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Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast

For the last 2 years, FDSA has been working to provide high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports online, using only the most current and progressive training methods. And now we’re bringing that same focus to you in a new way. Each episode of the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast will feature an interview with a leading name in the competitive dog sports training world, talking in depth about issues that often get overlooked by traditional training methods. We'll release a new episode every other Friday, so stay tuned--and happy training!
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Apr 27, 2018

Summary:

Kathy Sdao is an applied animal behaviorist. She has spent 30 years as a full-time animal trainer, first with marine mammals and now with dogs and their people.

She currently owns Bright Spot Dog Training where she consults with families about their challenging dogs, teaches private lessons to dogs and their owners, and coaches novices and professionals to cross over to positive-reinforcement training.

She’s been interviewed pretty much everywhere worth reading — at least as far as dog info is concerned — consulted with organizations including Guide Dogs for the Blind, appeared on Bill Nye the Science Guy, and is one of the original faculty members for Karen Pryor’s long-running ClickerExpos. She is also the author of Plenty in Life is Free: Reflections on Dogs, Training, and Finding Grace.

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Next Episode: 

To be released 5/4/2018, featuring Michele Pouliot, talking about being a change-maker in the dog world.

TRANSCRIPTION:

Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today we’ll be talking to Kathy Sdao -- Kathy is an applied animal behaviorist. She has spent 30 years as a full-time animal trainer, first with marine mammals and now with dogs and their people.

She currently owns Bright Spot Dog Training where she consults with families about their challenging dogs, teaches private lessons to dogs and their owners, and coaches novices and professionals to cross over to positive-reinforcement training.

She’s been interviewed pretty much everywhere worth reading — at least as far as dog info is concerned — consulted with organizations including Guide Dogs for the Blind, appeared on Bill Nye the Science Guy, and is one of the original faculty members for Karen Pryor’s long-running ClickerExpos. She is also the author of Plenty in Life is Free: Reflections on Dogs, Training, and Finding Grace.

I’m incredibly thrilled to have her here today!

Hi Kathy! Welcome to the podcast.

Kathy Sdao: Hi Melissa. Thanks so much for the invitation. This is going to be fun.

Melissa Breau: To start us out, do you mind just sharing a little bit about your own dogs and anything you’re working on with them?

Kathy Sdao: What an embarrassing way to start! I currently have just one dog of my own. His name is Smudge. He’s a … who knows what he is. He’s a mixed breed. Let’s call him a Catahoula mixed breed. He’s about 3 years old, and as I’m reminded after my walk in the woods with him this morning that the combination of young man in a hoodie on a skateboard with an off-leash dog running beside this young man — too much for Smudge to deal with on our walk in the woods, so rather than dog sports, I’m still training this young dog that the world is full of interesting adventures and you really don’t have to bark at them when they startle you. So we’re still doing real-world training just getting him out with me every day in my environment here in Tacoma, Washington, which is beautiful. We spend a lot of time outside. I also am very good friends with the magnificent Michele Pouliot, and she has offered to choreograph a freestyle routine for Smudge and me, and I feel like that would be crazy for me not to take her up on that. So if I ever dip my toe into the water of dog sports, it’s likely to be freestyle, because I have an awesome friend offering to help me.

Melissa Breau: That’s fantastic, and hey, I can’t blame him. I think that if a guy showed up suddenly and surprised me wearing a hoodie and a skateboard with a dog running next to him, I might be a little startled too.

Kathy Sdao: I was having such a peaceful walk, and then we turned a corner and I’m like, Uh-oh, this isn’t going to work. Fortunately, that kid was really nice about it. We all kind of laughed, so it ended up well, but anyway, training goes on, right?

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. How did you originally get into training? Can you share a little bit on your background?

Kathy Sdao: When I do Career Days at schools. I think kids always think it was planned, like “You had a plan.” I didn’t have a plan. I was a premed student in college and took an elective, animal behavior, a psych course, which I thought, That’ll be easy. The professor, Dr. Pat Ebert, had a need of someone to help her with some research she was doing and just happened to be at the aquarium where I lived in Niagara Falls, New York. She needed a research assistant, and I went to the aquarium and did some observation work there and fell into the rabbit hole and quit premed and changed my major to psychology.

My beloved dad will turn 97 years old next month, and he still has not gotten over the shock that his daughter left premed to do this crazy career he has never once understood. So it was serendipity that got me to that aquarium where I ended up training my first animal, a harbor seal.

My professor, Dr. Ebert, passed away very suddenly and at a very young age, 32, from liver cancer, and I don’t know, I always felt like there’s some way to pass the gauntlet on to me to study the science of animal learning and be brave about it. I applied to graduate school after I got my bachelor’s degree in fields that could study animal behavior, and all the schools I was going to study either rats or pigeons, except the University of Hawaii, where I would be studying dolphins.

I got accepted to the University of Hawaii to study dolphins, got accepted to Rutgers to study rats, it wasn’t much of a choice: Newark to study rats or Honolulu to study dolphins. That was the beginning. The second animal I learned to train was a dolphin at the University of Hawaii, so that started my career in a really different kind of way.

Melissa Breau: I certainly understand that decision. I think most people would choose dolphins over rats or pigeons.

Kathy Sdao: You know, it’s funny, Melissa. Rutgers gave me a big scholarship and I turned it down and they really were mortified. They couldn’t believe I was leaving money on the table there. In retrospect, I think I made a good choice.

Melissa Breau: It certainly served you well. From dolphins to dogs, it’s a pretty big bridge there. What led you to go from marine animals and zoo animals — because you did some of that, too, if you want to talk about that — to dogs?

Kathy Sdao: When I was fortunate enough to start my career working with marine mammals, I actually worked in three different, amazing settings. For several years I worked at the University of Hawaii, when I was a graduate student, on the research done there that included, among other cool things, teaching sign language to bottlenose dolphins back in the 1980s. That was just an amazing way to start a training career.

I got my masters degree and then was hired as one of the first women to work for the United States Navy’s Department of Defense that was training dolphins at the time to do mine detection and detonation work, also a job in Hawaii, working to prepare those dolphins to be turned over to sailors to actually be in the military. Another amazing job and worked there for several years, and then decided that it was time, even though I loved Hawaii, to go to a place that was more reasonable to live, just cost of living-wise. Honolulu’s gorgeous but expensive.

There were two jobs on the mainland in the United States that year that I decided I was going to transition back to the mainland. One was at Disneyland in Orlando and one was at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington. I never lived either place, I didn’t know anybody in either place, but decided that I much more preferred the Pacific Northwest and so took a job as a staff biologist at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, and got to work with beluga whales and porpoises and sea lions and fur seals and walruses and polar bears and sea otters and an amazing collection of marine mammals.

Having worked at the zoo for five years, though, realized it was a difficult job. It was tough physically, it can be tough emotionally — I know people are listening; if they’ve done some zoo work, it’s challenging — and so made the decision that it was time to leave the zoo. But I didn’t want to leave Tacoma, Washington. I still live here. I love it. So training dogs was my creative solution to earn a living and not have to move, and I can’t even recall to you, Melissa, how humbling that switch was, because I was cocky enough to go, “Hey, I’ve trained really cool, big, exotic animals. Dogs are going to be a piece of cake.”

And oh, they weren’t. I really didn’t know what I was doing at all, and quickly found out that I needed a lot more dog savvy if I was going to do a good job, and opened up the first dog daycare in Tacoma, Washington, back in the mid-1990s. Nobody had ever heard of a dog day care here. I had to get special zoning from the city. They thought we were nuts. But I opened that dog daycare to be able to get my eyeballs on dog behavior more and to be immersed in it. I know you’ve got listeners that work in dog daycares, own dog daycares, it’s a good immersion process for the human to learn about dog behavior.

So that was my entry into dog work, and started teaching classes at night in clicker training, and that was really new at the time, a new way to set up dog training classes back in the late 1990s, so haven’t looked back since. And though I loved my time with marine mammals and other exotic species, I really don’t miss it. I’m just as intrigued working with dogs and their people as I ever was with the exotics.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned that there was a little bit of a transition there. Can you share some of the similarities and differences and what they were as you went from training dolphins and zoo animals to dogs?

Kathy Sdao: I really look right now, when I’m looking for teachers for myself … it’s interesting, Melissa. One of the reasons I asked you if you would be so kind as to delay our appointment for this recording was so that I could spend a couple of hours this morning listening yet again to my colleague and friend Dr. Susan Friedman. She was doing a webinar this morning on a topic I’ve heard her teach on before, but I’m like, No, I would like to listen to Dr. Friedman again.

What I look for in my teachers when I’m making choices is I really love teachers who are transparent and authentic. So your question invites me to be transparent and authentic, because I’m going to say to you that transition, which should have been smooth in terms of training techniques, I really was able to learn to be a trainer in some extraordinary settings that really call out the best skills.

People often say, “You know, it’s amazing that the dolphins could learn that mine detection and detonation work,” and keep in mind the work I did for the Navy was classified, it is no longer classified, I can tell you about it. The dolphins’ lives were not in danger. That sounds really dramatic, like we were risking the dolphins. We were not. The dolphins and the sailors, the military, all the personnel, all the military personnel, dolphins and people, moved away from the setting before anything was detonated. I don’t want any listeners to think, oh my gosh, how cavalier I am about that training. It was as safe as possible for everybody.

But in saying that, people go, “That’s amazing you could teach that to the dolphins,” and I say, “No, no. What was amazing is every one of those dozens and dozens of dolphins that we took out to the open ocean every day had to jump back in our motorboats, our Boston whalers, to go back to their enclosures every evening, every afternoon, good training session, bad training session. They were free, and they had to choose to jump on a boat and come back to the enclosures.”

When you have that as your school for learning, you get an ego. So I got an ego to go, “Hey, I trained open ocean dolphins. How hard is it to train dogs?” Not only was it hard, here’s the thing I’m sort of dancing around that I’m humbled by. I didn’t think dogs could be trained using the same methods as marine mammals. So I really, switching over species, switched training methods and apprenticed with a local balanced trainer. That wasn’t a term at the time in the mid-’90s, but used leash corrections and also positive reinforcement, but all mixed together.

So I learned how to pop a choke chain, and I trained that way for, I want to say, at least a year, with only the mildest cognitive dissonance in the back of my head going, Why would dogs be different than every other species I’ve ever worked with? But of course we’ve got a mythology about why dogs are different. We can tell that story about pack leaders and hierarchies, and we can spin a good tale about why all other animals can be trained using positive reinforcement and a marker signal, but not dogs, they need corrections.

Karen Pryor, fortuitously, happened to be talking in Seattle. She was giving a seminar, and I went to the seminar because Karen’s a friend, so I just like, Hey, I’ll go visit Karen. I don’t need to learn anything about training. Now I’m mortified to say that out loud. Karen started the weekend seminar — I still remember it, it was more than twenty years ago — Karen started the weekend seminar to this big room filled with dog trainers, hundreds of dog trainers, and she said, “I’d really be grateful if no one gave a leash correction over the time we’re together this weekend. It’s upsetting to me, and it’s upsetting to the dogs and anybody who has to watch it.” And then she just went on to talk, and like, What? What is she talking about? There’s going to be anarchy in here. What does she mean, no leash correction? I had no idea what she was talking about.

Oh my gosh, I’m so glad I wandered into that seminar with her, because she started the dominoes falling in my mind to be able to say, Why, possibly, would you not do this with dogs? She was such a good friend and mentor to me, to help me be brave enough to teach classes in my city in a completely different way that dog training colleagues were saying to me, “Absolutely impossible. You’re going to fail at this.” So I’m grateful to her and so many people that taught me that it was possible.

But my transition was ugly, so if you saw me in that time of me trying to figure out, does all the learning and training I did with marine mammals for over a decade, does it really fit in with dogs? Aren’t dogs different? And the answer really is, no, they’re not. Good thing I could bring all my other skills into the training. It’s a different way to train dogs, but I’d say it’s a better way and it’s certainly more fun. So that kept me going for a long time, because I don’t think we all agree on that yet, so there’s work to do.

Melissa Breau: That’s really interesting. It’s a specific pivot point or turning point for you. At what point would you say you actually became, to steal a line from your website, focused on positive, unique solutions, and what has kept you interested in positive training and made you transition to that so completely?

Kathy Sdao: I owned that dog daycare for several years, and then at some point felt like I could fledge from that work. It was good work, but it wasn’t really feeding me, so I switched at that point to becoming a behavior consultant, becoming a certified applied animal behavior consultant. And so, at that point, to be able to help people create solutions for challenging problems — that brought out a different level of my knowledge than running a daycare.

So I’d have to say it was at that point that you have to make decisions about … today we’d look at the Humane Hierarchy and we’d go, “Wow, that algorithm, that sort of model for choosing behavior interventions to be least intrusive for the learner” — I couldn’t have given that language back in the late 1990s. That’s in reality what I’m doing with the best teachers I can to help me, because I’m now entering people’s lives and their families to help them resolve behavior problems with a family member, so that changes things.

The idea of that algorithm for interventions, for our training methods with nonhuman learners, comes to us from the work that behavior analysts do with children. And so to make that line fuzzier, to stop saying “humans and animals” like that’s a dichotomy, humans or animals, we are animals, and the that learning we do, the teaching we do with animals and people, I want there to be no line dividing those two.

So to be able to say, to help a family understand they can help their dog become less aggressive through skilled behavior intervention that’s mostly focused on positive reinforcement of alternative behaviors, if I can help a family do that, it changes their lives. It not only changes that dog’s life, but if I do my job right, it helps that family become curious about how behavior works.

And you know what? We all behave. I love the kids’ book Everybody Poops. I want there to be a kids’ book called Everybody Behaves. We had the zookeepers read the Everybody Poops kids’ book. I’m not a parent of human children, but parents tell me, “Oh yeah, that’s a classic book. We read Everybody Poops in our family.”

Where’s the book Everybody Behaves, so that you can understand if you can change the behavior in one family member, and it happens to be your four-legged dog, and you’re successful at that, and you sort of had fun doing it, and you didn’t have to be coercive, oh my gosh, then what does that open up for you in terms of all the other behavior change solutions you can come up with? The reason that’s interesting to me is I like my species a lot. The colleagues I have that say, “Oh, I work with animals because I don’t much like people” are in the wrong business. We should like our species, because I feel like we’re doomed if we don’t learn some better ways of interacting.

So I honestly feel like I’m helping people learn about better ways of interacting. I’m teaching them nonviolence in an around-the-corner, sneaky way to go, “Yeah, we’re just training your dog,” but not really. That’s never how I’m going into a situation. I’m hoping we can all be learning together to be effective at the same time we’re being nonviolent. There’s tons of work to do on that. I’m never going to run out of work. It’s a tall mountain to climb.

Every dog that comes into my consultation office — I mean this sincerely — I’m still fascinated at the learning. I had a new … it’s a new breed for me … I always joke when people first contact me and they say, “What do you know about this obscure breed?” Like, in other words, “Are you an expert in …?” My answer to this is “No, but I’ve trained like fifty different species. Does that count that I don’t know?”

So a new breed for me this month was a lovely, lovely client with two Berger Picards, Picardy Shepherds. Beautiful dogs, but the breeder talked my elderly client into taking two puppies — “As long as you’re going to take one, why don’t you take two?” Breeders! Breeders, breeders, breeders! Anyway, lovely woman, retired, her husband just retired, now have two very active herding puppies. As those dogs come into my office, and they’ve got some behavior issues, but just to watch them learn. Tuesday I was sitting on the floor with them, teaching them just basic behaviors, and to watch their behavior change and their agency kick in that they realized, wow, their behavior is controlling my click, I don’t know, it never gets boring for me. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’m still as excited with each dog that comes in as I was in the beginning. Aren’t I lucky?

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome, and it totally comes through in that answer. I do want to back up for a second, because you mentioned two things there that I’m curious. All listeners may not be familiar with what the Humane Hierarchy is, or what it means, and I was hoping you could briefly explain the phrase.

Kathy Sdao: I shouldn’t presume people know it, but I’m hoping it becomes a common term in our conversations about training, because, Melissa, you’ve been doing this a long time, too, you know trainers like to have opinions about what’s the right way to do things. And unfortunately, at least in the United States, there aren’t a lot of laws about what are the right ways to do things, and it’s a Wild West out there, at least in my neck of the woods, about what’s considered acceptable training practices.

I’ve had two different clients come to me, new clients come to me, in the last couple of months, having gone to another local … we’ll call it a trainer. Both of their dogs were in the course of a ten-week package of private lessons. In Week 6, both dogs were hung until they passed out, in Week 6, to make sure that the dogs knew who the leader was. Were hung until they passed out. This is acceptable training. It boggles my mind. So to be able to have an algorithm model to be able to say, “What’s OK when you’re intervening in another organism’s behaviors? Is effectiveness all we care about, that it works?”

I first learned of the Humane Hierarchy through Dr. Susan Friedman’s teaching, and the easiest way, I think, to find out about it would be on her website, behaviorworks.org. I certainly think if you Googled “Humane Hierarchy in training,” you would see that it’s a series of, the last time I looked at it, six levels of intervention. Six choices you would have as a trainer for how you could change your learner’s behavior, starting from the least intrusive way, basically looking at the learner’s physical environment and health situation, to the most intrusive way, Level 6, which would be positive punishment, and that there would be lots of cautions and prohibitions before you’d ever get to Level 6, and that often, if we’re doing our jobs really in a skillful way, we never have to consider using positive punishment, the addition of something painful, pressuring, or annoying, contingent on our learner’s behavior.

Positive punishment is done so casually and flippantly in dog training, especially in the United States, without a second thought, and this sort of hierarchy of methods we might use really calls out our best practices to say we have a lot of other approaches to go through before we jump right to punishing our learner for behavior we find dangerous or destructive.

So I think learning and conversation that continues around the Humane Hierarchy, which comes to us trainers from where? From the rules for behaviorist analysts working with children, human children. They can’t just go in and do whatever they want. They have professional restrictions, as should we, as trainers. But that day is not here yet for us. It’s coming, I hope. So I find that to be a really helpful model. It’s not the only model out there, but it’s the one I go to most often when I’m teaching and also when I’m being a consultant.

Melissa Breau: Thank you. I appreciate you taking a moment just to break that down and explain it for everybody. And then you mentioned Everybody Poops, and I haven’t read that book. So actually I’m curious. Can you give us the gist of what we can imply from the title?

Kathy Sdao: You know what? I’m being really serious. I have not read it since I was a zookeeper and was required. I’m not kidding. It’s a kids’ book, I would think the age group is probably 4-year-olds, to be able to say to your child, “Poop is normal. Poop is good. Don’t worry about your poop. We all poop. We’ve got this thing in common. It’s cool.” It’s actually a powerful message, like, “Wow, all right, there’s nothing weird about that. Everybody poops.”

But seriously, in the back of my head I’ve got this Everybody Behaves book, because if you understood behavior in one organism, seriously … I’ve got dear clients right now, they’re just lovely, they’ve been my clients for a long time. I’m actually friends with the family now, and one of my clients has a 9-year-old son. As a birthday present he got the fish agility set from R2 Fish School, so 9-year-old boy, he’s got his fish agility equipment. What he said to me when I saw him just two days ago, he said to me, “Kathy, I have a science fair coming up. Can you help me teach the fish to do weave poles?” I’m like, This is the best question I’ve ever been asked. Seriously, I’m so ecstatic I can’t even stand it. That a 9-year-old would say, “For my science project I’m going to teach fish to do weave poles”? Aren’t we hopeful what that 9-year-old boy is going to grow into, just for the good of the world? Seriously.

Melissa Breau: That is so cool.

Kathy Sdao: He is going to have the perfect approach to being a parent and a boss and a friend. He’s got it at the age of 9, because he’s going to teach that fish. And how do you teach the fish? The same way I taught the dolphins and the same way I teach the dogs. It’s all the same learning, so that learning principals are general and everybody behaves. Figure it out with one and then it spreads. It’s so exciting. So yes, I’m going to help Ryan with his goldfish-training project. We’re in the process now of choosing the right fish. It’s just making me very happy.

Melissa Breau: I seriously hope you video some of that and share it, just because that’s so cool. It’s such a neat project. It’s such a neat science project.

Kathy Sdao: One of the most valuable books I’ve got on my shelf, and I will never sell it, it was vanity-published probably 20 years ago. The title of the book is How to Dolphin Train Your Goldfish, and the thing that made me buy it in the first place is the author, C. Scott Johnson, was a really high and bio-sonar Ph.D. at the Navy, seriously geeky researcher into sonar. He helped us set up some of the training for the dolphins.

I’m like, That’s such an odd name, C. Scott Johnson. I see it on a book list, I’m like, He wrote a book. It’s a 20-page, black-and-white, vanity-published, it is not a high-end book, but it is a perfect description of teaching five tricks to a goldfish and it’s brilliant. So now everybody’s going to go on Amazon and try to find the book and it’s impossible. I wrote to him once and said, “If you’ve got cases of this book in your garage, I can sell them for you, because it’s awesome.” So I’ve got good resources to help Ryan, and yes, Melissa, it’s a great tip. I will videotape.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. I wanted to ask you, as somebody who has been a full-time animal trainer for over 30 years now, and in dogs for quite a while too, how have you seen the field change? What changes are you maybe even seeing today?

Kathy Sdao: Oh my gosh, how long do we have? Oh my gosh, the changes. I don’t even know where to start. I just taught at my 35th ClickerExpo — 35th. I’ve gotten the honor and privilege of not only teaching but attending 35 ClickerExpos over 15 years with amazing faculty as my colleagues, oh my gosh. To look back at the first ClickerExpo 15 years ago, what we were teaching and talking about, and now? I wonder when is it that I need to retire, because everything’s just moved beyond me. It’s so, gosh, I feel like a dinosaur sometimes.

So, first off, I already alluded to the idea that whatever species we train is not unique in how they learn. Now, they might be unique in what reinforces them, how we’re going to choose our reinforcers, or how we’re going to set up the environment, or what behaviors we might teach first, absolutely. But that doesn’t mean that the actual laws of learning and that choice of what training methods we will use, maybe with the Humane Hierarchy as a reference for us on how to do that effectively without taking control away from our learner, to be able to say that’s general throughout species, to me, that’s new.

I like that we’re moving in that direction and stopping the conversation, or maybe not having so much of the conversation, that says, “Rottweilers learn this way, and they need this kind of training,” and “High-drive dogs, they need this particular kind of training.” I like that the conversation’s moving to more general. In fact, even the terminology, my terminology, has changed from saying “the animal learned” to “the learner,” so we are actually using a noun that encompasses nonhuman animals and human animals. And actually even the word training is being replaced by the verb teaching. I’m liking that. It’s just a reflection that we teach learners rather than train animals just is taking that it’s not just politically correct, it’s reflecting the science, which says we can use some of these general principals to our advantage and to the learner’s advantage, right?

Melissa Breau: Right.

Kathy Sdao: Even the idea that we want to empower our learners, you know, when I started with dogs, that was heresy. You would empower the dog? You’re supposed to be the leader. You’re supposed to be in charge. This is not about empowering. It’s about showing them their place. They need to learn deference. They need to learn their place in the hierarchy, and if they get that sorted out, all the good behavior will come along with it.

To be able to say that your learner can not only make choices but … I’m so intrigued by this; this is kind of new learning to me and I’m still playing with it. So to be able to say, “Give your learner a way to say “no” to opt out of anything, opt out of a social contact, opt out of a husbandry behavior you’ve asked the dog to do.” If the dog says, “No, I don’t feel like, it,” that we not only accept that no, we reinforce the no — this is like mind-blowing. What does that mean that you say to your learner, “You don’t have to. You don’t have to”?

I’m just intrigued that this doesn’t produce complete opting out, the animal doesn’t want to do anything, you get no compliance at all. No, instead, you set the animal free to feel so brave and safe in your presence that they’re not compelled or pressured to do behaviors. I don’t know. I feel like this is a new conversation that I’ve had with colleagues, again not just about allowing animals to opt out, but reinforcing them for opting.

Ken Ramirez talked about training beluga whales, a specific beluga whale, to have a buoy in the tank that she could press with her big old beluga melon, her big head, and say, “No, I don’t feel like doing it.” The data he collected with his team at Shedd Aquarium — what did that actually do? What did we get in her behavior? Less cooperation? Or did it provide her safety to be able to work with us in a more fluent way? I don’t know. Twenty years ago I can’t even imagine we would have had a conversation like that.

Melissa Breau: That’s so cool. It’s such a neat concept. I’ll have to go look up the specific stuff that Ken’s put out on it, because I don’t think I’ve had the chance to hear him talk about it. So that’s cool.

Kathy Sdao: You know, it’s funny that you say that, Melissa. The timing is really great, because the videos from this year’s ClickerExpo — there’s two ClickerExpos a year in the U.S., one in January on the West Coast and one in March on the East Coast. The presentations, and there’s a lot of them — there are three days, five simultaneous tracks, it’s a lot of presentations — but those are recorded, and they’re usually not available until the summer, but I know that they’re going to be released later this week.

So clickertraining.com, you could actually look for Ken Ramirez’s presentation on — I think it’s called Dr. No — on teaching animals to be able to opt out of procedures. You would actually not only be able to read about it, Ken has written on clickertraining.com about that procedure, you’d actually be able to hear Ken teach on it. So just to know there’s a wealth of educational stuff. Gosh, there’s lots of good stuff out there, but those ClickerExpo recordings are just one thing you can take advantage of and soon.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. And actually this will be out next Friday, so by the time this comes out, those will be available, so anybody who wants to go check them out can.

Kathy Sdao: Thanks Melissa.

Melissa Breau: We talked about the change that you’ve seen. What about where the field is heading, or even just where you’d like for it to go in the next few decades? What do you think is ahead for us?

Kathy Sdao: It’s a different question between where it is going and where I want it to go. I don’t actually know where it’s going. What I dream about. I dream about this. We need some guidelines. We need some legal guidelines. We need some way to have a field that has professional standards, and I don’t know what that looks like, and I know that’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s just not OK. Yes, we continue to educate, and we continue to raise the standards, but I want to bring everybody along with us, meaning all my colleagues. That big line we tend to draw — I’m certainly guilty of this — of this “Us, the positive trainers, and them, the other trainers,” and there’s this big chasm between us. I want to feel like there’s not a big chasm between us. We’re all doing the best we can with the knowledge we have, and you’re putting more information out there through these amazing podcasts and through all the classes that I’m going to call the Academy, it’s not the Academy, I don’t know …

Melissa Breau: FDSA.

Kathy Sdao: The acronym doesn’t trip off my tongue. But to be able to go, there’s amazing education and I know there is, because I’ve got colleagues teaching for you, and I’ve got students who take those courses and rave and are learning so much. That’s great. I love the increased educational opportunities, and the bar has really gotten higher. They’re better. We’re better at teaching this stuff.

But I feel there’s got to be a way that there’s a professional ethic that comes along with. We’ve all got to be striving and moving toward better practices. It’s no longer OK to say, “We’ve always used these coercive tools with dogs, and we’ve been able to teach them just fine.” I want that not to be so OK anymore.

I’m not sounding very eloquent on this because I don’t know exactly how to say … I strive for the day when I’m not losing sleep over what the dog trainer down the street is doing in the name of training. I would like to not lose sleep over what a professional dog trainer with a slick website can do.

Melissa Breau: And I totally get you. I want to transition for a minute there. I’d love to talk a little bit about your book. I mentioned it in the intro, the title is Plenty in Life is Free: Reflections on Dogs, Training, and Finding Grace. Can you start off by explaining the name a little bit, and then share a little on what the book is about?

 

Kathy Sdao: Thanks Melissa. I sort of love my book, so thanks for giving me an opportunity to talk about it. I have to credit my publishers at Dogwise. Larry Woodward — what a lovely, kind man. My original title for that book, and I don’t actually remember it because it was so horrible. I didn’t see it. I thought it was really clever. I like puns, and so I’d come up with … honestly, I don’t remember. That’s how much I mentally blocked the bad title I had. Larry so graciously talked me into something else, and Plenty in Life is Free was his idea, and I really love it.

The thing that really inspired me to write the book is I was becoming disenchanted with “Nothing in life is free” protocols that not only was I running into that my colleagues would use, but I used all the time in my consultation practice. I would hand out instructions on “For your aggressive dog,” or your anxious dog or whatever behavior problem brought my clients to me.

Basic rule of thumb we would start at was your dog would get nothing that the dog would consider a reinforcer without doing a behavior for you first. Often these are implemented as the dog must sit before any food, toy, attention, freedom, there can be other behaviors, but it’s sort of like you don’t pay unless the dog complies with one of your signals first.

Those were at the time, and still in some places, not only ubiquitous, like everywhere, but applied to any problem. So not only were they really common, they’re applied to any problem, and the more I used them and really looked at them, I found them wanting in a lot of ways. Not only were they inadequate, but it seemed to me that they were producing really constrained relationships, like not free flowing, spontaneous, joyful relationships between people and their dogs, that everything was all those reinforcers were minutely controlled and titrated.

I had clients say to me, “Oh my gosh, I pet my dog for nothing, just because she’s cute.” I’m like, When did that become a problem? When is loving your dog the issue? And so the more I took a look at them, I realized I and maybe some of my colleagues were handing those out because we didn’t have a way to be able to say, “Yes, we want to reinforce good behavior, but we don’t want to be so stringent about it that we don’t allow for the free flow of attention and love between family members that we aspire to, to have a joyful life.”

Not only did I want to point out the concerns I had for those “Nothing in life is free” or “Say please” protocols — they come by different names — but to give an alternative. So to be able to say, if I looked at my masters degree in animal learning, what would the science say would be the replacement foundation advice we would be giving people. If I’m going to pull the “Nothing in life is free” handout out of my colleagues’ hands — and that’s what some people who have read the book said: “Wait, that’s my Week 1 handout for class. What am I going to do?” “I know, let me give you another handout.”

So, for me, it would be the acronym SMART. I don’t use a lot of acronyms. I worked for the military, you can get really carried away with acronyms, but SMART — See, Mark, And Reinforce Training — is a really nice package to be able to tell my clients what habits I want to create in them. Because I’m actually changing their behavior. Anytime we teach, we’re changing the human’s behavior.

What is it that science says we want the humans to do more of? Notice the behavior. Become a better observer. See behavior in your learner. Mark the behavior you want to see more of. Use a clicker, use a word, use a thumbs up. We’re not going to debate too much about has to be one particular sort of marker signal, but marking is good. It gives information to your learner that’s really important. And reinforce. So to be able to say, if I can develop that see, mark, and reinforce habit in my humans, the animal’s behavior, the dog’s behavior, is going to change, reflecting how much your habit has developed. Just to be able to shift people from that “I’m controlling every reinforcer in your life” strategy to “It’s my responsibility to notice behavior I want to see more of, and to put reinforcement contingencies in place for that to make those behaviors more likely” — that’s a huge shift. If we can get that going, I hope my little book might start the ball rolling in that direction.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. I know the book came out in 2012, and since then you’ve done some on-demand videos and you have all sorts of other resources on your site. I’d love to know what aspect of training or methods have you most excited today. What’s out there that you want to talk about?

Kathy Sdao: It’s going to probably be a surprising answer to that. In my talks most recently, my presentations most recently, at ClickerExpo, because I’ve been on faculty for a long time there, interesting conversations happen about this time of year between the folks who put on ClickerExpo and me and all the other faculty and say, “Hey, what do you want to talk about next year, Kathy?” When that conversation happened last year, maybe even the year before, one of the things that’s been really on my mind a lot is burnout, is burnout in my colleagues, and so sort of jokingly in that presentation, call it my Flee Control presentation, meaning I see lots of really skilled colleagues leaving the profession. I see some skilled colleagues leaving more than just the profession, leaving life.

It’s a really serious problem for trainers, for veterinarians, and where does this sense of burnout come from when we’ve spent all this time developing our mechanical training chops? We’re actually good at the nuts and bolts, the physical skills of training, and we’re studying the science, and we’re taking courses and we’re getting all this education. How is it that so many colleagues quit?

It’s a hard profession that we’ve got, those of us that are doing it professionally, and it can be exhausting. And so to be able to take a look at how we can support each other in a really skilled way, meaning taking the skills we have as trainers and applying them to our own longevity and mental health as practitioners.

I think we’re missing some sort of support mechanisms that are there in other professions. For instance, I have a client who’s a psychiatrist and she works with a really difficult population, patients who are suicidal, very frequently suicidal and significantly suicidal, so she has a very challenging human patient load. When we were talking a little while back, she was at a dog-training lesson with her Rottweiler, we were working together, she said, “You know, every Thursday at 1:00 I have to meet with three of my peers. I have to. It’s one of my professional demands. I would lose my license if I didn’t. We don’t look at each other’s cases. We don’t offer problem solutions. We give each other support. We’re there to vent, we’re there to listen, we’re there to offload some of the grief and heartache that comes from doing our jobs well, and so that’s just part of our professional standards.”

My jaw sort of dropped open and I’m like, wait, what? I didn’t even know that was a thing. Why is that not a thing for us? Why do we not have structures at least to support us being in this for the long haul? Because really, here’s the thing. When I started out being a trainer and people said, “You’ve got to be a really good observer. That’s what trainers do. They observe behavior.”  I’m like, cool, I’m going to get that 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell talks about on watching animals behave. That’s what the dog daycare did for me, lots and lots of hours watching dogs behave. No one says to you, “Hey, let’s warn you that you’re not going to be able to unsee.” You can’t go back. You can’t stop seeing animals in distress and in difficult situations, and it develops a lot of grief in each of us. So I think I’m losing colleagues not just because they’ve got better job offers. It’s because their hearts are breaking.

I don’t know what the structure looks like to say I want to help prevent burnout in a structured way, but even the title of my book is going to hint the other thing I want to say to you, Melissa, which is intentionally that book title has the word grace in it because I talk about my spirituality in that book, which is kind of weird in a dog-training book, but to me they’re all one and the same. Training, to me, is a spiritual practice, completely, and so I don’t think we have comfortable formats to be able to have the conversation about the overlap of animal training and spirituality, not in a really saccharine, Pollyanna kind of way, but in a really open our hearts to what’s deepest and true for us.

I don’t know. I want to figure out ways to facilitate that conversation. Because this is the conversation I want to have, so I’m brainstorming projects I’m hoping to take on in the next year or so that will let us have some formats to have that conversation. We’re always talking about reinforcement for our learners, and I never want us to forget we have to set up reinforcement for ourselves and the work that we do. I think spirituality talks about how we can develop mindfulness practices that allow us to do good work, but also to stay happy and centered while we’re doing it. I’m sure there are resources out there I haven’t tripped upon, but I’m intrigued at developing even more.

Melissa Breau: It’s such an interesting topic, and it’s definitely something I don’t see enough people talking about or even thinking about, just our own mental health as you are a trainer or as you work towards training. It’s an important topic for sure.

Kathy Sdao: Exactly.

Melissa Breau: We’re getting close to the end here, and I want to ask you a slightly different version of the three questions I usually ask at the end of the podcast when I have a new guest. The first one I tweaked a little bit here, but can you share a story of a training breakthrough, either on your side or on the learner's end?

Kathy Sdao: Anyone who’s heard me teach at all is going to have heard something about my favorite learner of all time. That’s E.T., the male Pacific walrus that I got the privilege to work with at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma.

The very short version of an amazing story is when I first got hired at the zoo in 1990, I had worked with seals and sea lions and other pinnipeds, but had never even seen a walrus. So I spent the morning before my interview at the zoo, walking around the zoo and looking at the animals that I would train, and realized that E.T. — he weighed about 3500 pounds at that point — was one of the scariest animals I had ever seen.

When I went into the interview I got asked the question, “If you get hired here, you’re going to have to work with a new species, a Pacific walrus. What do you think about that?” Of course, anybody who’s been in an interview knows that the answer is, “Ooh, I’d be really intrigued to have the opportunity.” Of course, you’re saying how cool that would be, yet on the inside I’m positive that he’s going to kill me.

I mean this sincerely. I had moved into an unfurnished house, I had no furniture, so I have really clear memories of all I have in that house is a sleeping bag, and I’m waking up in cold sweat nightmares, sleeping in a sleeping bag on the floor in my empty house in Tacoma right after I got hired, those nightmares are that E.T. is going to kill me.

He is completely aggressive, humans cannot get in his exhibit, he’s destroying the exhibit because it’s inadequate for a walrus. It was designed for sea lions. He came to the zoo as an orphaned pup in Alaska, nobody really expected him to survive, he grew to be an adolescent.

The reason that there was a job opening at that department at the zoo is all the trainers had quit. There were no marine mammal trainers at the time I got hired. I don’t know why they quit, I didn’t ask them, but I suspect it was because E.T. weighed nearly two tons and was an adolescent and he was dangerous, destructive, oh, and he was X-rated — he masturbated in the underwater viewing windows for a couple of hours a day, and you don’t need the visuals for that. Trust me when I tell you, if you were an elementary school teacher in Tacoma, Washington, you did not go to the underwater viewing section. It was awful. We didn’t know what to do with him.

The end of that story that starts with truly I don’t want to be anywhere near him, he’s terrifying me, he becomes one of the best friends I’ve ever had, I trust him with my life. By the time I quit the zoo five years later, E.T. knew over 200 behaviors on cue, we got in the exhibit with him, we took naps with him, I trusted him with my life.

He lived another 20 years. He passed away only a couple of years ago. He was amazing. His behavior changed so much that I am being honest when I tell you I didn’t see the old walrus in the current walrus. There was no more aggression. I don’t mean infrequent outbursts of aggression. I mean we didn’t see it anymore, based on what? We were brilliant trainers? Based on we were stuck with him and we needed to come up — three new trainers, myself and two gentlemen from Sea World — we needed to come up with a plan to make this livable, and what came out wasn’t a tolerable animal. It was genius, and I mean that sincerely. If anyone had had the chance to see E.T. working with his trainers, it wasn’t just that he learned really complicated behavior chains and he was really fluent in them. It was we were his friends, and I mean that in the true sense of the word.

So my biggest breakthrough is that I can say that E.T. considered me his friend. Oh my gosh, that’s it, that’s what I’m putting on my resume. I was E.T. the walrus’s friend, and he taught me more about training and the possibilities, the potential in each learner, that given enough time and resources, we sometimes can unleash and release those behaviors.

That doesn’t mean we don’t ever give up on animals and say, “Oh my gosh, they’re too dangerous, we can’t change this behavior in a way that’s adequate,” but the fact that we didn’t really have that easy choice with E.T., it made us pull out all our best training ideas and to be persistent. Wow, you just couldn’t believe what was in there, and without videos and about ten more hours, I can’t do him justice, but that we were friends? Yeah, that’s my coolest accomplishment.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. My second-to-last question is, what is the best piece of training advice that you’ve ever heard?

Kathy Sdao: Let me do two. I’m going to cheat. Years ago, this is straightforward training advice, but it’s one that I keep in the back of my head, which is, “Train like no one’s watching you.” Because even when I don’t have an audience … sometimes I have a real audience and I’m onstage trying to train an animal, which is nerve-wracking, but I don’t need a human audience in front of me. I have judges in my head, so I always have an audience I always carry around, my critics, and to be able to free myself from those and to instead what happens if I say, “There’s no audience in my head judging me”? It frees me up to see what’s happening right in front of me.

There’s a quote I have next to my desk and it’s from outside of training context. It’s from a Jesuit priest whom I like very much, Father Greg Boyle, and the phrase that’s on the Post-It next to my desk says, “Now. Here. This.” To be able to be in the present moment with your learner and say, “What’s happening right now? What behavior is right in front of me?” sounds really simple, but it’s not. It takes real mindfulness and intention to be in the present moment. When you’re paying attention to your audience, real or imagined in your head, you can’t be really present. So that would be one: Train like no one’s watching you.

And here’s one that comes from my favorite science book, and every time I have a chance to have anybody listen to me anywhere, I’m going to quote the name of the book so that I can get this book in everybody’s hands: Coercion and Its Fallout, by Dr. Murray Sidman. It’s an astonishing book. It’s not a training book. It’s a science book, but it’s very readable, most easily purchased at the behavior website, behavior.org, which is the Cambridge behavioral site. It’s hard to find on Amazon. You shouldn’t pay much more than twenty dollars for Coercion and Its Fallout, by Dr. Murray Sidman.

Here’s the training advice that Dr. Sidman would give. It’s not training advice, it’s life advice, but it’s my new tagline. Let’s see how this works, Melissa, because, you know, you’ve been doing these podcasts for a while, you’re into training deep. It’s hard to go “positive training,” that phrase is kind of vague and weird, and clicker training is … so what am I? I’m going to take Dr. Sidman’s, one of his lines from Coercion and Its Fallout: “Positive reinforcement works and coercion is dangerous.” That’s a seven-word descriptor for what it is I do, and it comes for every learner. Positive reinforcement works, and coercion, Dr. Sidman’s definition is all the other three quadrants: positive punishment, negative punishment, and negative reinforcement. So we’ve got the four operant conditioning quadrants. Dr. Sidman’s going to go, “Positive reinforcement works.” It does the job. It’s all you need. The other three quadrants, they’re there, I know, we use them, but they’re dangerous. I love that summary. I’m using that with my clients now. I’m seeing if I can let that really simple summary of the science and our best practices to see if it works.

Melissa Breau: That’s fantastic. I love that. It’s a very simple, easy line to remember.

Kathy Sdao: It’s Dr. Sidman’s genius, so take it and run with it.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. Last question for you: Who is somebody else in the training world that you look up to?

Kathy Sdao: There’s so many. But because he’s now my neighbor … Kathy, what’s the most exciting thing that’s happened to you recently? Ken Ramirez has moved in my back yard. I’m so excited!

That genius trainer, the kindest man you’ll ever meet, colleague of mine for the last 25 years, truly amazing human being, is now not only living a half-hour from me in Graham, Washington, just outside of Tacoma, he’s not only living near me but offering courses. He’s teaching a course this week at The Ranch. It’s Karen Pryor’s training facility here in Graham, Washington. It’s an amazing facility, but that Ken, mentor and friend and genius trainer … a client of mine yesterday said, “Wait a minute. Who’s that guy that taught the butterflies to fly on cue for the BBC’s documentary?” Like, oh my gosh, that’s Ken, yes, he taught butterflies, herds of butterflies, what do you call a group of butterflies, swarms of butterflies to fly on cue to the London Symphony for a big fundraising gig. Oh my god. Now is that someone you want to know more about?

So I’m going to do a shout out to Ken and say you can find out more about the educational offerings at The Ranch at Karen Pryor’s website, clickertraining.com. They’ve got a drop-down on The Ranch, and I don’t live far away from there, so if you want to come beachcombing with me after you’ve visited Ken and learned stuff, I’ll take you beachcombing. I love my beachcombing, so I’m happy to share that.

Melissa Breau: That sounds like so much fun. I keep meaning to get out that way at some point and I haven’t been yet, so it’s definitely on the bucket list.

Kathy Sdao: He’s going to draw some really cool people to my neighborhood, so I’m going to share. I’m going to share.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Kathy. This has been truly fantastic.

Kathy Sdao: Thanks so much, Melissa. You made it fun, and it’s just a real treat to be affiliated with … now teach me the name: FDSA.

Melissa Breau: Yes. Absolutely.

Kathy Sdao: Excellent. So cool to be affiliated with you guys. You do great work, and I’m just honored.

Melissa Breau: Thank you. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We’ll be back next week, this time with — she was mentioned earlier in this podcast — Michele Pouliot to talk about being a change-maker in the dog world.

If you haven’t already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice and our next episode will be automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.

Credits:

Today’s show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called “Buddy.” Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

1 Comments
  • two and a half months ago
    Lisa Wright
    This has to be one of my all time favourite podcasts. I've often felt my training journey from the time I was a small child was hand in hand with my spiritual journey and Kathy's comments resonated with me. Thank you so much
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