THE SECRET HISTORY OF KINDNESS by Melissa Holbrook Pierson


Learning from How Dogs Learn
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Pierson (The Man Who Would Stop at Nothing: Long-Distance Motorcycling's Endless Road, 2011, etc.) delivers a fascinating if sprawling exposition on the history and science of animal behavior.

Beginning with a close examination of methods she had to learn—and unlearn—when training her own dogs, the author probes the history of how humans have attempted to relate more closely to animals with whom they feel an affinity but find a daunting challenge when attempting to domesticate (“it is rarely a good idea to own a dog much smarter than you are”). How to bridge that communicative chasm is the main thrust of the book, which is rooted in the findings of behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner. Skinner’s animal experiments from the mid-1930s, though pointed at illuminating the human condition, revealed the absolute power of reward. “There is no more powerful motive to learning, or survival, than fulfillment of essential needs,” writes the author, and animal trainers coming from Skinner’s camp have since believed positive reinforcement is key to need fulfillment achieved through operant conditioning, or “the manner in which learned behavior is acquired.” Pierson’s account is provocative since this line of thinking bucks the traditional behaviorist school of thought found in dog training in particular, which relies on a “classic conception of teaching as inseparable from threat and compulsion.” Punishment and deprivation of essential needs, as practiced by “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan and a number of zoos, Pierson shows, fly in the face of copious scientific evidence showing that animals learn most effectively through positive reinforcement. The author goes on to extrapolate this finding into broader realms of human commerce, such as politics, with varying degrees of success, creating at times a rambling discourse.

Though the prose is often florid, Pierson convincingly demonstrates that when it comes to relating to man’s best friend, one doesn’t have to be cruel to be kind.

Pub Date: May 4th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-393-06619-7
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 2015


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