Meet Kathy Sdao, One of the Dog Training World’s Rock Stars

If you ask the majority of pet owners to name a well-known dog trainer, you'll probably get only one or two responses: Cesar Millan or...


If you ask the majority of pet owners to name a well-known dog trainer, you’ll probably get only one or two responses: Cesar Millan or Victoria Stilwell. Newbies need only know that are much more in the style of Stilwell’s Its Me or the Dog than Millan’s The Dog Whisperer.

This year on Dogster, I plan to introduce you, some of the worlds best pet parents, to some of the biggest names in the training industry, the ones professionals consult for the most relevant training information and best standards and practices. And I think they ought to have their own TV shows on Animal Planet too!

Today, Im talking to Kathy Sdao, one of dog trainings rock stars. She is an associate-certified applied animal behaviorist who came to dog training after a career that included work with the U.S. military on training dolphins for work in the open ocean.

I first met her a few years ago at a seminar hosted at our facility (Cujo vs. Pavlov, on working with aggressive dogs), and have since seen her at ClickerExpo and APDT conferences. I even invited her back to Rewarding Behaviors for her S.M.A.R.T. rewards seminar. Kathy is a phenomenal presenter with great enthusiasm and energy. She presents information in a manner which is humorous, entertaining, and engaging.

Casey: You started your career working with marine mammals. What made you transition to dog training?

Kathy: I switched from training large wet animals — whales, dolphins, porpoises, walruses, sea lions, and seals — to training smaller, drier animals in 1996. I did this because I wanted to start a business and be self-employed. Though I loved working at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium [in Tacoma, WA], it was physically grueling work. In addition, because I have pretty strong opinions about the best ways to train and to care for animals, I figured Id have more control over these decisions in my own business.

I was incredibly naive in assuming that my twelve years of experience with marine mammals would make me a good dog trainer. I knew so little about dog behavior!

A dear and generous friend allowed me to shadow her during the dog training classes she taught and to observe her dog daycare business. This, plus a lot of research, gave me the courage to create a dog daycare business of my own, assisted by another former zookeeper, Marcye Miller. Running a dog daycare allowed me to immerse myself in ten hours per day of the full range of dog behavior. This was the beginning of my endless fascination with watching dogs interact, play, resolve conflicts, and learn.

I rarely miss working with marine mammals. I was blessed to have had the opportunity at all, and now I truly enjoy my work with dogs and their people.

How is a behaviorist different from a dog trainer?

These two categories overlap, of course. I consider myself both a behaviorist and a dog trainer. And the definitions vary from country to country. In the United States, anyone except a veterinarian can legally call herself a behaviorist. (Veterinary behaviorists must meet stringent requirements to receive their board certification.) So the term doesnt actually convey any specific credential.

My certification as an associate-certified applied animal behaviorist (ACAAB) was granted to me by the Animal Behavior Society (ABS). The requirements include a masters degree or Ph.D in a behavioral science with specific courses in animal learning and ethology, along with extensive hands-on experience working with animals under the supervision of a qualified mentor.

To me, these two categories — the board-certified veterinary behaviorists and the ABS-certified psychological behaviorists, each with a post-graduate education in behavior science — are the professionals best qualified to resolve serious dog-behavior problems such as aggression and anxiety.

What are the top three things pet owners can do to improve their relationships with their dogs?

1. Put more emphasis on being a skilled, generous, creative feeder than on being a strict leader. That is, understand that the main job of a great pet owner is to repeatedly reinforce all the dog behaviors you want to see more of. This is a much greater priority than being “commander-in-chief.”

2. Walk the dog! Aim for a 45-to-60-minute walk at least three times a week. (Get approval from your veterinarian if you think your dogs health might preclude this.)

Just changing this one thing can make an enormous difference in the relationship between dogs and dog owners. This long-duration, low-impact exercise boosts serotonin levels, stimulates the dogs olfactory senses, exposes the dog to novelty, and provides an opportunity for ongoing training.

If your dog pulls on-leash, try using a front-attachment harness or a head halter. If your dog lunges at bikers or other dogs, choose a boring walking location where you can avoid these triggers (e.g. an empty parking lot, an unused school track) — and contact a qualified dog trainer to help you resolve this issue.

3. Play with your dog every day. Use one of the standard games — fetch, tug, hide and seek — or create a ritual of your own. Make sure there are rules to keep everyone safe; young children need lots of supervision and coaching. But honest play, where both participants are really having fun, is mutually exclusive with stress and anxiety. It creates resilient bonds between dogs and people.

Tell us more about your new projects. You have a book and some new videos coming out.

Im excited about my new book: Plenty in Life Is Free: Reflections on Dogs, Training and Finding Grace. Its been in the works for two years and is somewhat unusual. Its part memoir and part training manual, and even discusses the impact spirituality has on the decisions we make as trainers. It presents an effective alternative to the various rank-based dog-training paradigms weve used for the past few decades. I hope this will help foster more cooperative partnerships between people and dogs, replacing the standard master vs. subordinate model weve inherited.

I also have two new DVDs, available through Tawzer Dog. One of these is based on a brief lecture I gave in Orlando in January on the topic of my book.

The other is a longer lecture given at the same venue titled What Not to Err: Training Mistakes that Create Headaches for Dogs. It reviews ten errors common to dog-friendly trainers. Topics include ineffective cues, backward sequences, poisoned reinforcers, misunderstood training transitions, and more. Understanding how to avoid or resolve these issues makes training fairer for our dogs and more fun for everyone.

Photos of Kathy are courtesy of Jon Smith.

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