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Plenty in Life is Free: An Interview with Kathy Sdao

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"Infectious enthusiasm." Those are the words often used to describe trainer and ClickerExpo faculty member Kathy Sdao's personality and the key to her popularity. As one of the world's top clicker trainers, as well as a popular ClickerExpo speaker, Kathy receives rave reviews for her seminars and DVDs and for the way she makes the learning process fun for both humans and dogs.

With the debut of her first book, Plenty in Life is Free – Reflections on Dogs, Training and Finding Grace, Kathy shares her secrets for being a great dog trainer. Part memoir, part training manual, Kathy's book draws on her decades of training marine mammals and dogs to help people foster a more cooperative partnership with their own dogs. With the wit, humor, and warmth she is known for, Kathy shares stories from her fascinating experiences and describes how those experiences have shaped her training philosophy and style. Plenty in Life is Free describes Kathy Sdao's powerful insights and explains how to reflect on the choices trainers make to build better partnerships with the animals in our lives.  

Please explain the concept "Nothing in Life is Free."

Kathy Sdao with dogs

"Nothing in Life is Free" (NILIF) is one name for the training protocol that requires people to give their dogs things of value—attention, petting, food, toys, freedom—only after the dog has first complied with a command or trainer-delivered cue. This command or cue is often a signal for the dog to "sit," but some variants of NILIF protocols are not as specific about which behavior the dog is required to do. In all cases, though, the dog's reinforcements are strictly controlled and delivered to the dog only after they have been "earned."

Was there one moment when you realized you needed to change your own training?

There have been countless moments over the past 26 years when I realized I needed to change my training! But about NILIF specifically, yes, I had an epiphany several years ago. A friend, an experienced trainer whom I highly respect, gave this suggestion to me in an effort to help me with my own dog, Nick, who had bitten two visitors to my home. Though neither bite was serious—there were no injuries—I was quite concerned and solicited guidance from my colleagues. When my perspective was reversed, with me receiving instead of giving the NILIF advice (as I'd done with students and clients for years), I began to realize how flawed the protocol was.

In your opinion, what is the most important thing people should learn first about training?

People should learn how to be a skilled, generous, creative "feeder." That is, they should understand and embrace the fact that their main role, if they want to be a great trainer, is to reinforce repeatedly any dog behaviors they want to see more of.People should learn how to be a skilled, generous, creative "feeder." That is, they should understand and embrace the fact that their main role, if they want to be a great trainer, is to reinforce repeatedly any dog behaviors they want to see more of. This reinforcement is a much greater priority than being a strict leader, a "commander-in-chief."

What is the funniest reaction you have received about your book so far?

Several women have asked me for hair-care advice! To illustrate a point early in my book, I mention that I follow the guidelines detailed in the fabulous book by Lorraine Massey, Curly Girl. Much of the book's advice seems odd. For example, the suggestion is made that people with curly hair should stop using shampoo, combs, brushes, and blow dryers. A few readers have asked me to tell them more about my experiences "crossing over" to this unusual regimen of hair care.

Have you had any negative reactions to the ideas in your book?

Not really. Not yet. But the book has been published for only a couple of weeks. I expect it will eventually generate some disagreement, but as long as it inspires people to think more deeply about this issue, that's okay. We need to feel comfortable having open, probing discussions about concepts as foundational as whether or not we ration every reward in our dogs' lives.

You have been a ClickerExpo lecturer since the beginning. What is that like?

At ClickerExpo I also have the golden opportunity to learn from my fellow faculty members, among the best trainers and behavior scientists on the planet.I've been incredibly honored to be on the faculty since the very first ClickerExpo, in Chicago in 2003. These events are special; they're my favorite gathering of trainers. It sounds like a cliché to say this, but the atmosphere is always so overwhelmingly positive. The attendees are enthusiastic learners, considerate of their fellow students, and kind to their dogs. At ClickerExpo I also have the golden opportunity to learn from my fellow faculty members, among the best trainers and behavior scientists on the planet. And, as if that wasn't enough, I get to hang out with Karen Pryor, who, along with being a mentor and friend, is one of my heroes.

What do you like best about teaching at ClickerExpo?

The students are not only eager to learn, but, by registering for ClickerExpo, they've made a commitment to learning about positive-reinforcement-based training. I don't have to be as general in my lectures, trying to discuss all training philosophies. Instead, I can focus my materials on the art and science of clicker training.

You were a Navy dolphin trainer and a research dolphin trainer—pretty advanced work! Do you miss the dolphins?

Though they were fabulous jobs, I rarely miss working with marine mammals. I was blessed to have had the opportunity at all, and now I truly enjoy my work with dogs and their people.

What was your favorite animal to train?

E.T. the Walrus

E.T. the Walrus

I can't choose just one, though E.T. the walrus will always hold a special place in my heart. I also loved working with my Navy dolphin, Manini, and one of the dolphins, Akeakami, at the University of Hawaii's Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Lab. In each case, I'd worked with the animal consistently for many years and developed a deep bond of friendship and understanding.

Is there any kind of animal that can't be clicker trained?

To answer this, I'll quote Karen Pryor's pithy line:

"If the animal has a brain stem and eats, it can be clicker trained."

I use this response to answer questions about whether it's possible to clicker train cats, birds, fish, old dogs, and husbands!

Kathy, thank you for sharing your experiences—in training and in publishing! We look forward to seeing you at ClickerExpo again next year!

Related Products

Plenty in Life is Free
Plenty in Life is Free
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Advanced Clicker Training with Kathy Sdao
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About the author

Julie Gordon is the Content & Communications Manager at Karen Pryor Clicker Training. She oversees editorial development and content management for the company’s websites, and regularly contributes articles and blogs.

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