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Kathy Sdao, Trainer and ClickerExpo Celebrity

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Kathy Sdao, ClickerExpo faculty member, has been a professional animal trainer for two decades. Her experiences have included working for the US Navy training dolphins for open-ocean work, and training at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington, working with beluga whales, walruses, sea lions, polar bears, and otters. She also created Tacoma's first dog daycare facility, Puget Hound Daycare, and began teaching group classes for pet owners. Kathy now travels frequently to lead seminars for dog trainers and instructors on clicker training. Her ClickerExpo seminars have drawn rave reviews for her infectious enthusiasm and powerful insights.

Kathy Sdao with dog Effie

Kathy, let's go back to the beginning. What was your first pet?

I wasn't allowed to have a pet as a child, and yet I had this burning love of animals. I was a pre-med major in college, until I took an elective psychology course taught by an animal behaviorist. It was the first time I realized that studying animal behavior could be a career. I immediately changed my major to psychology, but continued to minor in biology. Then I went on to graduate school in psychology. I still didn't have my own animal, until I married and my (then) husband's Irish setter came into my life.

What was your focus as a graduate student?

I had begun a program in organizational psychology, knowing that I could easily get a job in this field, but soon realized that wasn't what I wanted to do. One night I was watching TV in my house in New York, and saw a NOVA program about Dr. Lou Herman's research with dolphins at the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Lab in Hawaii. Suddenly, I knew that was what I wanted to do. So I applied to Lou Herman's program, was accepted, and moved to Hawaii in 1985. I spent the next several years getting my master's degree in experimental psych and comparative cognition, i.e., studying how different species think and understand the world. Along with a fellow graduate student, I studied auditory and visual learning in sea lions. (No surprise that, as amphibious animals, they're good at both.)

How did you develop your training skills?

After completing the research for my master's thesis, I was fortunate to be hired by the Department of Defense as a dolphin trainer for the US Navy. The Navy's dolphins were trained to perform real world, open-ocean complex tasks. Our training sessions took place in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, with us trainers on small boats and the dolphins swimming alongside unrestrained. Even though I had been training dolphins for the Navy, it wasn't until I began working with whales and other marine mammals at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington, that I began to carefully consider the process of operant conditioning. And it wasn't until '93 or '94, after I had been a zookeeper for years, that I went to one of Karen Pryor's seminars and saw for the first time that what I was doing with the marine mammals directly related to what I was doing with my own dogs. Until then, even though I was a marine mammal trainer, my dogs wore choke chains.

What made you change your focus from whales to dogs?

When I left the zoo, I thought training dogs for a living would be an easy transfer of my skills. I had trained whales, after all. Working with dogs was, in fact, extraordinarily humbling. I couldn't read their body language, or even perceive their subtle movements, because I hadn't spent time observing hundreds of dogs. And so, along with a partner, I opened a dog daycare in 1996, in part because I knew that would be a good way to study the behavior of a variety of dogs.

I then started teaching training classes to pet owners in the evenings at our facility. It was clear that there was a huge need for people to understand their dogs better, and I found that I was a good teacher, even though I still had a lot to learn myself. I soon moved into teaching and consulting for pet dog owners, and more advanced trainers in conformation and obedience, as well as service dog organizations. That's been especially exciting as the crossover in service dog training to operant conditioning and the use of a marker signal was resisted at first by many in the field, but now is becoming more accepted.

Who do you teach now?

Now most of my classes and seminars are for other instructors, although I still teach beginning pet owners one evening a week. It keeps me honest, because there's nothing harder. Talking to 200 APDT members is a breeze compared to working with beginning pet owners. Yet it helps me remember what the instructors I teach are going through.

How do you teach those beginning pet owners?

While I don't click them and hand out tokens or candy as reinforcements, I find that I can mark their behavior and reinforce them when they do something right by catching their eyes and smiling. If I think a student can handle something a little more public than that, I say his name and praise him verbally, and try to do it in the moment. Then, because my students are primates, and primates learn well through modeling, I find that they'll pick up on something for which their neighbor in class just got reinforced. If someone is really struggling, I'll even pick out someone nearby to praise for performing the maneuver, whatever it is, correctly. (Sometimes I think I should have "Primate Trainer" written on my business cards.) A third method I use is because I'm pretty sensitive to criticism, and so I assume others can be too. If a student is having trouble getting something right, then I'll stand in front of the class and do it wrong too. And then I'll do it right, like Sesame Street: Which one is not like the other? I'll let the class pick out which way is better and why. That way we can pinpoint the error, without pinning it on the person.

How do you see students change, once they become comfortable using a clicker?

The people at the end of a six-week class who get the concept and are moving forward with it are different from people who didn't get it. They watch their dogs, rather than look around at everything else. Their focus is on their dog, as they look for clickable behavior. They click more often. They talk about their problems differently. They switch from saying "I just need him to stop pulling on the leash," to becoming more thoughtful about how to break down the problem: "We're walking on a loose leash in our backyard now. But my dog still pulls when we leave the yard. Therefore we need to work on that aspect of the behavior." They begin to look at problems in a way that leads to a solution. One major misconception about clicker training is that it is a sterile and mechanical technique. My classes do cover a lot of mechanics, but it is much more about thinking how to reach solutions and have a better relationship with your dog.

At ClickerExpo, you've spoken about the pitfalls of luring. Why do you advise against it as a training method?

A lot of people who have been using a clicker for years, and would say that they're positive trainers, still do a lot of luring. They are most resistant when I teach that luring, or leading the animal rather than letting the animal take the lead in its own learning, can be counter-productive, especially with novice dogs. Why is it? Clicker training is about working with and respecting your animals' own cognition and motives. When we lure, we are overriding their learning process, rather than stepping back and letting them do it. I ask my students: "Which of you is doing more work, you or the dog? If you are doing more movement than the dog, then you are 'helping' too much. Let the dog move. Just wait and watch." If we let our dogs be in control of their own cognition and motives, what happens? What if we encourage our animals to be there fully? It can be a little scary at first, but if we go down that road, eventually we get the whole animal with all its inherent ability. And that is an exciting destination.

About the author
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Gale Pryor is a writer and editor at Pen and Press, an editorial services and consulting company. Her writing credits include Parenting Magazine, Mothering Magazine, Teaching Dogs, National Public Radio, and two bestselling books.

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