns her scope not on the animals she’s studied so intently, but on the humans who interact with them. Only in that context can we understand why our pets do what they do: they do stuff because we are another kind of animal entirely. As primates, we persist in treating everyone else as if they were a primate, too. McConnell asks us to “get out of” ourselves—to think like a dog, to understand the needs of the Other, which is the essence of compassion. This book is a rare beauty: thoughtful, kind, ultimately radical in its request that we learn a little about the species we bring into a human world to unwittingly demand it adapt to another language of being without adequate translation.

By Patricia McConnell,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Other End of the Leash as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Learn to communicate with your dog—using their language
“Good reading for dog lovers and an immensely useful manual for dog owners.”—The Washington Post
An Applied Animal Behaviorist and dog trainer with more than twenty years’ experience, Dr. Patricia McConnell reveals a revolutionary new perspective on our relationship with dogs—sharing insights on how “man’s best friend” might interpret our behavior, as well as essential advice on how to interact with our four-legged friends in ways that bring out the best in them.
After all, humans and dogs are two entirely different species, each shaped by its individual evolutionary heritage. Quite simply,…

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