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The Kindness of Dogs: New Book Explains Why Cesar's Gotta Go

"The Secret History of Kindness" extols behaviorism and positive reinforcement.

When Melissa Holbrook Pierson's new book called The Secret History of Kindness: Learning From How Dogs Learn arrived at my door, I was really excited to read it. As I read through it, my excitement didn't wane, but I rapidly came to see that it was much more than "Dog training 101." And, I mean this in a very positive way.

I sat down to write this review a number of times. I also stopped to go back to the book and realized that each time I did, I learned something new. So, I decided to post this now so other readers could learn about the book and form their own opinions.

I also was completely convinced by Pierson's case for the importance of kindness in all of our interactions with nonhuman animals (animals), although I'm an easy sell, for I've been pushing this idea for a long time. Nonetheless, I liked how she presented her case and I think others will too.

To begin, the book's description reads:

"An intimate, surprising look at man’s best friend and what the leading philosophies of dog training teach us about ourselves. Years back, Melissa Holbrook Pierson brought home a border collie named Mercy, without a clue of how to get her to behave. Stunned after hiring a trainer whose immediate rapport with Mercy seemed magical, Pierson began delving into the techniques of positive reinforcement. She made her way to B.F. Skinner, the behavioral psychologist who started it all, the man who could train a pigeon to dance in minutes and whose research on how behavior is acquired has ramifications for military dolphin trainers, athletes, dancers, and, as he originally conceived, society at large. To learn more, Pierson met with a host of fascinating animal behaviorists, going behind the scenes to witness the relationships between trainers and animals at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, and to the in-depth seminars at a Clicker Expo where all the dogs but hers seemed to be learning new tricks. The often startling story of what became of a pathbreaking scientist’s work is interwoven with a more personal tale of how to understand the foreign species with whom we are privileged to live. Pierson draws surprising connections in her exploration of how kindness works to motivate all animals, including the human one."

Let me say right off that I learned a lot from my first read of this book, and I continue to learn more as I reread certain parts or just flip through it randomly. (I wish there was an index because it would have made it easier to find some of the sections to which I wanted to return, and I wish the chapters had titles that could be used as guides.)

There are many personal stories about Pierson and her border collie named Mercy, and her book is very rich in ideas and in raising important theoretical, academic, and practical questions. If you want a simple "how to do it" training guide for dogs, this is not the one for you. However, if you want to learn about how using positive reinforcement and kindness are the only ways to train—I like to say, teach—dogs and other animals, this book could become your bible. I think many people who choose to share their life with any animal being would get a lot out of reading this book.

To summarize briefly, Pierson provides a detailed analysis and uncompromising defense of B.F. Skinner's behaviorism—she takes issue with renowned scholars who get him wrong, including Noam Chomsky and Frans de Waal—and at times, the book has a biographical tone.

Her claim that Skinner is "arguably one of the most maligned and misunderstood scientists since Darwin" (p. 49) is one that deserves careful consideration. She argues that Skinner meant behaviorism to be much more than merely a mechanistic way to view all animals, including humans. There also are copious notes that contain a lot of useful information for those who want to go beyond the text. However, readers can easily see where Pierson is going without reading the notes.

Goodbye Cesar Millan

Many people likely will be drawn to this book because of the word "dog" in its title. And, this is a good reason to read the book and the use of "dog" is not at all misleading. Dog trainers—I prefer to call them dog teachers—need to learn the principles and details of ethology and psychology and, of course, many do. And, people will accept and reject those to which they don't feel much allegiance. Pierson had to learn a lot when she chose to live with Mercy. She writes, "It is rarely a good idea to own a dog much smarter than you. With Mercy, we simply didn't know what we were getting into." (p. 18). So, good for her for learning more about Professor Skinner and becoming a Skinner scholar, and good for Mercy for getting her to do so.

As I read the book the first time, I kept asking myself, so what about the "dog whisperer," Cesar Millan? I'm no fan of his techniques and neither is Pierson (please see "Did Cesar Millan Have to Hang the Husky?" and "Holly Bites Cesar: When You Hit a Dog, There's a Price to Pay"). In her discussion of Millan, Pierson asks, "Are dogs here to do only what we say, or to be themselves?" (p. 211) She answers this question in terms of the notion of "fairness," noting, "When a dog is conflicted with what we force him to do, we punish his very nature; we nullify him. ... The exercise of what we believe is our freedom to coerce denies the dog his own freedom; to express and meet fundamental needs." (p. 211)

As for how Pierson characterizes Millan, she writes, "He does indeed appear to magically transmit ideas to dogs, although metaphysics aside, it seems clear to me (as to many others) that Millan's program is less rehabilitative than simply abusive." (p. 211) Her note about her position on Millan is worth reading. There, she discusses Prescott Breeden's essay called "Dog Whispering in the 21st Century" in which he "methodically dissects every aspect of Millan's approach to working with dogs." (pp. 211-212) And, Pierson doesn't confine herself to those people who interact with dogs in questionable and disrespectful ways. She writes, for example, "In actuality, psychologists have proved themselves some of the world's coldest, most persistent sadists. Hidden behind the window-less walls of academe's labs, the unspeakable goes on." (p. 198)

As the book winds down, Pierson begins Chapter 9 by noting, "Dog training is both exquisitely simple and achingly hard." (p. 219) I don't know anyone who would disagree with her sentiment. She goes on to write, "The misguided belief that we 'have' to punish in order to get the behaviors we desire, or that dogs are always scheming about rising up and so must be put back 'in their place,' leads us to close a golden door between one world and another. It leads us to lose out on a lot. It leads to an essential unfairness: bringing misery to the uncomprehending." (p. 228) Pierson's final sentence should also get your brain cells firing. She writes, "You get the dog you need." (p. 297)

As I wrote above, The Secret History of Kindness: Learning From How Dogs Learn is a very rich book. It extols behaviorism, positive reinforcement, and kindness in training dogs and for interacting with other animals, and Pierson shows how being kind to dogs and other animals is the only way to teach them to live, and I suppose cope, with us. I hope this brief review whets your appetite for more. I know I'll go back to this book from time to time.

Note: The few comments and replies to these comments about this book on Amazon range all over the place and may provide some useful information as to how and why people have radically different takes about what this book is all about. They did for me.

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