The Secret History of Kindness: Companion Animal Psychology Book Club

The book for December was The Secret History of Kindness: Learning from how dogs learn by Melissa Holbrook Pierson.

The book cover of The Secret History of Kindness

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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The Secret History of Kindness: Learning from How Dogs Learn is a history of clicker training, from B.F. Skinner’s studies of operant conditioning and the development of the field of behaviourism through to present day dog training.

It covers Skinner’s rise and fall within Psychology, including the devastating effect of Chomsky’s review of Skinner's book Verbal Behaviour. It also details the work of Marian and Keller Breland via Animal Behavior Enterprises, Bob Bailey, Karen Pryor, Jean Donaldson, and the author’s own experiences of attending Clicker Expo.

Interwoven through the history are stories about Pierson’s own dogs, and what it was like to learn to live with them and train them. She is a fine writer and I enjoyed these stories very much.

For someone who espouses positive reinforcement, Pierson somehow fails to teach her dog to come when called. But the book is not intended to be a guide to dog training – it is very much a history of the development of modern dog training methods using operant conditioning. The kindness of the title refers to kind training methods that use positive reinforcement.

While the dog goes romping through the undergrowth, we are treated to philosophical musings about life with a canine. These discussions are an interesting part of the book, covering topics such as the treatment of zoo animals and why some people are so quick to use physical punishment when other options are available.

The meticulously-researched footnotes are packed with interesting asides, but it’s possible to leave them to dip back into later.

“Dog training is both exquisitely simple and achingly hard,” she writes (p219).

Anyone who has trained a dog will find something of interest in this book.

Learn more about the Companion Animal Psychology Book Club.

If you’ve read the book too, what did you think of it?

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