Guide to Teaching Effectively

Don’t Shoot the Dog is a book by Karen Pryor on training students. The book proposes that positive reinforcement executed in a skillful manner is the most efficient means to teaching students new behavior. The book focuses on “students” from dogs to dolphins to babies to airline pilots.  The following is the most concise summary I could adapt. For simplicity, I will write as if we are training a student.


Every one of us will be in the position of trainer at some moment in our lives. Teach a friend to play a new video game; teach your child to drive a car; or train yourself to go to the gym every morning. Good training skills are universally important. Yet, there are few great teachers. This book seeks to address what makes a great teacher. It’s not as intangible as I expected.

The Punishment Paradigm

Punishment is an American institution. We punish bad behavior because it allows us a quick outlet for our frustration with students. We tell ourselves that punishment teaches students a lesson. Research shows that it isn’t good at forming good habits. It’s better at instilling frustration and avoidance of authority. Punishment can work in small doses for simple behaviors sometimes, but it shouldn’t comprise the majority of your teaching. Positive reinforcement is better for shaping good behavior, whether in yourself or others.

Positive Reinforcement

Positive Reinforcement is the use of a reward with a student to associate a positive feeling and desire- to-repeat a behavior. This looks like a big green check mark on a test, a piece of candy for a correctly spelled word, a pat on the back from a coach, or a bonus at work. Positive reinforcement works in shaping students’ behavior through motivation and eventually habituation.


For positive reinforcement to be effective, behavior must be rewarded during the behavior you’re teaching. Don’t reinforce trying, reinforce doing. This links the reward with the behavior and makes it easiest for your student to associate the reward with the behavior. Many teachers fail by waiting to reward good behavior. Reward your student as they do they correct thing. They’ll want to do it again right away. If an immediate reward is impossible, use a signal (like a whistle or word of praise) that a reward will come as soon as is possible. If you are training a runner, you’d verbally acknowledge their proper execution of form with something that indicates they’ll be receiving a reward.

When to Reward?

As behavior in your student is learned, separate rewards until they are random and sparse. As you increase the spacing of rewards, eventually none will be needed. A habit is formed. Use as small a reward as is possible to get your student into the habit as quickly as possible.

Know your training plan before starting. This makes your student feel confident in you and also prevents awkward dull moments waiting for you to plan the next exercise during a training session.


Rewards are not Manipulations

Rewards are always in addition to normal interaction with your trainee. For instance, children should be shown love all the time. But give them praise and rewards only during good behavior. Understand this important difference: love & respect is different than praise. Only praise good behavior if you want your trainee to improve. Never tell a person you are shaping/teaching them unless the teaching is consented and explicitly desired by the student. Telling someone you are “teaching them a lesson” undermines training and self-esteem. It sets up the student for disobedience. Good teaching is an enjoyable experience for teacher and student.  


How much can you teach at once?

Only teach one skill at a time. Don’t correct or train two skills at once. Even if older skills fade, you can’t train more than one skill at a time. Instead, teach behavior chains (groups of desired behaviors) backward. Don’t interrupt a training session. Always end on a good note to associate positivity with the session. Keep your student wanting to come back.

Shortcuts to Training

There are a few shortcuts to “showing the way” to a skill.

  • Targeting
    • Point at or touch where you want.
    • E.g. Pointing to a place on a basketball hoop to demonstrate where you’d like the student to place the ball.
  • Mimicry
    • Do the desired behavior.
    • E.g. Showing the student an example of a good basketball shot form.
  • Modeling
    • Setup a student’s environment so they can learn from it.
      • Place the student in a basketball game with skilled players who have great shooting form.

Correcting Bad Behavior

  • Force them to quit
    • Works but doesn’t accomplish any learning
    • E.g. Kick student off of spelling team.
  • Punish
    • Teaches avoidance and frustration
    • E.g. Make student spell incorrect word 100 times if they fail.
  • Wait for behavior to die
    • Might work in some cases, but only by luck.
    • E.g. Let student keep going until they happen to get spelling correct.
  • Train incompatible behavior
    • Works well because it becomes a habit and is positively associated in student’s mind.
    • E.g. Train student to spell words properly.
  • Reinforce the absence of the behavior
    • Works well because it becomes a habit and is positively associated in student’s mind.
    • Teach student to avoid common spelling errors such as “i before e.”
  • Change the motivation
    • Show student importance of spelling by giving examples of how his or her heroes were very great writers and rarely misspelled words.

Shaping Behavior

With a plan and knowledge of rewards schedules, teachers can use positive reinforcement to achieve fast, fun, and long-lasting learning in students. Many learning problems are caused by teachers approaching the subject in the wrong manner. Showing a student the correct behavior through timed rewards on an increasingly spaced schedule will lead to fast results. Teachers should consider how positive reinforcement can improve their students’ ability to pick up new skills or behaviors.