“Infectious enthusiasm.” Those are the words often used to describe trainer and ClickerExpo faculty member Kathy Sdao's personality. That enthusiasm is key to her popularity as a ClickerExpo speaker. As a ClickerExpo faculty member since the conference’s inception, Kathy receives rave reviews for making the learning process fun for both humans and dogs. As we approach the 15-year anniversary of ClickerExpo, Kathy reflects on the most significant training changes in the last 15 years, as well as on how her own training has evolved during this time. Kathy also shares her thoughts on how ClickerExpo has impacted the training community and reveals what she is most looking forward to at ClickerExpo 2018!
Q: As you look at the training community, what do you think are the biggest or most significant changes over the last 15 years?
A: From my perspective, there’s been a significant increase in the number of trainers dedicated to learning about the science of animal behavior. Also, conversations about the ethics involved in our choice of behavioral interventions are more frequent and better defined. Fifteen years ago, I don’t think many colleagues were concerned about ensuring that their animals willingly consented to training interactions and social contacts. Concepts crucial to our best practices today (e.g., agency, choice, resilience) weren’t really on the radar then.
Q: What was the motivation for you to write Plenty in Life is Free that was published in 2012?
A: I was frustrated. So many of my colleagues and clients employed “Nothing in Life is Free” (NILIF) protocols, assuming they were effective and benign. What could be wrong with asking your dog to sit (or do another familiar behavior) to earn every good thing in life (including food, play, petting, outdoor access, attention, love, etc.)? Plenty!
In my view, that approach is overly constrictive. It stifles the opportunity for people to love their dogs unconditionally, to pet them just because they feel like it, for example. The NILIF approach also preserves the hierarchical perspective—people outrank dogs—that we’ve inherited from more coercive styles of training (thankfully in a less physically damaging way). We can achieve and demonstrate brilliant and practical training without resorting to a “humans issue commands and dogs comply” paradigm. Clicker training provides everything we need to succeed. I have several other concerns about NILIF; I refer interested readers to the book for more details.
Q: How has your training and/or teaching changed over the last 15 years?
A: Fifteen years ago, I had been a professional animal trainer for fifteen years, so it was my halfway mark. I had a master’s degree in animal behavior and ten years of experience training whales, walruses, and dolphins. At that point, I was pretty sure I was an expert. Wrong! Now I realize how much I did not know and still don’t know. Behavior is such an endlessly fascinating and complex subject—there’s always more to learn and try. My ego still trips me up, but I’m more mindful of putting my clients’ and students’ needs up front.
Q: Which presentations at ClickerExpo do you think are most reflective of the changes that have taken place in the last few decades?
A: So many come to mind! Dr. Rosales-Ruiz’s Poisoned Cue changed everything for me. I’m still overwhelmed by the implications of his insights. Dr. Susan Friedman’s talk on ethics and the Humane Hierarchy is marvelous and should be required material for any training professional. Michele Pouliot’s brilliant Sound of Silence course was one that the rest of the ClickerExpo faculty members continue to discuss and dissect. And Animals in Control by Eva Bertilsson, Emelie Johnson Vegh and Peggy Hogan presents pioneering ideas that are the wave of the future.
Q: In what ways do you feel ClickerExpo has impacted or influenced the training community?
A: Back at the first ClickerExpo, in Chicago in 2003, I doubt that any of us on that much-smaller faculty could foresee the influence these events would have. ClickerExpo conferences have been consistently welcoming, positive, engaging, and community-building. In my opinion, they set the standard for what an educational gathering can accomplish, not only informing our attendees but also creating connections, inspiring excellence, and promoting professional standards.
Q: When you look at the schedule for ClickerExpo 2018, which Session or Lab are you looking forward to attending most, and why?
A: I’m looking forward to Arousal: Science not Sex by Lindsay Wood Brown, and not just because of the intriguing title. Lindsay is a wonderful presenter and I’m eager to learn more about this often-misunderstood topic.
One more: I need to attend Progress Guaranteed: Never Get Stuck In Your Training Again by Eva Bertilsson and Emelie Johnson Vegh, because I’ve been dealing with balking quite often lately. It seems to be a common problem for my consultation clients and I want some Swedish insight into ways to resolve it.
Kathy, thank you for sharing your insights about ClickerExpo, as well as your valuable experience with training and effecting change. We look forward to hearing more at ClickerExpo 2018 in SoCal and St. Louis!