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

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Karen Pryor

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

Why 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.


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

By Jean Donaldson

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

Why 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.


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Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend

By Susan Orlean

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend

Why 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. 


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Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon

By Bronwen Dickey

Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon

Why 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.


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

By Patricia McConnell

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

Why 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.


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