The Secret History of Kindness: Learning from How Dogs Learn

  • By Melissa Holbrook Pierson
  • W.W. Norton & Company
  • 320 pp.
  • Reviewed by Nick Wolven
  • May 12, 2015

Interweaving science, philosophy, and personal anecdotes, the author explores the history of animal training.

“[P]eople don't think animals' pain matters. They didn't think…people's pain mattered either, in the death camps a generation back. It's all the same, endless agonies going up unheard from helpless things. And all for what?”
—James Tiptree Jr., "The Psychologist Who Wouldn't Do Awful Things to Rats"

“In the course of a few days my thoats were the wonder of the community. They would follow me like dogs...and respond to my every command...
‘How have you bewitched them?’ asked Tars Tarkas one afternoon...
‘By kindness,’ I replied.”
—Edgar Rice Burroughs,
A Princess of Mars


These quotes are not the most illustrious I could have chosen to head this review, but the proper treatment of animals, like all great moral questions, is one about which the most learned people have often thought the most foolish things. When I was young, we were taught that animals like dogs had no minds or emotions, a lesson all but guaranteed to inculcate an early distrust of authority. Of course, the experts have taken to saying that people have no minds, either, which at least clears up a lot of confusion.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson has set out to explore the story of human-animal relations by looking closely at a particular aspect: animal training. The title she has given her account, The Secret History of Kindness, thus comes across as something of an act of willful optimism. Anyone who has thought much about humanity's treatment of animals knows that her book could have been titled The Not-So-Secret History of Torture, Abuse, and Exploitation.

The author's approach is to interweave science, philosophy, and history with her personal reflections as a dog owner. Appealing in principle, it is not always stimulating on the page. For long stretches, this is an ordinary dog lover's diary, complete with leash-or-no-leash debates; talk of the Rainbow Bridge; and anecdotes about the time the dog ran off, the time the dog came back, and the time — many times — the dog ate something it wasn't supposed to. Amid these épreuves, however, are passages that explicate, and proselytize for, a controversial science.

In 1959, a book review in the scholarly journal Language made intellectual history. Across 33 pages, the linguist Noam Chomsky leveled a devastating attack on B.F. Skinner's behavioral psychology, a science that had won renown by treating animal cognition in terms of observable actions. The insights of the behaviorist view were based on experiments with lab rats and food pellets, but Skinner had extrapolated from these trials to make grand statements about the nature of human language.

Chomsky set out to put behaviorism, as it were, back in its cage. He did so with an argument always deployed against reductive theories: that while rigorous, they have limited scope, and when their scope is expanded they lose their rigor. We can't study language, Chomsky argued, only in terms of outside stimuli, but must consider a creature's internal states as well.

Chomsky succeeded, with the result that Skinner is now remembered, like Freud or Marx, as a clever man who claimed too much. Skinner's star declined, Chomsky's rose, and the reductionists all moved on to talking about computers.

Pierson tells this story in her book, and her hope, partly unrealized, is to revive Skinner's reputation, along with that of behaviorism overall. Her reasons are not academic. She has seen firsthand the power of the behaviorist approach, in the style of animal handling called "clicker training."

The essence of clicker training is simple, its practice is subtle, and its implications are profound. First, something an animal enjoys, like food, is paired with a distinctive sound, like a click. Over time, the click becomes linked to the lure of food, and so becomes rewarding itself, much as money is for people.

The precision and economy of this technique allow for training routines of impressive finesse. Imagine how awkward your job would be if your boss had to beat you, or grill a steak for you, every time he wanted to review your work, and you'll have some sense of the advantages to be gained.

There are many ways to promote the clicker approach, and Pierson uses them all. She tells the stories of pioneer trainers such as Karen Pryor and Keller Breland. She describes her own experiences training, with apparently limited success, her two dogs. She summarizes research, quotes Wikipedia, and analyzes YouTube videos. Her most compelling angle is that this kind of training, unlike math, is a true form of universal communication, one that everything from a human to a garden slug can understand. Therein lies its utility, its power, and, yes, its deep pleasure.

If token rewards work so well, one might wonder, why is punishment so appallingly common? Pierson's answer is the one Skinner himself gave: Punishment prevails because it's rewarding to the punisher. Yes, but in what ways? Her account sometimes veers toward a gendered analysis, with a masculine attraction to dominance and violence standing squarely on the wrong side of history.

There's no shortage of evidence to support that view. I suspect, though, that our overreliance on punishment, from whippings to spankings to the strict rules of school, is largely economical. An effective schedule of rewards requires great care, predictable appetites, and a sizable stock of prizes. A shout, a smack, a crack of the whip — these punishments are prompt, intuitive, and cheap.

For that matter, how do you positively reinforce the habit of, say, not murdering people? And what counts as a punishment or reward? In society, confinement, surveillance, unease, boredom, and loneliness are regularly established as ordinary experiences, and fundamental pleasures, such as freedom of movement, time with loved ones, and natural beauty, are then meted out as special treats.

The culmination of this approach, which seeks to make discomfort the definition of normalcy, is torture. Pierson recognizes these subtleties, and aptly quotes Foucault's Discipline and Punish, but the full implications are only sketchily examined.

As with any treatment of a touchy topic, the subject of The Secret History of Kindness sometimes overwhelms the argument. I began the chapter on zoos ready to agree that these institutions, though enjoyable, should be shut down. After reading that — in the words of one scholar Pierson quotes — the "abomination of zoos is a projection of the horror that haunts the human spirit," that zoos are where we "peer into the face of our own alienation" and where "insipid parents" go to practice "the warping of a young mind," I felt like swinging by the monkey house out of pure populist spite.

In general, Pierson's impassioned prose left me more weary than convinced. But the behaviorist view need not be all-conquering for us to celebrate its greatest promise. Our refractory children, our perplexing pets, our obstinate enemies and inconstant friends — how can we best bewitch them?

With kindness, I suspect.

Nick Wolven’s short fiction has appeared in the New England Review, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and other publications.

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