Don’t Shoot the Dog!

Like all great books, I was recommended to read Karen Pryor’s “Don’t Shoot the Dog” for at least a year. I finally started it and it has quickly become one of those books that I am immediately trying out what I’m learning from it in my day-to-day life.

Pryor’s focus is on using positive reinforcement methods to change behavior. Positive reinforcement means acknowledging the behavior you desire with some kind of reward, which can be praise, a pretty yummy treat, or affection. As a dolphin trainer, Pryor shares many practical examples of how to train animals to learn simple commands as well as fun tricks. Reading her book, I did not expect to gain so much knowledge that transcends into relationships with others around me as well as how I fuel or encourage my own bad habits!

In our world, we’re so rarely rewarded positively when we do something right. Rather, we’re only reminded of how we are failing or when we are not doing what is desired of us. And we do this to ourselves too!

Last night I picked up a pool stick for the first time and thought, “Mmmkay. This feels awkward to hold. My hand-eye coordination sucks and this is going to be an anxiety-ridden, embarrassing disaster.” Due to reading Don’t Shoot the Dog earlier that afternoon, I recognized that this thought was quite negative and not the kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that I wanted to set the evening’s activities with. So I thought I’d try a little bit of positive reinforcement on myself…

By the way, what I know about pool: girls on tv always look sexy doing it and manage to lean/sit provocatively on the edge of the pool table to make unbelievable shots.

What I don’t know about pool: THE RULES, how to hold a pool stick, any technique to actually hit the queue ball and get one of the other balls to go in the direction of a certain pocket.

Going with this knowledge, I set a goal for myself that I knew was possible: hit the queue ball and get it to hit another ball. If I could do that somewhat-consistently, I would be very impressed with myself. I watched other pool players to see how they were holding their pool sticks and how they were looking at the table and eyeing up a trajectory to score a shot. What I quickly became aware of was how often people swore after missing a shot. In my mind, this made me recognize the opportunity I had! If I actually achieved my goal, I would celebrate silently and say small praises in my head. Things like, “good eye”, “nice shot”, “way to go”, and “look at you!” At first, I felt super silly. I felt like I was talking to myself like I would talk to my dog.  It didn’t take long to notice that my anxious feelings and fears of embarrassment weren’t present. I was having fun! And I felt GOOD about what I was working toward. I started to feel super proud of myself, like a kid with a work of art for the fridge. Once, out loud, I actually said, “Hey! Check me out! I just hit the ball 3 turns in a row!” By the second round, I was getting the balls in the pockets and doing a happy dance or two.

Little phrases of praise go a long way! Every other shot I took, I would high five my pool partner too so that would be an extra reinforcer.

In the grand scheme of life, Don’t Shoot the Dog has made me believe it’s very simple: we would be more likely to continue a task or behavior if we received positive rewards, whether they are food, praise, or affection.


Sit-click-chip. For a dog who loves banana chips…that’s all ya gotta do.

Training ourselves to be more kind and compassionate can be the doozy. With loved ones who know how to push my buttons, it feels so difficult to encourage the positive behavior instead of blowing up over the stress-inducing behavior. I just want to let them know that they are being a jerk! You say you’re not a patient person? No, you’re just an _____.

Obviously, that kind of reaction wouldn’t make things go over very well! Ha.

Positive reinforcement has been really fun for me to learn about and try personally, with animal friends, and in my own teaching. Reader, this is a book that is so easy to read and understand. All you need is a cozy red chair and a ready attitude! It is so worth putting your phone, laptop, and all other devices away for a little bit! Trust me on this one.

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