Plenty in Life is Free:Reflections of Dogs, Training and Finding Grace, by Kathy Sdao came out in 2012, published by Dogwise Publishing. What I want to do here is more reflect on some of the pages I dog-eared as I was reading than do a conventional book review.
First, who is Kathy Sdao? She has the intials ACAAB after her name, and those stand for Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. An animal trainer for over 25 years, she trained marine mammals before switching her focus to dog training. Now she’s on the staff of Karen Pryor’s Clicker Expo and she teaches dog trainers around the world. From reading the book, I can tell you that she is warm-hearted, funny, and a very interesting person. I particularly enjoyed that she talked about some of the ways her thinking has changed: “Instead of clinging to certainty, about, well everything, I’ve started pitching a few philosophical tents on slippery slopes. I’ve also found some secure ledges. (p.2)”
The title of the book, Plenty in Life is Free, is a response to NILIF, which stands for “Nothing in Life is Free,” and is an approach to living with dogs that requires them to do something for us before we do anything for them. In its extreme form, they can’t come to you for a bit of petting without your requiring them to sit or do something else you command first. I don’t live that way with my husband, and I don’t see why I should with my dogs. I’ve only mentioned NILIF once before on this site, in a short post where I do have one good link to another article analyzing it.
I liked that her personal faith journey is interwoven some with how she thinks about dogs and training them. If this isn’t your cup of tea, you could still enjoy the book. But I liked it, perhaps because my own journey has similarities. Her path is Catholic, I am Episcopalian, not too different and I am right with her when she writes of unconditional Divine love. It’s part of why I am drawn to dogs so much, they show so much love so often.
So I found it very pleasing when I got to this bit:
I’ve come to believe that NILIF contradicts the central miracle I embrace: that I’m surrounded by countless unearned gifts from an extravagantly loving God. So, for me, one these opposing ideas–“nothing in life is free for dogs” or “grace is abundant for all creatures”–had to go. I just did not realize this until I adopted Nick. (p.8)
I’ll leave the story of Nick to be savored by those who read the book. I’ll just say that Kathy met the dog Nick half an hour before he had an appointment to be euthanized due to his aggressiveness. And that the following chapters take on NILIF and shred it quite thoroughly, along with a few other sacred cows. Good reading!
From the Back Cover of Plenty in Life Is Free
Here is the description on the back cover:
What if the secret to great dog training is to be a frequent “feeder” rather than a strong leader? A skilled reinforcer rather than a strict enforcer?
Over the past two decades, countless dog trainers across the world have embraced the liberal use of positive reinforcement. Often accompanying this trend, however, is an underlying emphasis, inherited from more coercive models of dog training, that each human in the family must be the dog’s leader. But adopting the role of leader using what is known as the “Nothing in Life is Free” training protocol can result in stifling rules that constrain a person’s ability to share affection and attention with their dogs. This focus on human leadership puts puts the burden on dogs to “earn” their rewards rather than placing the primary responsibility on the humans to be generous, precise, creative “feeders” (i.e., reinforcers).
In this new book, renowned dog trainer Kathy Sdao reveals how her journey through life and her decades of experience training marine mammals and dogs led her to reject a number of sacred cows including the leadership model of dog training. She describes in narrative fashion how she has come to focus her own training philosophy which emphasizes developing partnerships in which humans and dogs exchange reinforcements and continually cede the upper hand to one another.
And here is a quote about the author and the book:
Kathy Sdao is as wise, witty, warm, and adventurous on paper as she is on the lecture platform. This is a wonderful book about an issue deep and dear to all of us: how to learn to be thoughtful, kind, and generous to our dogs, to each other, and to ourselves, in a world that pressures us to be harsh, resistant, and controlling instead. — Karen Pryor, Author of Reaching the Animal Mind, founder of www.clickertraining.com
It’s at Amazon.
All in all, Plenty in Life is Free moves the conversation forward on dog training.