Tuesday, March 18, 2008

From Dolphins to Dogs: Kathy Sdao on clicker training

True or false: you can train your dog with the same methods used to train dolphins.

True. Of course, you wouldn’t ask your dog to do a backflip and toss him some fish, but there are striking similarities in how animals learn.

“All animals basically learn in the same way,” according to Kathy Sdao, a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist who has been training animals for over twenty years. She started her career in animal training by teaching dolphins to execute open-ocean tasks for the U.S. Navy’s Department of Defense.

Sdao now trains dogs with what is commonly called clicker training, a training method based in what is scientifically known as operant conditioning. Trainers who use operant conditioning shape an animal’s behavior by creating clear consequences. The shrill of a whistle or crisp metallic click of a noisemarker are associated with rewards for desired behavior. This rewards-based training, also called positive reinforcement, is effective with more than just dolphins.

At the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Wash., Sdao successfully used operant conditioning to train walruses, beluga whales, porpoises, sea lions, polar bears, and otters. When lack of funding at the zoo prompted Sdao to look for another job, she turned to domestic animals.

She hadn’t yet trained a domestic dog when she and a fellow zookeeper left their jobs at the zoo and started a dog daycare facility, Puget Hound Daycare. “I was pretty cocky and thought that if I could train beluga whales and dolphins, dogs would be no problem.”

Sdao now offers her training services to pet owners through her own Bright Spot Dog Training and gives lectures and workshops on clicker training for dog trainers across the country. She says that despite dogs being more complex than she had anticipated, “Training a dolphin is not that different from training a dog. But the difference is that I’d never worked with humans before. I’m training humans now.”

“Most people come to me with preconceived ideas of what dog training is about,” Sdao says. To get past this, she says she uses the principles of positive reinforcement on her human students. “Instead of looking at what they’re doing and saying, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe they’re popping the leash on the dog,’ I show them one step and reward them when they get it right. It’s really hard to change an adult’s habits. That’s why I love when I work with kids, because they’re really open to new ideas.” Sdao looks for this openness before she even begins working with a pet owner. “If people come to me and want to train their dog and they’re not willing to use food treats with their dog, I’m really hesitant to work with them.”

Positive reinforcement methods are fairly new to dog training. Traditional methods have focused on teaching dogs what not to do through punishment for undesirable behavior. Recently, this training strategy has been reinforced with the resurgence of wolf-pack mentality methods like those of charismatic TV personality Cesar Millan. Such methods focus on the pet owner’s ability to assert him or herself as dominant “alpha” over the dog, usually through some degree of physical force.

Because of her experience and understanding of animal behavior, Sdao believes positive reinforcement is more realistic. “The pack mentality is wrong. It sounds great, but it’s wrong. Dogs aren’t that similar to wolves. They’re physically similar, but they aren’t behaviorally similar. You have to quit pretending that you’re the alpha. I had a woman ask me ‘How do I get my two-year-old to be alpha over a Great Dane?’ You can’t. But you can get the dog to understand that responding to even the toddler’s commands gets them what they want.”

Sdao says she asks dog owners what they think their dogs would say to them if they could talk to them about training for thirty seconds. “I think what dogs would say over and over again is, ‘We’ve really been confused. We’re trying to understand you. We’re trying to get along with you. We really just don’t understand what you’re asking.”

Sdao believes that with the aid of a clicker, some treats, and a little behavioral psychology, owners and their dogs can begin to understand each other.

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