Plenty in Life is Free:
Reflections on Dogs, Training and Finding Grace

By Kathy Sdao. Dogwise Publishing. $12.95.

Being your dog’s best friend is nice, but it has its limits.

Sdao, a Tacoma trainer and associate certified applied animal behaviorist, reflects on how time and spirituality have given her pause and changed the way she trains dogs and views her relationship toward them.

“While I have always been associated with a training philosophy that avoids coercion and physical force, there is one particular tenet of positive-training philosophy that I’ve wrestled with Nothing in Life is Free (NILIF),” she says.

Two biting incidents involving her dog Nick, a medium-size herding mix that she planned to keep no longer than 60 days, proves a philosophical wake-up call for Sdao, who is no stranger to working with and helping rehabilitate clients’ aggressive dogs.

Sdao’s ability to accept criticism and others’ input has been key, she admits, to her success in working with others’ animals. She notes, “One approach is based on controlling access to {dogs’} privileges and freedoms; the other is based on counter-conditioning of triggers and training incompatible replacement behaviors.”

Discussing training techniques, Sdao, a former marine-mammal trainer, emphasizes, “The whole paradigm of physical dominance needs to go.

“. . . There is an addictive and astonishingly joyous pay-off in communicating with animals – connecting with them via two-way flow of information rather than controlling them.”

In the long run, Sdao suggests, “communication trumps control.” And in establishing that point she refers to others’ work in books, religion and education corridors. “Reinforcement is the name of the game in animal training. By reinforcing a behavior, we make it stronger, that is, more likely to happen.”

But “for our dogs, some things in life are free, or should be,” she says. Those things are basically the right to live in a safe, loving and comfortable environment.

Time and experience have altered Sdao’s approach, she admits. “My training focus has shifted gradually away from ensuring animals’ compliance with my directives. Instead, I’ve become increasingly aware of the critical need for me to observe the animals I train – intentionally watching their behaviors with mindful attention.” In other words, focus, focus, focus. “My training has changed,” Sdao concludes, “replacing an ‘eye’ for an ‘I.’ “

Sdao’s crisp delivery is both lively and flavorful. In the process, she paints the dynamics of training in a sharply etched portrait that connects powerfully with the reader.