Plenty in Life is Free – Kathy Sdao

Plenty In Life Is FreeDTB1246_c – Reflections On Dogs, Training and Finding Grace.
Author: Kathy Sdao
Publisher: Dogwise Publishing
Edition: 2012
ISBN: 9781617810640

This is a cheeky cross-post from my Anthrozoo’ blog…. A practice in book reviewing!

Anyone who has any strong feelings about dog training at all will usually fall on one ideological side of the fence; aversive or non-aversive. This could also be described as force free or not force free. The reality is much more complex, though most dog trainers accept that there are four quadrants of conditioning that can be used either exclusively or in combination to train dogs (and other animals). Lili Chin does a fantastic job of summing these up:

Training styles that employ +R or -P methods are generally considered to sit under the umbrella of positive reinforcement training, and have long been promoted by such pioneers as Jean DonaldsonIan DunbarKaren Pryor and Patricia McConnell. These days, Victoria Stilwell is the public face of positive training and, increasingly, its ambassador in a world where dogs are often misunderstood (and frequently suffer as a result).

It’s probably a fair generalisation that most training techniques using +P or -R methods may be rooted in an ideology of dominance, hierarchy or rank. Sadly, although many have challenged the science behind these ‘theories’ (John BradshawMark BekoffJean DonaldsonJohn Bradshaw again), many trainers (publicly and privately) continue to use what are generally regarded as outdated, ineffective and occasionally harmful methods based on some dodgy science from 1947.

The main thrust of the book is to argue against the commonly used “Nothing in Life is Free” (NILIF) protocol, and to propose some alternative techniques, which can be a tricky argument to make when NILIF is often presented in very positive terms. However positive, these methods are usually justified by a pack leader/alpha role ideology, and one small (but important) aspect of Kathy Sdao’s book is a discussion of why these ideas persist, and why the appeal of being pack leader to our modern day wolves has stuck around for so long.

Sdao suggests (and I tend to agree) that this reveals “…our human fixation with compelling animals to do what we command” (p31), but also believes that the pithy mantras associated with ‘dominance’ training methods (Feeder or Leader, Pack Leader, Alpha, etc.) can be thought of as ‘sticky ideas’, as described in Chip & Dan Heath’s Made to Stick, a book that explores why certain ideas ‘stick’, and others don’t. Sdao gives a lot of credit to the latter idea (perhaps more than we humans deserve) and acknowledges that the catchphrases of positive training are not necessarily as ‘attractive’ (e.g. ‘Reinforce the behaviours you like, and redirect the behaviours you don’t like’).

Her suggested alternatives to the NILIF protocol are excellent, being both practical, and easy to adopt. The ‘SMART x50’ approach is particularly appealing (See, Mark and Reward Training), with an easy-to-remember, ‘bumper sticker’ catchphrase and some great ideas about how to implement the technique, whatever your lifestyle.

Sdao touches briefly on the effectiveness of the method you choose, emphasising the importance of the dog’s independent actions to learning. She quotes Steven R. Lindsay, who believes that “The NILIF process…appears intended to externalize the locus of control and thereby undermine the dog’s ability to initiate independent actions in search of reward” (p36). Indeed, power and control seem to be key elements of a very complex structure of ideas that those who advocate for becoming the ‘pack leader’ cling to still.

However, thankfully, these days, the internet abounds with excellent suggestions about how to adopt positive training methods, and as a relatively new dog owner/ownee, I’ve gorged on these resources many a time. To me, what’s more fascinating is the discussion around the human relationship to dogs, why many struggle so hard to let go of ideas of dominance, and why turning to positive reinforcement is often such a revelation.

I really enjoyed Sdao’s musings on this (though I identified less with the, admittedly infrequent, references to her religious journey) and on the anecdotes she uses to demonstrate her ideas. Her own story of how she left behind the arrogance of youth to embrace a more graceful way of being might serve well to draw in those who are still on the fence.

The ‘spiritual element’ appealed to me most of all, and Sdao makes (I believe) some excellent observations about the importance of relinquishing some control, and of seeing our dogs as individuals who are struggling to live in a very human world (after all, dogs are people too). She notes that often, “…it’s challenging to stop, look and listen to our dogs”, and for people who do find this a challenge, protocols such as NILIF, and any that promote ideas of pack leadership, may be very appealing ‘quick fixes’ to perceived problem behaviour (which may be perfectly natural in the canine repertoire of ‘normal’ doggy etiquette).

One of Sdao’s boldest claims might be that “To reverse the status-seeking that practically defines our American culture is subversive”, and whilst I can’t claim to know much at all about subverting American culture, my experience of other dog owners and trainers tells me there may be an element of truth here.

Certainly, this book struck quite a chord with me and summarised some of my own thoughts and feelings very nicely. It’s difficult to say whether advocates of dominance theories would be swayed by its occasionally free-spirited tone, but as I soften in my no-longer-younger years, I find it to be very endearing.

The practical suggestions for alternative training protocols are sensible and easy to follow, and the further reading list very helpful. I think this book would have benefited from some links to YouTube channels (Victoria Stilwell or Kikopop) for those who appreciate a visual representation of the training methods.

We have control over most aspects of our dogs’ lives and to share our own lives with them should involve teamwork and cooperation. Dogs try hard to fit into a world they often don’t understand and we humans can be quite poor at trying to understand them back. This book is a wonderful call for anyone who works with dogs to reflect on their own attitudes to dog-human relations and training, and to focus less on power and control and more on learning and positive experiences.

I’ll finish up with my favourite quote, and one which describes well my relationship with my own (sometimes crazy) rescue dog, whose reactive and fearful behaviour I agonised over for a long time before I accepted her as she was. I adore her unconditionally and the patience and understanding she elicits from me has, I think, shocked at least one or two of my family and friends….

As Sdao says…

“I gladly relinquish the chance to have Stepford dogs – mindlessly obedient and lacking humor – in exchange for the vibrant, silly, somewhat unpredictable dogs by my side.” (p92)


Digest Version:

An excellent study of the problematic nature of the NILIF protocol, with some great, practical suggestions for alternatives. A heartfelt, somewhat spiritual (occasionally theological) appeal for us to work with our canine friends, rather than try to dominate them.


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