Monday, June 15, 2009

Must see TV

Tomorrow Karen Pryor, one of the pioneers who helped to make the use of operant conditioning widespread in dog training (better known as "clicker training") will be on Good Morning America to promote the release of her new book "Reaching The Animal Mind". If you are familiar with Karen I'm sure it will be an interesting bit (although probably pretty basic and short, given the show's format).

If you aren't familiar with Karen, and you have any interest in dog training whatsoever, then get thee to a bookstore and buy her classic "Don't Shoot The Dog". This is NOT a cookbook approach to how to teach sit, stay etc, but a really good treatise on the theory behind operant conditioning. Before you say yuck, it is also very easy to read and quite entertaining. This little book will give you the tools to solve almost any training problem there is, you just have to practice using them and then use your imagination a little bit. Oh, and then put in the WORK to get the job done (that's where I usually fall down!). Karen also has a website,, which has lots of good resources as well as carrying all of her books and related topics by other authors for sale.

I saw Karen give a seminar at the Ohio Veterinary Medical Assoc. annual conference way back in the early 90's, probably around 1992. At the time, it was double billed under animal behavior AND staff management as her techniques applied equally well to training either! At the time, I think my first dog Levi had his CDX and was training in utility; I had already listened to some poor advice (and probably some good advice that I implemented poorly) and had caused some stress related issues. Her approach totally changed how I trained my dog. While she is not a competition obedience (or other sport) trainer, I think she has done more to advance dog training than anyone in the past 25 years, certainly.

Karen started as a dolphin trainer and a follower of BF Skinner many years prior to becoming involved with dog training. Her methods have gained popularity in horse, bird, and even cat training as well and are used in zoos all over the world, both to train animals to perform but also to teach them basic behaviors which make caring for them so much easier on a daily basis.

I do not claim to be a "pure positive" trainer, but my relationship with all of my dogs has definitely benefited from using some of her techniques. Learning together how to "free shape" behaviors actively got my dogs involved in the training process; instead of being something I would do TO THEM it became something we did together. Training became all about communicating with my dog...some days better than others, of course! Even my cats come running when I get out the clicker and vie for their share of training time.

So please, turn off the Dog Whisperer and check out Karen- your dog will be so glad you did!

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