The skills of ideas, techniques, and strategies used by positive reinforcement dog trainers are broadly applicable to other situations and can easily be used to influence the behavior of many other species (including humans). Karen B. London, PhD, in her new book, Treat Everyone Like a Dog, examines how these skills can be used to make life easier for everyone – dogs and humans alike.
Part 3 of our discussion with Karen London about her new book. Here she ponders why people find the idea of using positive reinforcement techniques in their personal relationships so fascinating, and how these techniques affect their own family life.
Bark: In her 2006 New York Times essay, “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage,” Amy Sutherland considered a similar synergy between positive reinforcement and relationships. It was reportedly one of the most widely emailed NYT columns ever. This is clearly a topic that resonates with the people. Any ideas why?
Karen London: I’ve had a lot of fun since my book came out, to learn how many other dog trainers (and trainers of other animals too) see how easily our skills at work translate into situations in our personal lives. In the past few months since Treat Everyone Like a Dog was released, I’ve heard so many wonderful stories about how other dog trainers treat their clients as if they want them to treat their dogs or how they give their children a treat Have taught recall for safety reasons or how to empower their spouses when those spouses do something that they should do again.
Get the barge in your inbox!
Sign up for our newsletter and stay up to date.
I think the idea of using positive dog training techniques, skills and ideas to influence the behavior of those around us resonates with people for many reasons. It is easy for people to see that dog trainers are capable of teaching dogs an amazing range of skills, and that the dogs are happy with the whole process. People see that dogs have been taught to turn away from squirrels, stay on their dog bed during a dinner party and let go of everything in their mouth, and do these things happily and consistently. So many people understand that it is worth learning how to teach such skills.
People also see the joy of learning in dog training and how the “best friend” label really applies between dogs and humans, and they want a piece of it. Dog training improves relationships, and these improved relationships improve the training process. Who doesn’t want the same things – happy learning experiences, effective teaching, and better relationships – when it comes to the people in their life?
Positive dog training enables us to do our best with dogs – no guilt, no nagging, no harshness. Likewise, who would not want to be able to teach others and influence their behavior without resorting to negativity? In the context of dog training, I often say that violence is the lack of real strength. That said, if you can ask a dog to do something with a quiet plea, there is no need to shove or yell or use other nasty means to get what you want. I believe if people are able to get others to act the way they want without yelling, whining, threatening, or being negative in any way, they will choose that option. It’s so much more enjoyable and makes everyone involved happier.
In dog training, we are always looking for a better way that is continuously improving based on scientific research, new ideas and our own experiences. Those outside the field also want a better way of interacting. In my experience, people are interested in kinder, gentler, more loving ways to teach and exercise. When ideas are presented on how to do it better, most people drink them enthusiastically.
Over the years I’ve had many clients who have previously worked with old-fashioned forced trainers. When they come to me they are excited and relieved to learn that they can train dogs humanely and positively, without fear or pain. Many of them found it uncomfortable to be tough with their dog and so they looked for other options. Without knowing how to train their dogs more kindly, they weren’t sure what to do, but they knew what to look for as soon as they found it.
I think the same goes for people and their interactions with other people: they know what they’re looking for as soon as they find it. Treating people gently and positively when they are taught – how the best and most experienced dog trainers treat their dogs – appeals to so many people because this is what they want to do, whether they knew it or not.
While a major theme of Treat Everyone Like a Dog is the use of positive reinforcement, its effective use, and many stories and examples of it, there is more to my book than that one technique. In addition to positive reinforcement, I discuss the use of classical conditioning, the importance of ethology in understanding those we want to teach, the specific skills that are taught to dogs that are also useful to humans, learning strategies and styles, and many tricks of the trade Trading in behavior change and the way I observe the world and the people in it from a dog trainer’s perspective.
B: After all (because we can’t resist asking) do your sons or husband apply these principles to others – and maybe you too?
KL: Absolutely! I see it all the time but when I asked her for examples it was difficult for her to find any because it is all so natural to her. My family is used to being positive and teaching effectively, and I’m not always convinced that they associate this with dog training specifically.
I see the rest of my family ignoring behaviors they dislike in young children who try to get their attention but engage with the same children when they do appropriate social overtures. They greatly praise children for looking both ways or not running into the street before crossing the street, even if their toys have rolled on the street. They all have a tendency to “catch people doing something right” and respond positively to such behavior, whether in children or adults.
One thing I notice about my husband (a professor) is that when working with students preparing manuscripts for publication, he focuses on one aspect of the process at a time, and uses each draft as an opportunity to focus primarily on the Focus on content. Organization, statistical analysis, or any other element that lowers its criteria in areas that are not in focus. For dog trainers, this is common, with the classic example being the three main components of a solid stay: the distance you move away from the dog during the stay, the length of the stay, and the degree of distraction during the stay. When one component is difficult for one dog, we facilitate success and the best learning progress for the others. For example, if the distractions are high we keep them short and stay close to the dog so he can succeed and improve.
In addition, my husband prepares his students for success when faced with the difficult and stressful experience of speaking at national meetings. (Setting up dogs to succeed is a fundamental tenet of successful dog training.) He does this in many ways: If you practice a lot and make sure your presentation is on time, your slides are high quality and your organization says it is the history of research effectively. He prepares them for the experience by having them attend conferences to see how the process works so they don’t end up in a completely unfamiliar situation. Finally, he encourages her to ask a question during the Q&A section of a talk given in front of her own. In this way, they have already spoken aloud in this environment and are comfortable when their voice is heard in this context.
My sons are generous on their social media, and I’ve often thought this was a way to offer positive reinforcement rather than feel the need to be stingy. I also think my sons and I (along with my husband) are in a wonderful positive reinforcement loop when it comes to being outside and doing things. As long as the kids let me know where they are and when they’ll be home, I’ll be comfortable with them outside. They affirm our “Yes, you can; Sure, keep going “with information and notifications of changes to plans / places / times and we reinforce their willingness to keep us updated by saying yes to their requests, doing fun things and visiting fun places. (This was far less common during Covid-19 as we all have less activity outside of the home, but it still applies.)
The way Brian and Evan show their sincere appreciation when I do little things for them – like baking a favorite piece, bringing them their tea in the morning, or filling their water bottles while they head out on a hike or a walk Bike tour – is also a form of positive reinforcement. True, everyone should say “thank you” and show basic manners, but not everyone does. Some people also often say “thank you” but not sincerely. The fact is, I find it reinforcing when they thank me in a way that shows genuine appreciation, and that by definition means that it is reinforcing.
I also think that we as a family see that because of some barrier to success, people may not behave in desirable ways. Neither of us is quick to blame people for behaving in ways we dislike, and we are all quick to recognize when people are having problems and need help to keep them at their best.