Monday, April 9, 2012

Plenty in Life is Free?.. or is it?

This is sort of off topic for this blog, but I feel like I need somewhere to put it and this is handy. If you're not interested, please just skip this post!

I've recently read Plenty in Life is Free by Kathy Sdao. I ordered the book at Clicker Expo, and it arrived right before Dr Yin's seminar here in Kamloops. While she was here, my friend Stephanie read the book, as did Allison. I didn't get a chance to read it until this weekend. I was initially really disappointed that I hadn't had the chance to read it before meeting Dr Yin, as I was planning to discuss some of it with her. Now that I've read it, I'm no longer concerned.

I want to say, these are just my thoughts. I am in no way trying to represent what Kathy is trying to say, nor am I making recommendations for anyone else.

I'm not sure what I expected from the book. I guess I mostly was expecting Kathy to challenge my thoughts on setting boundaries for dogs, to make me reconsider. I had no idea what it would be like. After Stephanie read it, she said she found it challenging and thought some of what she said was worth considering. She also mentioned it had a bit of a story-style, with unrelated stories and tangents throughout.

Allison pointed out a couple of passages that referred directly to Kathy's thoughts on how dog training related to her religion (catholicism, near as I can tell). I admit this turned me off a bit, but the title had turned me off too, and I was determined to keep an open mind and READ the book before drawing any conclusions.

Alright, so now I've got to actually READ the book, yes?

I read the first couple chapters, then set it down for a day (life got in the way). Today, I finished it. I think some of what she says is useful, especially in how it's framed (to present to clients). I think much of the book is not really relevant (the religious stuff was hard to get through). And I think mostly, she's not saying anything that contradicts what I already know/believe. I think that's where I was most disappointed.. I was looking for a challenge.

Discussion around "Reward any behaviour the dog does except the three you consider most annoying". I actually have a client I'd like to try this, most of his behaviour is annoying house demanding behaviour. I can't see it being very helpful for outside the home though.

The reframing of training in the "If not NILIF..." is good for clients, I think. SMARTx50 is nice, though I'd like to see it much much higher. And I'd have them use their dog's regular ration. If they're not earning enough to eat, IMO, your criteria is too high!
"The situation is the command" is how I do most of my NILIF work anyway.
Choice Architect is useful for some clients, I think. Again, it's how I'm already doing it.
I also like the idea of having the client make a list (on PAPER) of the actual behaviours that make up a good dog.
I think the advice to "ignore harmless nuisance behaviours" is a tricky one. Great in theory, but we all know nuisance behaviours that turn into really nasty dangerous behaviours!! Not advice I'd choose to give most clients.

The photo album idea is much the same as the first (she states this). A nice analogy, though.

The premack stuff sounds like pretty much exactly how I usually do NILIF.

on Page 74, she basically explains NILIF as I see it. "I will feed the dogs their minimal calories every day (...) Yet I still can use most of all of these calories to reinforce good behaviour."
She goes on to state she will still feed him, for "do something as inoffensive as possible" which I would call DROP MY CRITERIA. Pretty standard, I think! (hope)

The second to last paragraph on page 84: "How is this different.... a request to move)." basically sums up the way I use NILIF already.

The end bit about not hating people sort of struck me as something I should consider more.

In summary, clearly for Kathy, this was a huge mind shift. Either I've already had it, or I was taught by people who had. I never got too hung up in dominance theory, even though I trained with corrections for a long time. No one ever explained why, and I never asked. By the time I was seriously introduced to it, I was pretty much sucked into the "good side" so I guess it didn't affect me much. So, NILIF wasn't a "this is how we can have a good pack without alpha rolls", ever. It was "Use what dogs are getting anyway to ensure you've got good behaviour". I do think uncued (environmentally cued) say-please is more effective, but I see the advantages of cued permission as well. I don't think I'd see any of the downfall she mentions from simply ensuring that the reinforcers I'm giving anyway are given in a strategic and timely manner. I do have concerns that "regular people" or even some trainers may read this book and not understand it's intent (or maybe they will and I do not..) and read it as "you need to be more permissive and set less boundaries", which I forsee as problematic.



  1. Thank you for your assessment of the book. I haven't read it yet, but I too attended a Sophia Yin seminar and really understood a lot of what she said in relation to helping my reactive dog. Did Dr. Yin say anything about it, or mention anything about how it compares to hers or combines with hers?

  2. Hi growl,
    I hadn't read the book, but did ask Dr Yin if she'd read it. She was unfamiliar with it, but expressed concern that owners might take it as permission to be permissive and unclear with their dogs.
    From reading the book, I do think Kathy would be okay with Dr Yin's protocol, or at least most of it. Love your blog!!

  3. Thank you for the reply Courtenay. I may pick up the book to see if there is anything to incorporate into my dog's behavior training.

  4. Hi Courtenay,

    Thank you so much for sharing your take on this new book! I don't always have time to read everything new that comes out, so I always appreciate hearing other peoples' opinions so that I can prioritize a little better.

    I did want to add one out-of-home use for the "reward anything except the three most annoying behaviors" strategy, because I've seen it work really beautifully. Several years ago I worked with clients who owned a very large (120lbs, if I remember correctly) German Shepherd who was extremely reactive to other dogs. They were concerned about working on the problem in part because she was so large and so strong. She had previously pulled her owners off the curb into the street, out of the car, and gotten them much closer to other dogs than they were comfortable getting.

    The first thing we did with this dog was to click and treat any behavior she gave us that did NOT include forward movement. This meant that, for several weeks, we were rewarding barking, growling, hard stares, and all of those other things you don't want your reactive dog to do. (Of course, if she gave us a moment of quiet we would reward that as well, but it didn't happen often enough to be the start of our training program!) By her third session (we were meeting once a week) their dog was jumping up and down in place while barking her head off at other dogs.

    As odd as this may sound, the clients were thrilled! It meant that they were no longer worried about their physical safety or the safety of the dogs who walked by, which freed us up to focus solely on rewarding better behavior. We continued to eliminate behaviors systematically in subsequent weeks. We ceased to reward barking, then we cut out the jumping up and down, and so on. The reactive behavior was never 100% eliminated in this case, but the behavior was reduced so significantly that the clients felt safer and happier walking their dog, which was always the main goal.

    1. That's a cool story. I wonder how often it is that a dog who is barking, growling, leaping can actually register a click/treat (take the food, register it as a reinforcer..). In my experience, many of those dogs can't even orient to the food being put in their mouths.

    2. Hi Courtenay,

      It's a good point and I'm certain that this strategy would not have worked with every dog. However, I can't think of any other way that we could have begun to make progress with this particular dog given that she would react to any dog at any distance. I prefer the more "standard" clicker training methods for working with reactivity when possible, but I thought it was worth pointing this situation out as another possible use for the strategy described in Kathy Sdao's book.