E223: Kathy Sdao - "Living a LIMA Life"

In this episode Kathy and I talk about the "LIMA Being" project, and the key to a really good cue.  


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today I have Kathy Sdao here with me.

Hi Kathy, welcome back to the podcast.

Kathy Sdao: Hi Melissa. I'm happy to be here.

Melissa Breau: Excited to talk. To start us out, do you want to remind listeners a little bit about you, a little about your dogs, and share a little about your background?

Kathy Sdao: Professional animal trainer for close to forty years now. Have you even been alive that long, Melissa? Gee, that's depressing. The first ten years of my training life were with marine mammals, so that really impacted the way I learned to train.

When you're working with whales and walruses and dolphins, it's really hard to fall into the fallacy that you can physically control those animals, so you want to gain reliable responses to signals and cues by using skilled positive reinforcement. And so that initial decade of training work in several different contexts really changed the way that I've gone on to work with dogs and the people who love dogs.

I'm mostly working with families right now as a behavior consultant. My business is Bright Spot Dog Training. I've had that for over twenty years now. I'm in Tacoma, Washington, so in that neighborhood, since Covid, I've not been able to travel and teach at seminars and workshops and conferences, which I really enjoy, but the silver lining of Covid means that my being grounded, literally not getting on a plane and staying here in the Tacoma area, has allowed my private consultation business to flourish. That's both been exciting and a real revelation into what people's lives are like now with the stress of the pandemic and so many people getting dogs. It's been a challenging and rich time for my business to be able to try to be of service to the great need that's out there. And many professionals listening to this I think can relate to in the beginning of the pandemic, at least for my tiny business, just me, I was sure it would die. It was very scary at the beginning of Covid, and now business has rebounded in a way I didn't expect and just brings new challenges. That's enough about me.

I'm hoping you can't hear the noise of my dog, Smudge, in the other room, chewing on his bone. I was trying to occupy him while we record, but I can hear his gnawing.

Melissa Breau: I cannot, so hopefully that means the recording isn't picking it up. But if it is, we have lots of dog people in the audience, so I'm sure it will be a very foreign noise.

You mentioned that you've been busy with the business, and you mentioned before we started recording that you were on a Zoom call. Are you doing remote stuff? Are you doing in-person stuff?

Kathy Sdao: I am doing both. I'm really blessed in the facility that I work at is my dear friend Sheri's forty-acre farm, and so the training building is a refurbished horse barn. And so even before vaccines — yay, vaccines — it helped us, at least in my neck of the woods, we can breathe a little easier, both literally and metaphorically. It is a facility that allows a great deal of space both inside that barn and outside, so it allowed me, after several months into the pandemic, to be able to socially distance and wear a mask and still work with clients to some extent in person.

I love the gift that Zoom has been. There's still a frustration for me in wanting to, if I can safely do it, meet a dog in person, especially for cases of aggression, which is the bulk of the work I do, even if we continue doing follow-up lessons virtually. Zoom is great, but if I can set it up to be safe in this spacious environment I can work in, I've been lucky to have the ability to continue meeting clients that way.

Melissa Breau: I would love to talk a little more about the various bits and pieces you've been up to. It certainly seems like you kept yourself busy last year. I think you were part of a collaboration with several other trainers late last year on this idea of being a "LIMA being." Can you talk a little bit about the project?

Kathy Sdao: I'm not sure I can talk a little bit about the project. I can talk a lot about it. I'll try to be concise because this is such a fabulous, serendipitous project that evolved from just the first weeks of Covid and my real panic about what happened to my business and many businesses. I'm not alone. But because the bulk of my income was traveling, all those gigs cancelled within a very, very short period of time in March of last year, and I was devastated.

In my grief and fear, I happened to reach out to a friend, Lynn Unger, who had written a poem that really spoke to me. The poem has gone viral and become very famous. The title of the poem is "Pandemic." I knew Lynn, but not that well, and in my fear, texted her, sent her a message on Messenger, and said, "Thanks for your beautiful poem. It gives me some solace."

From that one little connection, ripples started where we decided for our own welfare and that of all the suffering that was going on, not only in the broader world, but especially in our profession, what could we do? We had two virtual conversations on Zoom. It was Lynn Unger and myself, Marissa Martino, Barrie Finger, Dr. Chris Pachel, and the amazing Dr. Patricia McConnell. We did two conversations in March and April of last year, just to talk about what was going on for us, as a way to connect and to have some support.

From those initial conversations, the five of us — Dr. McConnell no longer involved, but certainly supporting us — but the rest of us, Marissa and Barrie and Chris and myself and Lynn, have continued to have a project called LIMA beings, the point of it being we embrace Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive, LIMA, in the work we do with non-human animals. That's who we are, that's our strongest foundation, using that humane hierarchy, same thing, Dr. Susan Friedman's presentation of that same material, LIMA for the Humane Hierarchy.

All the work we do professionally — Chris as a veterinarian, myself as a behavior consultant, Barry and Marissa as professional trainers — this is how we work with nonhuman animals. It is not yet an ethic that we commit to working with humans that way, our clients, our students, our colleagues, everyone, in that same way that embraces the power of not using coercion in our interactions.

And we talk a lot about that. I hear, me included, lots of casual talk and even joking about us being kinder and more compassionate to the dogs and the cats and the parrots than the people, ha-ha. It stopped being quite so funny and became real for us to say, "How can we have a venue, a format, where people can not only talk about this, but get support in doing it and practice in doing it?"

That's the catch. We as trainers know it's one thing to understand how to change a behavior. It's another thing to create an environment that allows for success of approximations of new habits to replace bad old habits. We do this in our sleep for the dogs we work with. We don't do that so easily for other humans.

And so LIMA beings turned into a standalone course, a three-part course — antecedents, behaviors, and consequences; The ABCs Of Everything, we called it — and we ran this three-part course last fall. That course still exists as recordings that are available to folks online who would like to purchase that.

But what's grown from that is an ongoing membership community where people who want to sign up to be LIMA beings can receive both monthly recordings from the founders, the five of us, discussing how our work with animals can inform us being least invasive, minimally intrusive for humans in the work that we do, talking about very specific examples.

We not only have a recording that drops once a month. We have a live membership call once a month where we have great conversations with the folks who want to join up and go, "What is this thing that Kathy and those folks are doing? What is its goal?" To create a safe space where people can bring this ethic into the work we do with humans, in a way that's actionable and not just talking about it.

So it's awkward and vulnerable and a little bit messy, and I love it because it's really my passion. I think a lot of people that get into dog training really aspire to change the world in big ways. That sounds sort of Pollyanna, but I think it's absolutely true. Do trainers have the skills and the technology and the heart to make big changes not only in the lives of dogs, but in everybody who cares for those dogs in ways that ripple out in big things that matter to all of us. And so LIMA beings looks at that and has ongoing conversations about it. Oh, I get myself all excited.

Melissa Breau: All of that said, how would you describe what it means to be a LIMA being?

Kathy Sdao: You would think I would have the elevator version of that answer. It's being able to have ongoing conversations, interactions, a relationship with your learner, whoever that learner is, in a way that minimizes force and compulsion, and when we're working with humans, blame and shame.

So it's the way we say, "Some behaviors are not okay." This is not "Everybody do whatever you want, and we're all good with that." There are some behaviors that are better than other behaviors just ethically. I think we often come into conversations about training issues or broader issues … Covid has brought up so many ways we can now be pissed off with one another, whole new ways we can instantly be angry all the time because someone's not doing something right.

I'm in that group where I say, "I really want to help facilitate behavior change." I would like my dear friend who isn't going to consider getting vaccinated … that's hard for me. How can I have a conversation with my friend about something so important in a way that's not judgmental, shaming, and blaming? Because those things create resistance that wont allow me to get behavior change.

We do this in our sleep with dogs. We talk about all the ways that punishment and coercion create resistance in our dog learners. It's a hard thing to translate when we say, "This is really important," Melissa. We've got to be able to change systemic racism. Yes, gosh, the urgency, the sadness around that topic that seems too big. Can't we bring our best skills to be able to have ways, conversations that aren't alienating, and also that allow us to preserve our own mental health, because I think it's very hard on those of us that are sensitized to small behaviors.

I was just telling someone on my last Zoom calls, my morning has been Zooming with some clients, I was talking to a client about a man I followed on my walk with Smudge this morning. I walk Smudge every morning on the waterfront in Tacoma. We just happened to follow a man I don't know, walking two big dogs on Flexi-leads. One of those dogs leaned over to investigate a harbor seal that popped up in the waters. We're walking along Commencement Bay, it's gorgeous, a harbor seal pops up, how cool is that? The dog leans over to go, "Hey, harbor seal," and that man leash-popped that dog so hard it pulled the dog off his front feet.

Tears formed in my eyes. I had to stop walking so that I could let him get far enough ahead so I couldn't keep watching the leash popping. I had no way to intervene in the conversation, but I guess what I'm using that as an illustration of how often we see the pain of animals and people and feel frustrated that we don't know what to do about it, so sometimes, like I chose this morning, I did nothing. I didn't have a conversation with that man. I didn't have words.

But I also want to go out and make differences in the world that make that behavior, that casual cruelty, less common. I don't think he intended to be cruel. I really don't. I think he intended not to be pulled off his feet. They were big dogs and he had terrible gear and all the things we would know. How can we embrace the kinship that I have with that man … it's not us, the good positive trainers and them, the people that do leash corrections. How does that facilitate change?

One of the lines we use in LIMA beings a lot is, "There's no us and them. There's just us." And to have conversations that preserve our own mental health, sometimes you can't have the conversation. You just can't. But can we be more skillful when we take on those brave conversations, not in a way to shame him, but to maybe be able to bring some awareness to how the dog experienced that interaction.

I'm saying that to you, Melissa, in the frustration of in the moment this morning, I didn't opt to have that conversation. I didn't have the words. But I'm practicing with my fellow LIMA beings how to be able to enter more conversations that allow me to look at that humane hierarchy and say, "I'm not going straight to positive punishment." I don't want you, even when the dog is biting … "But the dog is biting, Kathy. Certainly you have to skip some steps in the humane hierarchy when it's urgent."

I think that's what we do when the human conversations are crucial as well. We skip ahead to "Clearly I have the right answer, Melissa, and let me share that with you." And then when you don't gratefully accept my correcting your behavior because I know what's right, when you don't thank me, now I'm really irritated at you because wow. We can do better, and trainers should be leading the skill set that says success of approximations and positive reinforcement and awkward practice at a skill we're not yet good at. We tell our clients all the time, "Of course you're not good at this yet. You haven't done it." Give ourselves some chance and freedom and breathing space and a safe setting to practice.

LIMA beings aspires to do that for difficult conversations about important things in all the ways that comes up for us, mostly professionally. We try to look specifically at the conversations trainers and veterinarians and vet techs have with their clients, but it goes broader than that because we have a divisive profession, and we would like there to be no us and them. There's just us, and it's urgent that we have better conversations for the welfare of all of us.

Melissa Breau: I certainly think the dog world has felt split along certain lines. Not just in the past year, but for a long time now, and it's important to be able to navigate those conversations with some grace.

Kathy Sdao: Exactly that. I would add not only grace, but some mercy, because we sort of live by Brene Brown's mantra, "People are doing the best they can." It's maybe not the ideal, but most people are doing the very best they can with the knowledge that they have. We all want to know more so we can do better, but we're all in it together.

This project has blossomed in a way that wasn't really planned. It cam together with a lot of serendipity, and it continues on in almost an experimental way. Our membership helps us pick the topics that the founders will talk about each month, and then we have a live call and talk about it, and each conversation evolves into what the next month will talk about.

So it's been a living experiment in doing the head-nodding about we could probably be kinder and more compassionate with each other, and we all go, "Yeah, that would be great," and then we hop onto social media and pile onto whatever today's flaming fight about whatever is and realize that it's really hard to change habits. It is. We know that.

So what does a new habit look like? It's about planting these little … we love that LIMA beings is a growing thing. It talks about an actual being, so we talk a lot about being sprouts and training the sprout that is our compassion itself that wants to connect with others, but often feels beaten up and punished and it's easier to just go hide.

Anyone who is interested can go to our website, which is of course LIMAbeings. We like puns, so we thought that would be a lighthearted name for our group. We're just coming up … just today I got an email with some possible merchandise. We want to be able to get our logo out there, and I'm looking for a hoodie.

Melissa Breau: Noted. I want to talk about LIMA itself a bit more if we can, just in case somebody listening doesn't actually know what it is. I'd love to have you rehash what the acronym stands for and talk about how it influences your approach to dog training and the work that you do.

Kathy Sdao: It's funny, you heard me trip over the acronym because I'm much more familiar with using Dr. Susan Friedman's Humane Hierarchy. I've actually got it pulled up on my computer right now. It would be easy to include a link, and you could easily find in your browser Dr. Friedman's lovely infographic on the six steps of behavior change that go from most positive, least intrusive.

So, one more time, LIMA — least intrusive, minimally aversive — is an algorithm, a protocol, for how we would approach behavior changes in any learner we're working with that allows the learner to maintain the most control over their own behavior, so that we would embrace this scientific fact of behavior that everybody wants to have some control over their environment.

I just had a client last week say to me, "But the dog wants to control everything." Yes, living being wants to control everything. It's not a flaw in design. It's how our behavior evolves. To be able to allow learners to maintain some control over the behavior in their environment is a huge welfare issue.

When we have behavior problems, working with my clients, I'm trying to think the last time someone hired me because they said, "My dog's life is great. I'd like it to be even better." People hire me because they're in pain, often urgent pain, and they often already have a euthanasia appointment already for the dog.

When they're coming in … gosh, I'm actually talking to you about last week's cases, so it's very fresh on my mind, oh Lord, is a 70-year-old woman who went online to buy a German Shepherd puppy from a breeder. It's German working lines. It is not the right match. Just know going in, from the first moment you saw the client and the dog, this is not a good match. She's covered in scars, she's covered in bite marks from the 12-week-old puppy. When I say to her, "Please remind me why you're here," she looks at me like, "What do you mean, why am I here? This dog has got to stop biting me."

It's an example of what pretty much everyone comes to me about, and most trainers and behaviorists and often veterinarians too: something has to stop. A behavior has to stop. Just that phraseology of what the problem is leads us to want to use punishment. I always use the metaphor with my clients of gardening. You can kill the dandelion with your toxin. You can choose the toxin to kill the dandelion, or you can plant other plants in the place of the dandelion, even a boring cover crop, and nurture that cover crop to fill in that space where the dandelion used to grow. They sound like different things, but one is going to be sustainable over the long haul in a way that's fun and efficient and doesn't create the side effects of the herbicide that you use to kill the dandelion over and over and over because the dandelion keeps sprouting.

The Humane Hierarchy, or LIMA, says there is a deep wisdom into starting with using behavior change strategies that don't involve the heavy hammers of positive punishment, negative punishment, negative reinforcement, and extinction. But those are the things that come naturally to mind when there is an urgent, dangerous problem. We want to squelch it.

And so to have this algorithm that says we don't start there. We start with looking at the learner's wellness and physical environment and their nutrition. We look at what the environment looks like, the antecedent arrangements level two, which I am telling you, Melissa, we don't give enough attention to.

One of my projects right now is to develop a webinar about how much we sell short antecedent arrangements level two, which doesn't sound like training, because the animal usually is not present for that. You're actually doing planning about the environment that the animal is going to come into, so that you can set up the right learning environment.

We sometimes sell that short by calling it "management." It is way more than management, and a lot of really awesome humane and effective behavior chain strategies come into that level two antecedent arrangements that I would like all of us to do better at calling up before we go to level three, which is positive reinforcement, level four, which is differential reinforcement of alternative behaviors.

This all sounds jargony if you're not in the profession, but it really is a roadmap for saying before you get to those heavy, intrusive strategies that involve punishment, either adding something aversive to the learner's environment or taking away something valuable to that learner, or extinction — ignoring the animal, providing no positive reinforcement behaviors, having their behaviors not be functional, all of those create all kinds of side effects for the learners that affect not only their welfare but also their emotions which can feed back into the loop of if you're trying to solve aggression in the first place, you really are not getting to the root of the problem.

They feel like if you said to someone who has dandelions in their yard, "There might be a sustainable, long-term strategy that would allow you to have fun gardening, instead of being one of those 'gardeners who carries the five-gallon bucket with the spray bottle on their hip of herbicide." You see these people. I'm driving sometimes and I see the person with a spray bottle of toxins on their hip, spraying any little green sprout that comes up in their gravel lava rock they've spread in their yard. I'm like, "Mercy on that person who calls that gardening. You're killing any little bit of life that pops up."

We see training that involves any little bit of life or behavior and enthusiasm that pops up out of the dog or parrot or kid gets squelched. That's not life. It's not a garden when you have lava rocks and herbicide. It's not life when you have no irritating behaviors. That's your solution. Well, that's not joy, and none of us wants to spend their one wild and precious life making sure there's nothing annoying or messy that happens.

We can do better. We can have dogs and people live full and joyful lives that respect the way behavior works as a functional, wonderful part of our evolution. This knowledge that we have, Melissa, that you have, that FDSA supports and extends and teaches and grows, is world-changing. It's why we get passionate about it. It's not just to score a few extra points in the ring, although that might be nice. It's not just for the ribbons. It's for the effect this has on being able to allow everybody to lead more joyful lives.

If we didn't have an ethic, an algorithm, that talked to us about humane behavior change, it would be too easy to just pull out punishment and have conversations about what's the most effective form of punishment for your child or your biting dog. We want to have conversations that are richer and more sustainable than that, and create long-term behavior change, not that addictive, short-term squelching of behavior.

I used this metaphor last week with a client. I love that he got the analogy. You're too young, Melissa. Everyone is going to go look on Netflix. If you have not watched the movie Lifeboat, Alfred Hitchcock, black-and-white, fabulous. I like Alfred Hitchcock movies. Lifeboat is, as the name implies, a group of people stuck on a lifeboat in World War II after their ship has been bombed. The movie is amazing. There's an iconic scene in that movie where one of the people stuck on that lifeboat is starting to drink saltwater because he's so thirsty, and it's such an iconic scene, because as you're watching it, you say to yourself, as you're watching it, "Don't drink the saltwater."

That's what we do when we use punishment to suppress behavior. We're so thirsty, we're so desperate, we're going to get that fix of it feels better in the instant, but it's going to kill us in the long run. It's like drinking saltwater when you're thirsty. We want to be able to give people tools that will quench that thirst in a way that's sustainable over the long haul. It's still not common knowledge. Would you agree with me?

Melissa Breau: Yeah. I think it's getting more common, hopefully. I think we're making inroads as a community.

Kathy Sdao: We are. All the work that FDSA does, and this podcast, I think that ethic that we have, there's a way to do this that's better than "common sense." It motivates us to keep working.

Melissa Breau: To take all of that — because that was a big answer, there was a lot in there, which is a good thing; I don't mean that in a bad way — and pull it apart a little bit, when you're thinking about the idea of wanting to be a LIMA being, of interacting with other people, does that ever come into conflict with your desire to, or your belief that people should, utilize LIMA principles when they're training their dogs?

Sometimes there are people who aren't ready or able or in some way capable of adopting what you would consider to be the least intrusive, minimally aversive approach for their dog. That's a big question too, but how do you approach that?

Kathy Sdao: Such an important question and a real one. One of the beings I want to be compassionate to and kind is myself. I'm really late to the game to be able to include myself in the decisions I make for which cases I'll take on. I learned from Jean Donaldson the phrase "Save the trainer." It doesn't do any good if I take every client who wants to work with me and have so many of them in my judgment be unsuccessful that I can't keep doing my job. So I have to be able to make some decisions.

Now, I will say to clients who are currently using punitive methods with their dogs that I would never use, "I'm happy to explore alternatives with you, if you'd like to have that conversation." I don't feel like anyone is going to get their money or time's worth if you continue to use those punitive methods and add on some clicker training. I think it's going to be really unsuccessful for you and for the dog and actually for me. It will be very much like I'm trying to drive the car with the emergency brake on. You're not going to get anywhere, and let's not even waste your time on that. So for everyone's welfare, I'm not going to take that case on.

What I've started to realize is … I'm so old, I should know all of this by now. But I realize something as subtle … here's one of the epiphanies I just had. Something as subtle as saying "I tend toward force-free" — I tend not to use that phrase because it feels a little too extreme. I wouldn't call myself all positive and I wouldn't even use the term force-free or fear-free. I know what it's getting at. I like it as a tagline, but it feels aspirational to me and maybe not doable.

But let's just even use the term "force-free." If I say that to some clients, what I've realized lately is it makes them hide the force they use. It doesn't actually change it. It just means that they're not going to bring to the consultation the prong collar or show me how they're working, which actually is not helpful in our relationship moving forward.

So in my efforts to sincerely not shame or blame the person who comes to my office, and often in 30 seconds I see so many things that I go, "Oh my gosh, there's a lot wrong here." You're here now with me. How can I sincerely be able to address your needs where you are, but continue to make progress at the rate that works for you and that is not so glacially slow for me that I feel like this is not serving anybody's needs.

That question about can we have an honest conversation about am I the right behaviorist for you, here's what I can do and here's what I can't do, and then to make a decision. If you say, "No, Kathy, you're not the right behaviorist for me," I can accept the "no" gratefully and not have my own ego wounded. This is actually really present work for me. I want to be able to go, "Sure, you're all free to say no to me, and I'm fine with that."

I'm like, "Oh my gosh, people don't want to hire me if I tell you my truth. I think their ability to make choices about whether to work with me in this moment, and maybe to plant the seed that says, "Maybe at some point this is going to seem interesting to you and something you want to pick up, but you can't right now. I wish you well in what you are doing, but I'm not your person." That's a real tightrope walk. You bring that up in a way that makes me not want to have the suffering that many of my colleagues and your colleagues, Melissa, go through in trying to be all things to all people. Sometimes we can't. It's going to lower our efficiency for the people who are willing to hear.

I think it's Susan Friedman that says, "When the line of people wanting to have a conversation with me runs out, when there are no people waiting in line to talk to me who really have open ears and want to talk to me, when there's no one in that line, then I'll reach for the shut doors and be knocking on those and trying to pull people in."

Years ago — I hadn't thought of this in the longest time — Steve White, what a genius/trainer/friend/colleague years ago said to me, "Some will, some won't, so what, someone's waiting." At the time he taught me that, that was a great relief for me to be able to go, "We're going to keep chugging along and doing the work that we can." But we have to have some compassion to ourselves. I think the work I do is challenging and heartbreaking, and I know that's true for a lot of us.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. With that in mind, and with the idea in mind also that the U.S. at least, vaccines are happening, things are slowly starting to open back up, I know my social skills feel a little rusty. How about you?

Kathy Sdao: Do you remember having casual small talk with the cashier? I can't.

Melissa Breau: Do you have tips melding all this together for handlers, trainers, those of us who go out into these social situations as a student in a training class, or at a trial, or even just at a local get-togethers with some friends in training who need to navigate these more tricky conversations around "That's not quite how I would do it" to do it well?

Kathy Sdao: Oh my gosh, that's such a big question. I feel like the podcast is going to go for three hours.

Melissa Breau: Maybe one tip or two tips. Little tips.

Kathy Sdao: You want another recent epiphany? To answer your question, here's what I'm actually trying to operationalize. It's not just talking about things. It is … I'm currently not good at this skill, but I aspire to not offer advice as my first strategy. Because I know a lot, or I think I do, abut this very narrow window, it's arcane knowledge, but I feel like I have expertise in dog training, which is what I talk about with a lot of my folks, because people that I hang out with, we're dog trainers. And I want to help you, Melissa. I'm going to share my knowledge with you.

One of Marshall Rosenberg, founder of Nonviolent Communication, quotes … I have to reread that book quite often because it's not second nature to me, Nonviolent Communication. But I have a Post-It up here next to my desk and it says, "Empathy before education." Empathy means making a legitimate connection with where you are right now, and what your feelings and needs are.

Good friend who won't get vaccinated. I have data, I have articles, I have graphs. Can I just try to connect with her feelings and needs about not getting vaccinated? And I'm telling you, this is an actual question. It's very hard because it's really my own feelings and needs that her not getting vaccinated are sparking for me. I'm afraid and frustrated and angry, and I want to be able to do things with you, and I am betting, because you're a human being, you're making this decision based on your feelings and needs, which are valid.

So before I jump to … I just read a great New York Times article. Can I share that with you? I have the PDF." Can you just have a little breath, though? Because that's me going to "I want to share stuff. I've got it right now on my phone." Kathy, shut up, which is not a big skill for me, and really sincerely listen, which is often difficult. The reason not listening is, is it's easier for me to fill in the space because I'm comfortable bring the advice sharer. So I'm trying to do some pausing and a little bit of can I tap into your feelings and needs in this moment. I'm trying.

Here's the other thing. I did this with a friend on Zoom just before I was talking to you. I've had a long-term consultation relationship with … I call her a friend now in another country for eight years. We've been doing Face Time, Zoom consultations, over the years, and what we've developed between each other talking about training issues is this lovely kindness of saying, "Can I redo that? Can I redo what I just said?" I feel like the words just came out of my mouth and they're the best that … "Wait a minute. Melissa, can I redo that conversation?" Because I gave it my best shot, but I'd like another.

We do this with animals all the time. We do repetitions of training and we say that's what shaping is about. Some of them are going to be on the crappy end of the bell curve, some will be at the better end of the bell curve. It's the variability that allows us to shape behavior.

Variability is awesome. Variability sometimes means you just had a sucky little conversation snippet with somebody. Can you say to a friend or relative, "Redo" when you want to do that over? If you can actually do that with a friend, it is weirdly freeing the next conversation you have. It is weird because now you go, "I don't have to get it out perfectly the first time. I'm just going to do my best, and then, Melissa, because you and I have this friendship relationship where I can go, "I can do better. Can I take that back? Can we do that conversation again? That felt a little abrupt."

I've started to do that with some clients and say, "Hang on. I'd like to explain that in a different way. Are you ready for the explanation yet, or would you like to share a little bit more with me about the biting German Shepherd?" That is actually something I do as well. "I have some ideas when I look at the scars on your arm about the biting that's happening. Are you ready for this, Margarite, or do you have some more information to share?"

And Melissa, the information she's sharing about the biting, I saw in the first moment. I saw in the interactions. I got it. She isn't done telling me about the pain and suffering of paying $4000 for a puppy that she's afraid of, and the puppy has only been in her house for two weeks. That's a lot. "Keep talking to me about that. I want to solve the problem. You're not going to be able to hear my solution unless I hear your pain. I've got some suggestions for you about what you might be able to do. Are you ready for that yet? Okay, we're going to put that over here. Tell me a little bit more about what happened when you took …"

We have to operationalize those ways we allow for empathy to come into a conversation that sometimes us science-loving folks … I'm a science-loving folk, so are you … we love data. We love sharing data and algorithms and training plans. We are all over that. I sometimes do it prematurely.

Melissa Breau: You're definitely not alone. I love the way you phrased how to handle that and how to think about it.

Kathy Sdao: It's my experiment, so I try these things and see how they work. And we wonder. Here's what I used to say about my clients: "Gosh, they're just so noncompliant." I wouldn't say that about a dog. I wouldn't use the word "compliance" with a dog. That feels pushy and icky and responsive. I can get responsive with positive reinforcement.

I get compliance with force, but I would describe my clients as noncompliant. Oops, I think I was probably and still am using more force than I imagined, because that doesn't fit my ethic of LIMA, and that's what I'm going to call myself and that's what my hoodie is going to say. We keep learning, whether we want to or not.

Melissa Breau: Yes, indeed we do. We are all lifelong learners, no matter what we choose. I have to admit, Kathy, I had a super-hard time deciding what to ask you about today when I sat down last night to work on some questions. I hope you don't mind, but we're going to pivot a little bit. Is that all right?

Kathy Sdao: Absolutely. I love talking to you.

Melissa Breau: So all the stuff that came before this is awesome it's almost a full podcast in itself. I also want to talk a little bit about cues, which I know is a topic that's near and dear to your heart. You're well known as an expert. Do you want to talk a little bit about what makes for a good cue?

Kathy Sdao: You are killing me here. Melissa is helping me be concise or attempt to be concise. Let's be super-concise. There are some parameters of a good cue that come from the science of signals. We want cues to be consistent. We want them to be distinctive from one another, which us verbal humans which use our hands a lot, we're not good at making hand signals different from one another, nor are we good at remembering how all other species are not good verbal language interpreters. We overestimate the difference between our spoken words, no matter what language they're in, and animals that don't have language don't hear the differences you hear in "bow" and "down." They're like, "Are you kidding me?"

Making cues distinctive, using them consistently, being able to have them be salient. The signal should pop out from background noise, from visual stimuli. The things that you're gong to call your cues really have to get through the filter of your mostly mammals, although we're talking birds and fish and dolphins — dolphins are mammals — training too. But brains are good at filtering out relevant information, so what I feel like for a lot of the cues for my clients and students is the cues are getting filtered out because they don't pop. They're not salient enough.

So we want salience, consistency, distinctiveness, and simplicity. We're not great at stripping down our cues to not be multi-modal. Especially working with dogs, which in this regard are the worst species because they notice every nuance of our body language, whether you want them to or not.

Every eye flick you make with your Border Collie, I am sorry, the Border Collie, and every dog basically, is noticing the weight shift you make, or where your eyes are, or how you're breathing, or where your shoulder is. When you say, "I prefer that the dog don't pay attention to those body language signals I'm inadvertently giving," you have to give some care to the cues you are choosing so they'll override that.

The cliché example of a puppy or a dog going to training class and learning the first "down" cue, the cue for lying down, being both the word and the hand gesture of your palm moving toward the ground and you inadvertently lean forward into the dog because you have been luring, so you've got a little bit of the lean, that is a lot of information coming at that dog: your spoken word, your gesture, your leaning, your eyes are probably looking somewhere. That is not a good first cue to learn. It's way too complicated. So cues being simple is a great advantage.

It doesn't mean you can't give the same movement, the same behavior, multiple functional cues. That's cool. It's when you try to simultaneously lump all that on top of each other that it becomes unintelligible to your learner, and then they don't do it.

And if they don't do it, it means you can't reinforce it, and then you have this really awful hole you dug yourself where your cue — your word or your hand gesture or your foot gesture, for all the short dogs out there who would like to put a vote in for "Could you use your feet for cues, yes, please" — you have this dire situation where you're giving your cue to your dog with your fingers crossed in the hopes they'll do it.

But because they don't do it, or they don't do it up to your current criteria, you don't reinforce. A cue that isn't backed up by reinforcement doesn't stay a functional cue. It's not giving information that allows your learner to go, "Hooray, reinforcement opportunity. I want to do that with gusto, enthusiasm, and expediency." It gets you having dogs that have a latency and a head tilt and a "Could you say that again?" None of us want that. It just makes us tired and not proud.

Well, dogs do that because there is confusion in our signaling, and I've got to tell you, in a perfect world, you give a cue, the animal does what you asked, and you reinforce it each and every time, because that makes the cue super-meaningful. That's what we all want. Remember when we all want control? We talked about that earlier. We trainers want control too. We like to stay calm and the dog doesn't. We are in that same camp. We get there by arranging the environment so that our cues are followed by pretty sure the animal is able to do it at the current criteria because I want to reinforce it. That's what makes my cues have power.

Melissa, you and I come in a tradition of signals have power, because you made that dog do it. That's what traditional training, that's how they empower commands: you do it or else. Well, we'd like to be able to say there's lots of species you can't "or else" because they're big or they're flighty or you can't touch them.

And, by the way, the animals you can "or else" because you're bigger than they are or you've got gear that allows you to hurt them or else, even them — dogs and horses — we want to be able to say that training that creates cues that are reinforcement opportunities for those learners to get those needs met — it's such a fabulous way to train for everybody. But the reinforcement contingency, cues backed up by reinforcers, makes sure that you have cues that work.

It also hints at one other thing, Melissa — without us going into a whole webinar on cues, which you know I'm ready to do; I'm all about — hints at poisoning cues is a real dilemma for us positive reinforcement trainers, and it means our cues can't even occasionally be backed up with coercion. So it's a way that keeps us honest about do you occasionally after your recall cue — "Smudge, here" — compel him to come because he's on a long line and I'm going to pull him because I'm in a hurry. I don't. Not just for Smudge's welfare, that's an issue, but I would like to preserve his recall cue — "here" — as unpoisoned.

If I'm occasionally putting coercion behind it, it changes the meaning of the cue in a way that's very, very hard to repair, if it's even reparable at all. I don't want to go back to scratch and train a new recall cue. That's really labor-intensive. So for my own welfare as a trainer, it would be lovely to be mindful of all the times we follow our cues with some kind of force that is gong to mess up our learner's ability to respond to those cues with enthusiasm and zero latency, which is what we're all shooting for.

Melissa Breau: To take that and go into another topic that could be a whole webinar, can you talk a little bit about how, based on what you just said, a cue can turn into a reinforcer?

Kathy Sdao: I still remember … has it been 25 years? I'm sure it has been … hearing Karen Pryor say this onstage. I was just switching to dog training, I was pretty new to the dog world, and Karen Pryor says, "Cues are reinforcers if you train them right." I'm like, "What? Come again?" That insight changes a lot. It changes how you create cues and maintain them. It changes how you build behavior chains, which frankly is every interesting thing we do with dogs beyond single discrete behaviors in a 101 obedience or puppy manners class.

Everything is a behavior chain. So understanding that your cues, your words, and your gestures can become conditioned reinforcers. It's no different than your clicker or your "yes" becoming a promise for a food treat or a tug session or a belly rub or anything that learner values coming after your click. Your click is a promise.

If you go one step back from that and say, "I'm going to give my cue only in situations I'm pretty sure I can mark and reinforce, click and treat," that cue becomes a conditioned reinforcer that receives the marker signal. If you understand how marker signals gain reinforcing value, and a lot of us do, the cue is just one step removed from that. It's the exact same process.

The thing that trips people up is this confusion that cues are a politically correct version of commands, like they're all the same thing. They're not at all. It might be the same word. You can teach platz as a cue. We tend to think of that as a commandits in german and you said it roughly. That's a fictitious way to separate cues and commands. It's how they're trained.

For me to be able to say to Smudge … when I say 'here' and show you my fist, those both are recall cues here to get you looking at me when you're across a three-acre field where I work hunting bunnies.

When you, Melissa, as my new client, are showing up at, let's pretend, 3 p.m., and my dog, Smudge, is on the three-acre field hunting bunnies, I need him to come when I call him, because you, my first-time client showing up, seeing me, the "expert," cannot get her dog to come when she calls, not good for business.

So when I say, "Smudge, here," and show him my fist, I expect him to come every time, out of his own greed. He has an expectation of his running to me will be reinforced because we've rehearsed that a lot. But in addition to rehearsing lots of iterations of him coming off of interesting real-life distractions for good pay, sometimes the pay is I send him back to hunt the bunny because you really aren't there as a client, Melissa. There's not someone there for me. I have time. But there's a piece of that story is I can't back that request up with force when I'm in a hurry.

It's like saying sometimes you would click, and follow that click with some egregious punishment. I'm not going to tell you which one. But you would go, "Who would do that? Who would click and follow up with something the dog hated? Wouldn't that screw up your click?" Yes, indeed, but we do that with our cues all the time, because we're like, "Someone's watching me, and I'm supposed to be a professional, but my dog didn't do what I just asked, so I'm going to make him lie down because one of those trainers is watching me and I'm embarrassed."

To be able to have your own impulse control that says, "I'm really tempted to make you do this thing, Smudge, because I'm a little embarrassed right now, but I don't want to wreck your cue. Let's keep that in the bucket of continuously growing conditioned reinforcers."

But actually is the problem, Melissa, you and I and all the positive reinforcement trainers listening, the dilemmas we run into pretty much everything becomes a conditioned reinforcer because we reinforce so often, the dog is anticipating reinforcement all the time. And then we have the dilemma to go, "The dog just did something I don't like. How should I respond?" Really try hard not to reinforce that, and that's not a facile comment. That is for all of us to go, "What would it look like for me to not reinforce the dog right now for barking?" We get into interesting conversations because we've trained a lot of things as conditioned reinforcers, which is good for training and welfare, not so good for extinction.

Melissa Breau: Part of the reason I wanted to talk at least a little about cues, and part of the reason I asked about cues becoming reinforcers, is that you graciously agreed to rerun the webinar you did for us a while ago on increasing food motivation for dogs that are not "food motivated." I wanted to ask how that ties into what we've been talking about, because I imagine they're quite related.

Kathy Sdao: Doing a podcast with you. I'm super-passionate. This is not Kathy faking enthusiasm. I love all these topics. When clients say to me, and they do routinely, "My dog is not food motivated," to me, that's a behavioral emergency. It really is not a quirk, not a breed-specific thing, which is often a fallacious explanation why that dog is a finicky eater.

To be able to repair the dog's faulty eating behavior — eating is a behavior that we can affect through operant contingencies — to be able to introduce the idea that finicky eating is about habit, with veterinarians onboard … for sure there are illnesses, absolutely, physical conditions that interfere with eating, of course there are, but we want to work as a collaborative team, us trainers and behaviorists who work from the psychology side of it. We definitely want to work in collaboration with our vets and vet techs.

But all too often it is not disease related. It is habit related. What ends up happening are these very unpredictable workarounds for dogs who are not "food-motivated," they often involve arcane, really palatable foods. I don't mind starting there, but to be able to be hobbled by the fact that your dog will only eat something messy, expensive, and stinky, that you don't particularly like using, you will not reinforce very often.

Or here's the other thing. How many times does this happen? Because my dog is a finicky eater, I'm going to back up the click, if there's even a marker signal involved — let's just pretend we've gotten a marker signal into usage — I'm backing that up with praise. Let's praise the dog. We love praise. Praise is great. It doesn't do the heavy lifting that many of us need to do, and you're going to have training in many cases, the majority of cases I would say, that's so glacially slow you won't get lift-off.

You want to get the plane to lift off the ground so that you've got training that is self-reinforcing so it's not a chore for humans. They actually enjoy it because it's both a little bit fun and they're getting behavior change, which is super-cool and is what gets us to continue training.

Until they get that lift-off of training becomes reinforcing in itself, and they're just doing it because they paid you and they would like to get some bang for their buck, because if the trainer they paid told them to do something, using praise, and I'm even going to say, I know this is radical, but non-food reinforcers of all kinds, I am very hesitant to say to a client, "Let's use toys as reinforcers instead of food."

Absolutely I want to have toys on the list of reinforcers, but the "instead of food," this has not worked well for me as the workaround. You can't get in repetitions often enough, and in a way, controlling the toys, there's some skills involved in dropping the toy and the timing. It's all good. But I want the food reinforcers, if I can, to precede the toy reinforcers, and I don't want you to dig yourself such a narrow little swath of food reinforcement that you're just not going to do it. It's messy and stinky. I need you to have an eating dog.

You do have an eating dog because it's alive. But you don't have a dog that's eating trustworthily, readily in training sessions. I just had a dog come in maybe two weeks ago. I wish I had this on video. If I held a treat in my thumb and forefinger and held it out to the dog, absolutely not. The dog averted his face, turned his head away. If I put the treat on my palm or on the ground, the dog would eat it. It tells you something. I know that in the first two minutes of the dog coming in. It tells you something about that dog's learning history. That dog is suspicious about food held in fingertip and thumb. Sure enough, food has been used as a lure in scary situations for that dog.

We could sort that all out, but if you say that dog isn't food motivated, we have just made our job so hard. In the list of clients who are not mine in the Save The Trainer list, if you're really happy with your shock collar … I had someone write to me last month. Here is the title of the email: "My dog needs a tune-up." I wonder what that means. In the rest of the email it is, "Love my shock collar, it's all going well, but the dog needs a tune-up on some obedience behaviors." I am not your trainer. I wish you well. I'm not your trainer. But I'm also not your trainer if you don't want to use food.

If you say, "I'd love to use food, but my dog's finicky," I love those. That's talking about the first trick we're going to teach your dog is eating. Let's talk about that. And that webinar — I love it. It's a way into common mistakes that we make that are super-easy common-sense-based mistakes that inadvertently create finicky eating, dogs, I don't have children, that it works for, kids and cats and parrots and other things too. So if you don't have the ability to back your cues up frequently, contingently, and reliably with something that dog values, then we're just wasting time.

And dogs who have food out all the time …I just had a veterinarian come to see me whose dog has food out all the time and is a finicky eater. This was a great conversation with a doctor about "Let's just talk about the pros and cons." Everything is a tradeoff. There is a pro to having food sitting out all the time, and there's a cost you're paying in having kibble sitting out all the time so the dog can graze anytime during the day.

Let's talk about the repercussions this is having for your training, which is stuck, isn't it? So we're going to do an experiment together and see what some changes in feeding protocols will make for this dog's training. It's all learning. We're going to try.

Melissa Breau: I feel like I'm hearing the phrase "My dog's not food motivated" more than I used to. I don't know if that's true of you.

Kathy Sdao: Yes. Why? Why do you think …

Melissa Breau: I don't know. But I think it's weird that it's coming up so often. Having had a dog who now eats quite well, but t one point was definitely … there are things you can't train if you don't have an eating dog. You can't work on crate behaviors without food. You can't use a toy to reward a crate behavior.

Kathy Sdao: Right. Or a dog wearing a muzzle. It's really hard. You just brought up a question for me. You always make me think. I love talking to you. How the pandemic and the changes in people's and dogs' lives may have impacted that. We're only a data set of two, but I also am hearing it more often, the suggestions often being — maybe it's social media driven — "Here's the secret food." "Your dog isn't food motivated. I've got the secret special cheese," which is one of those short-term solutions of we could get the dog eating more reliably as an operant behavior. I wonder how the pandemic has affected that behavior.

Melissa Breau: I'm sure it has. It's tied into everything.

Kathy Sdao: Yeah. Talk about the big experiment. Yeah, lots of behavior changes there. But the fact that we're going to have a redo of that webinar makes me happy. I love talking about that topic. One of the reasons why, the epiphanies that come from the learning free up awesome training. It's not just about getting your dog to eat. It releases the rest of the training that people have wanted to do, but they've been hobbled. "Oh wait, I can do that thing I wanted to do." Yes, indeed. So thank you for letting us have that webinar come on again.

Melissa Breau: Of course. Anything else you want to share about the webinar to give folks an idea of what to expect?

Kathy Sdao: No, but it is mistakes Kathy has made. I'm of an age … everyone can see how young you are, Melissa, and even though you can only hear us, we're watching each other, and I think of the audiences again. I want to talk about a three-dimensional audience. I think there will be three-dimensional audiences coming up. I've got trips on my schedule, which feels so bizarre.

When I look out at folks, I would say, when I had audiences maybe ten or twelve years ago, I felt like, I am an expert onstage with a microphone. Now I feel like I can get off the stage and just come with you all, because we're all in this learning thing together, and we're having conversations that I feel like I'm a learner along with everybody, and I'm blessed to be able to have a chance to have these conversations.

But that webinar is mistakes Kathy has made that you don't need to make. It really is just I've been there, done that, you don't need to do it. Learn from my mistakes.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. I've got a hard question for you here at the end. What's the end of a podcast without a hard question. To round things out, I know we talked about a lot of different stuff and we covered a lot of ground. If you were to drill down our chat today into one key piece of information you really want people to take away or wish people understood, what would that be?

Kathy Sdao: I'm going to pull the thing that's made the biggest difference for me over the last … it's been a hard year for … I was going to say all of us … maybe that's not true, but certainly for me and the people I hang out with. That's going to make me cry.

Everybody deserves a little mercy. We are doing the best we can in really difficult times, and especially for behavior professionals, we see nuances of behavior really fast. We don't have to put a lot of effort into it. We continue to study body language, but I guess what I'm saying, Melissa, is we see a lot. And it means we see all kinds of animals, human and non-human animals, making mistakes. We see ourselves making mistakes. Life is full of mistakes.

Let's try to cut each other a little bit of slack and assume that everybody is doing the best they can, even ourselves, because I think this time has been an invitation to be quite hard on ourselves as well. When you're punishing, avoidance is the reaction to punishment.

I see veterinary professionals especially, it's a grueling time for a lot of folks. Even my training colleagues, they're slammed right now. They're busy. They're trying to be of service to people who are in desperate need. There's been a confluence of a lot of things that have led to a lot of dogs being in the wrong home and just some dire situations.

Mercy. Cut each other some slack, but yourself some slack too, and I'd like to extend that grace to myself because it's hard. We want to be in this together. That's part of the LIMA beings community. When we get on those live calls, it is just to be able to say, "We've chosen to do some hard and important work in the world. We want to keep each other going as well." So cut each other a little bit of slack.

Melissa Breau: We could all use it. What a good note to end on.

Kathy Sdao: Yeah. Thank you for all you and FDSA does. I feel like you're a force for good in the world, and I'm really glad to be a part of it. And I'm glad to know you, Melissa, because I look at you and I know I could be your mother and maybe could be your grandmother …

Melissa Breau: I don't think it's that much of a difference.

Kathy Sdao: You give me great hope, and all the young trainers … it's really exciting. I'm glad to continue in a profession that grows, and FDSA is a big part of that fabulous growth, so I'm happy to be a part of it.

Melissa Breau: Thank you. We appreciate all you're doing out there too. You're not having easy conversations. You're facing the hard conversations in the face and helping lead them in the community, and it's important, so thank you.

Kathy Sdao: You're welcome.

Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming on today, Kathy. It's been fantastic.

Kathy Sdao: Thank you, Melissa. We could talk longer, but we'll give the podcast some slack and call it good for now, and promise to talk again soon.

Melissa Breau: Yes, sooner this time than last time. Last time we waited too long.

And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. Keep listening after the credits to hear the poet Kathy mentioned, Lynn Unger, read her poem "Pandemic." Big thanks to Lynn for agreeing to let us include her reading of her work in the podcast.

If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast, and to Lynn Unger for sharing her work. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in — and happy training!

"Pandemic" – by Lynn Unger

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
You could hardly deny it now.
Know that our lives
are in one another's hands.
Surely that has become clear.
Do not reach out with your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move invisibly
where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

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