Lessons from a dolphin trainer for any manager or parent

Despite my experience raising five kids aged 3 to 18, I’ve been using ineffective parenting techniques for a very long time. As Einstein might have said, I’ve been insane. In trying to shape my children’s behavior, I’ve been doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

And yet it’s not just me, but other parents and, overwhelmingly, other managers. Though the techniques we’ve used for decades are ineffective at best and dehumanizing at worst, we keep using them.

Recently, I learned that animal trainers have known about better ways for decades.

Don’t Shoot the Dog

Dont shoot the dogKaren Pryor is a behavioral biologist, a pioneering dolphin trainer, and an authority on applied operant conditioning—the art and science of changing behavior. In 1984, she wrote “Don’t Shoot the Dog” which describes her behavioral methods and how they apply even beyond animal training.

“I began to notice some applications of the system creeping into my daily life. For example, I stopped yelling at my kids, because I was noticing that yelling didn’t work. Watching for behavior I liked, and reinforcing it when it occurred, worked a lot better and kept the peace, too.”

It’s when she outlined 8 methods for getting rid of undesired behavior that I  clearly saw what I’ve been doing wrong.

A common scenario

Imagine, for example, your young child won’t get dressed for school. (You can substitute any undesirable behavior displayed by your child, spouse, or colleague.) As you read the methods below, think of what you would do.

“Method 1: “Shoot the animal” (This definitely works. You will never have to deal with that particular behavior in that particular subject again.)

Method 2: Punishment. (Everybody’s favorite, in spite of the fact that it almost never really works.)

Method 3: Negative reinforcement. (Removing something unpleasant when a desired behavior occurs.)

Method 4: Extinction; letting the behavior go away by itself.

Method 5: Train an incompatible behavior. (This method is especially useful for athletes and pet owners.)

Method 6: Put the behavior on cue. (Then you never give the cue. This is the dolphin trainer’s most elegant method of getting rid of unwanted behaviors.)

Method 7: “Shape the absence”; reinforce anything and everything that is not the undesired behavior. (A kindly way to turn disagreeable relatives into agreeable relatives.)

Method 8: Change the motivation. (This is the fundamental and most kindly method of all.)”

A better way

An undesired dolphin behavior

An undesired dolphin behavior

So which method would you use? You need the child to get dressed. Time is running short. And so, if you’re like me, you quickly resort to punishment and threats. “If you don’t get dressed, you can’t use the iPad later!” Or, worse, you simply pick the child up and thrust the clothes on them. (Not quite shooting the dog, but certainly showing it who’s boss.)

But try doing that to a killer whale and you’ll quickly be eaten or played with on the bottom of the pool. A dolphin might misbehave in more subtle ways. What Karen Pryor and legions of animal trainers in the last few decades have learned is that positive reinforcement is by far the most effective way to shape desired behaviors. And that changing the motivation is the best way to remove unwanted behaviors.

Most of us are simply ignorant that there’s a better way. It’s why animal trainers can reliably reproduce extraordinary behaviors in animals and we humans resort to yelling, threats, and force. And why one of Karen Pryor’s fellow dolphin researcher said “Nobody should be allowed to have a baby until they have first been required to train a chicken.” (A requirement that should apply to managers, too.)

Worse than ignorance, though, is not being open to the idea of a better way. The “spare the rod, spoil the child” mentality of parents and managers was observed by Karen Pryor when she described people who simply refused to believe she could do what she did with only positive methods.

“One day, while sitting among the audience, I was amused to overhear a professorial type firmly informing his companions that the only way we could be getting that kind of response was by electric shock.”

Try this

Recently, when our young son wouldn’t get dressed, I was about to resort to my usual methods. Then I remembered the book and tried to change the motivation. Instead of “Put your socks on!” I sat down and made a game of it, seeing who could put on their socks fastest. Silly, for sure. But it worked and he was giggling, fully clad, instead of both of us spiraling towards unpleasantness.

What I’m actually doing is training myself. Gradually, I’m learning to stop using punishment and other negative, ineffective techniques. And I’m focusing more on positive reinforcement for behaviors I want and creative ways to change the motivation for behaviors I don’t like.

Try it. Your kids and your colleagues will be glad you did.

About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
This entry was posted in Management, Self awareness and improvement and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Lessons from a dolphin trainer for any manager or parent

  1. I’ve been trying to do things like that for a while now. I often fall back into bad habits when I’m not paying attention, but I do try. Another method that has been very effective is to give the kids choices, so that they feel involved and a part of the process. For example “Would you like peas or broccoli with your dinner?” The important part there being, of course, that either choice is a desirable outcome 🙂

  2. karen mahon says:

    Reblogged this on disrupt learning! and commented:
    Happy to see behavioral methods in this article. If you haven’t checked out Karen Pryor’s work, it is a must!

  3. Great segment, John. I, too, have been running into more of these challenging situations with my almost 5 year old son and 6 year old daughter. If I didn’t know any better, I would say it almost seems as though they have combined forces and banded together to identify and exploit every, single weak spot in their parents’ so-called “unified front” (I’m fairly convinced they have even produced a whitepaper, although I haven’t found it. Yet.). I get that it’s their job, by design, to constantly push their boundaries. And for the most part, I think my wife and I will usually try to deal with the situation-at-hand in a constructive manner which doesn’t involve any tears, pouting, etc (except my own, of course). When they were younger, we did see a lot of success from turning problematic activities into a game, like getting dressed or getting into the car to go to school. Now that they’re older though, they seem to see straight through our trickery….I mean….techniques, and I feel as though I tend to “deplete” my patience much sooner. And before you know it, someone decides to have staged “meltdown”, and suddenly, I hear my dad’s booming voice projecting from my own mouth telling them they’re “going to bed for the night” at 3:30 in the afternoon, etc. I know there has to be some better ways for us to deal with our kids’ behavior which don’t involve yelling, so I just bought the book. And who knows….maybe it’ll even come in handy with our 1 year old dog who’s **still** occasionally doing his business in the house, too 🙂

  4. Joan Orr says:

    Hey John, Karen Pryor and our team at TAGteach International have come a long way since Don’t Shoot the Dog (which as you have discovered is not a dog training book!). Please check out http://www.tagteach.com to see how the principles Karen describes so brilliantly in Don’t Shoot the Dog are being used around the world and in many disciplines to teach people from the tiniest ballerina in upscale Marblehead MA to the toughest fishermen working in the Bering Sea in Alaska, from non-verbal children with severe autism to medical students.

  5. dasaraujo says:

    I am ashamed to confess that I too have failed as a parent. Far too many times for what being a mother represents for me 😦
    From all the techniques I have searched to change my approach in the last 8 years, the following poem seems to really help me interiorise the potential of positive parenting.

    “If a child lives with criticism, he learns to condemn . . .
    If a child lives with hostility, he learns to fight . . .
    If a child lives with fear, he learns to be apprehensive . . .
    If a child lives with pity, he learns to feel sorry for himself . . .
    If a child lives with ridicule, he learns to be shy . . .
    If a child lives with jealousy, he learns to feel envy . . .
    If a child lives with shame, he learns to feel guilty …


    If a child lives with tolerance, he learns to be patient . . .
    If a child lives with encouragement, he learns to be confident . . .
    If a child lives with praise, he learns to be appreciative . . .
    If a child lives with acceptance, he learns to love . .
    If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves..
    If a child lives with honesty, he learns what truth is . . .
    If a child lives with fairness, he learns justice . . .
    If children live with recognition, they learn to have a goal.
    If children live with sharing, they learn to be generous.
    If a child lives with security, he learns to have faith in himself and those about him . . .
    If a child lives with friendliness, he learns the world is a nice place in which to live . . .”

    ― Dorothy Law Nolte, Children Learn What They Live: Parenting to Inspire Values

  6. Thom Fisher says:

    Hey john Just catching up and saw this one. I am now in london

    Watch cesar the dog trainer? You want them to be like you?…your kids Or be individuals? They are different…..each one

    Give them great experiences, and you need to think like a child at different ages!

    Last time you got muddy, used color crayons, fell off a bike, learned to fish?

    Thom Fisher , mobile 8190-8800-5948 Most people dream of tomorrow, only a few live it today


    • John Stepper says:

      That’s good advice, Thom! Every time I do get muddy, I’m happy I did. 🙂

      In addition to the great experiences, there are things that might not fit that category – or, more accurately, might take *effort* before they become great experiences – that I’d like them to try. Playing an instrument. Learning a language.

      The resources in the post reminded of the simple truth that, for those kinds things, positive reinforcement was much more effective than some of the other means I’d naturally try.

      Look forward to seeing you in London next time I’m there!

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