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Reaching the Animal Mind: Clicker Training and What It Teaches Us About All Animals

Karen Pryor’s new book, Reaching the Animal Mind, is like a guided tour of cutting-edge animal science. The grand dame of clicker training, as she’s known to many in the dog world, has reached the minds of species from wolves to crabs to ponies to damselfish to elephants. Through her books and seminars, she has taught countless others to do the same using tested principles. This volume only deepens her contribution.

The book opens with Pryor’s own history, detailing her learning curve from the earliest days training dolphins at Sea Life Park in Hawaii. Anyone who’s ever seen a dolphin show will be intrigued to know that she was the first to begin using the now ubiquitous whistle and fish – also known as positive reinforcement. Through stories from her years of experience, she guides the reader through the principles of positive reinforcement training, using a conversational style that makes the scientific terminology accessible. Chapters are studded with pointers to the web site, where you can watch slide shows and video clips of the very animals Pryor has described.

Dog lovers will find plenty of inspiration in this powerhouse of a book. There are stories of dogs who express delayed gratitude in surprising ways, and a description of “debarking” a shelter kennel. But the versatility of clicker training will be of interest to all: It even works on humans, in a form called TagTeach, as Pryor illustrates with anecdotes from gymnastics classes and other settings. One gets the idea that the positive reinforcement training methodology could revolutionize the world of athletics just as it has the world of dog training.

Pryor’s breakdown of the “technology” of reinforcement translates to specific steps anyone can take, and fun training exercises are offered in a Do It Yourself section. For example, you can teach your dog a simple hand target, then translate this skill into playing all sorts of useful games with your pooch. One potential weakness: there is no discussion of the possibility of competing reinforcers in the environment, or how a squirrel chase can become infinitely more rewarding than a mere treat. Still, the question and answer section addresses most of the common concerns newcomers to this approach might have.

Perhaps most moving is Pryor’s assertion – based on her own experience as well as scientific studies – that a great many species of animals are far more conscious than we ever imagined. This book is a must-have for anyone wanting to train an animal in a respectful and compassionate way.

Review by Shawndra Miller

Review by Shawndra Miller


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