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The Secret History of Kindness

Learning from How Dogs Learn

Melissa Holbrook Pierson (Author)


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 began delving into the techniques of positive reinforcement. She made her way to B. F. Skinner, the behavioral psychologist who started it all, 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, and to the in-depth seminars at a Clicker Expo where all the dogs but hers seemed to be learning new tricks. The often startling story of what became of a pathbreaking 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.

Book Details

  • Hardcover
  • May 2015
  • ISBN 978-0-393-06619-7
  • 5.9 × 8.6 in / 320 pages
  • Sales Territory: Worldwide

Endorsements & Reviews

“This book reads like a novel, but it is deep science, too. A gifted and witty writer, Pierson uses a reporter’s eye to inform us of a quiet, ever-spreading transformation in society, away from force to kindness. Among the characters in this adventure are her two dogs; a founding scientist named Fred Skinner; a Navy dolphin trainer, Bob Bailey; a distinguished behavior analyst, Murray Sidman—and me. I’m honored to be in her book and very grateful for her explanation of how this works. Click, Melissa!” — Karen Pryor, author of Reaching the Animal Mind

“Scientifically, artfully, and with the bold premise that gently training a dog can set the animal’s ‘master’ on the path to enlightenment in all areas of life, Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s new book proves how ‘intelligent’ humans have more in common with the bestiary’s ‘dumb’ creatures than some of us will care to admit. Are you man enough to follow a canine master? More to the point, are you beast enough? Reading The Secret History of Kindness is one sure way to find out.” — Julia Szabo, nationally recognized pet reporter, animal advocate, and author of Medicine Dog

“Explores the philosophical intricacies of animal behavior, training, and human perceptions of control and empathy, leading the reader to think carefully about what truly motivates companion animals to obey human commands.” — Publishers Weekly

“The best dog books enlighten us not just about animals, but also about ourselves and the world around us. Melissa Holbrook-Pierson's The Secret History of Kindness is that kind of book; it's among the best of the best.” — Ken Foster, New York Times bestselling author of The Dogs Who Found Me and I'm a Good Dog: Pit Bulls, America's Most Beautiful and Misunderstood Pet

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