Reading - the Classics

Introducing “The Classics”

Every field of knowledge has books that have stood the test of time. They call it “legs” in publishing, as in “that book has legs,” because it’s going to keep walking itself into the future on the strength of its content and its impact on those who read it. Dog training is no different. Because of some game-changing authors, our dog training abilities have experienced profound changes in the last thirty years. Indeed, our perspective on the relationship between people and dogs has evolved into something as rich and nuanced as it has ever been, in part because of these books.

In honor of these important volumes, we’ve created a new section on the website for them. I’d like to tell you why these books are such game changes, and why I honestly think every serious student of dog training and behavior should read them. First, here’s my list:

Don’t Shoot the Dog, by Karen Pryor

Excel-erated Learning, by Pamela Reid

The Culture Clash, by Jean Donaldson

The Other End of the Leash (Okay, awkward. Who wrote this book anyway?)

On Talking Terms with Dogs, by Turid Rugaas.

Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook, by Barbara Handelman

Here’s why I think they deserve to be called classics, and should be on everyone’s bookshelf:

Don’t Shoot the Dog: The New Art of Teaching and Training, by Karen Pryor. First published 1999, this book was revolutionary at the time. If anything deserves to be called a classic, this is it. In spite of the title, this not just a dog training book, but the first accessible account of how to use operant conditioning, especially positive reinforcement, to influence behavior. As Pryor herself says in the Foreword, “This book is about how to train anyone—human or animal, young or old, oneself or others—to do anything that can and should be done.” The title, “Don’t Shoot the Dog,” derives from her listing the 8 ways that a behavior can be “unlearned.” Does your dog jump up onto visitors? Method one is shooting the dog (guaranteed to eliminate the behavior) and method two is “everybody’s favorite,” in spite of the fact that it rarely works. She goes on to list the methods that DO work, using examples from a variety of contexts (Ex: Kids too noisy in the car? Teach kids to yell “on cue,” (putting the behavior under stimulus control).

The principles summarized in this book, based in part on the work of B.F. Skinner, are as relevant today as they were in 1999. I encourage everyone to master the science of learning through more current programs with Karen Pryor or Dr. Susan Friedman, or learning about “behavior adjustment training” by Grisha Stewart. But Don’t Shoot the Dog is the place to start, because it summarizes the key concepts in an accessible and concise form that should be read and re-read by anyone who would like to influence the behavior of virtually anyone or anything that moves. (Rocks and water are excluded, but that’s about it!)


Excel-erated Learning: Explaining how dogs learn and how best to teach them, by Pamela J. Reid. This is probably a critically important book to read if you want to truly understand classical and operant conditioning, including how to define and apply the four operant conditioning quadrants of positive-negative, and punishment-reinforcement. Given that just about everyone gets these wrong without studying them, this book is vital if you really want to understand conditioning. I wouldn’t begin to take the CPDT or CDBC exam without reading and studying this book. As one reviewer said on Dogwise: “How on earth did Dr. Reid get an entire psychology text into such a small book?” I would add that it’s better than most texts, because it’s readable and clear and a breath of fresh air in a field often plagued by confusion. Even thought it’s a “classic,” I don’t think this book has gotten the attention it deserves—Reid is one of the country’s top applied psychologists, an agility enthusiast, an expert in saving dogs from horrific situations through her work at the ASPCA, and a terrific writer to boot. I think I’ve just convinced myself to read this book again. Good idea.

One cautionary note about this book: The four quadrants of operant conditioning include “positive punishment,” which means adding something (positive as in addition, not as in “happy”) to decrease the frequency of a behavior (which is the definition of punishment). Although many of us avoid using many forms of positive punishment (P+), you can’t understand operant conditioning without knowing how to define it. Dr. Reid has been criticized for her discussion of P+, but the fact is you simply can’t understand learning without knowing about the quadrant most often used (and abused) by dog owners. (An additional note: The cover of Excel-erated Learning is, uh, as I say on the website, “visually jarring.” I wonder if it has put some readers off, but if it has, don’t let it. I’ve become quite fond of the drawing of a dog with a brain that looks like a cauliflower.)


The Culture Clash: A revolutionary new way of understanding the relationship between humans and domestic dogs, by Jean Donaldson. This is another book that came out originally in the 90’s with a behaviorist’s perspective that caused people to re-evaluate their relationship with their dog. Starting with the now-classic story about how an owner interprets a dog’s cowering at the door after chewing up the couch (guilt or appeasement?), The Culture Clash had a profound effect on the world of dog training when it was first released. The “clash” refers to the conflicts that occur between species with different natural behaviors and expectations. Is your dog chewing up your slippers? Jumping up on you when you come home and ruining your white pants? Donaldson argues, compellingly, that the common attributions of “stubborn,” “dominant,” or “dumb,” are not only ineffective, they are destructive. She goes on to illustrate how learning theory, and a behaviorist’s perspective (now called behavior analysis), is the best way to influence the behavior of our dogs.

Although this book shares a common theme with the two above, it was one of the first books written that tries to look at the world through a dog’s eyes, and I think that is part of the reason for it staying on the best seller lists for decades. It’s another classic that deserves to be read and re-read by us all.


Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs, by Patricia B. McConnell. Well, this is awkward. This book, written by, uh me, wasn’t on my list until colleagues lobbied for it. I’m honored by their suggestions, and include this book in part because my publisher tells me that it sells as many books now as it did over fourteen years ago. That’s rare in the world of publishing, and objectively qualifies a book as a classic, even if I am scuffing my feet as I write it.

This book introduces a different perspective than the three books already listed. You’ll note that the first three books share a common theme: What science has shown us about how animals learn, and how to use these well-researched principles to influence behavior effectively. My book comes from a different but complimentary field. It asks what science has to tell us about the natural behavior, or the ethology, of both species at either end of the leash, and how that both binds us and causes us no end of confusion. Dogs and people love to play, it’s part of why we love dogs so much, but the different play styles of the two species can end up in tragedy if they are not understood. Does your dog not come when called? Perhaps that is because you walk toward him and raise your voice when you call. That’s a very “primate-like” thing to do, but in dog language you just told your dog to stop.

The Other End of the Leash is not a dog training book. Rather, it’s a book that helps dog lovers see the world from the dog’s perspective, and understand better how their own behavior can help or hinder their communication and relationship. The books already mentioned certainly talk about canine behavior (and our expectations of them in The Culture Clash), but this book reminds us that we need to look to the other end of the leash to truly understand why dogs do what they do.


Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals, by Turid Rugas. I was thrilled when Turid’s work first got the international attention it deserved. Here was a summary of exactly the kind of careful observations that I had been trained to make as an ethologist, applied to interactions between dogs. Rugaas describes behaviors that she labels as “calming signals,” like turning the head, licking the nose and yawning, and notes how owners can use similar behaviors themselves to influence their dog’s behavior. The second part of the booklet lists signs of stress in dogs, and how to help dogs who are distressed in some way. The newer version, published in full color by Dogwise, has excellent photographs of important behaviors and postures that every dog owner should be able to recognize instantly.

One note: Recalling the importance of not making speculative attributions about a dog’s intentions, stressed by both behavior analysts and ethologists, I want to caution readers about assuming they know what’s going on inside a dog’s head when it sniffs the ground or lip licks. I have heard some readers of this book talk as though a lip-licking dog is doing it to intentionally calm another dog. We don’t know that—we do know that dogs tend to lip lick in what appear to be stressful situations. When a dog turns away from another to sniff the ground after what looks like a tense greeting, we should all applaud it for doing something that results in calming down a potentially dangerous situation. We just need to be careful what “calming” actually means—“calming” signals don’t necessarily mean the dog giving them is calm herself, or is intentionally calming another dog. The author accurately makes it clear in her book that this isn’t always the case. For example, while “looking away” might avoid conflict with another dog, the dog doing it might be stressed herself.

That said, On Talking Terms with Dogs had a profound effect on the training world, and is a wonderful example of the importance of observing your dog, and how what appear to be small, subtle movements can have massive effects on behavior. It is concise, clear, accessible and affordable—I wish every dog owner received a copy of this book when they got their dog!


Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook, by Barbara Handelman. If a picture is worth a 1,000 words, this book—which actually has 1,000 photos in it—is worth its weight in gold. Along the same lines as On Talking Terms, but expanded into a 344 page book that is chock full of photographs, Handelman’s book is a resource that every serious dog owner and trainer/behaviorist should have.

No text can fully describe the richness of this book, with illustration after illustration of important aspects of canid behavior and communication. The photographs are stunning, and the integration of wolf and domestic dog images have much to teach us about the subtleties and intricacy of communication in our best friends.

How Handelman managed to accomplish gathering all the photographs (they are excellent) and putting them together in a semblance of order is beyond me, but I’m thankful that she did. My brain doesn’t always follow the ways she has categorized information, but you’ve got to love some labels she’s given to behaviors we all are familiar with but haven’t named, like “Paw Thwack” and “Nose Boink.”

Of course, in a book this large, there are some descriptions or interpretations that I might quibble with, but they are few and far between. Canine Behavior is the brilliant accomplishment of a woman whose first career–working with non-verbal children—gave her a solid background in observation, and whose later career as a professional photographer has resulted in a timeless classic that deserves informs and improves our understanding of our best friends.




Contact Details

Margaret Gray
Saphyr's Run, Sunbury, VIC, Australia
Phone : 0418 410017
Email : [email protected]