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The Secret History of Kindness

by Melissa Holbrook Pierson

An intimate, surprising look at man’s best friend and what the leading philosophies of dog training teach us about ourselves.

Years back, Melissa Holbrook Pierson brought home a border collie named Mercy, without a clue of how to get her to behave. Stunned after hiring a trainer whose immediate rapport with Mercy seemed magical, Pierson delved into the techniques of positive reinforcement. She made her way to B. F. Skinner, the behavioral psychologist who started it all. Skinner was the man who could train a pigeon to dance in minutes and whose research on how behavior is acquired has ramifications for military dolphin trainers, athletes, dancers, and, as he originally conceived, society at large.

To learn more, Pierson met with a host of fascinating animal behaviorists, going behind the scenes to witness the relationships between trainers and animals at the National Zoo in Washington, DC. She also attended the in-depth seminars at a ClickerExpo conference where all the dogs but hers seemed to be learning new tricks. The often-startling story of what became of a path-breaking scientist’s work is interwoven with a more personal tale of how to understand the foreign species with whom we are privileged to live.

Pierson draws surprising connections in her exploration of how kindness works to motivate all animals, including the human one.




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