Sunday, April 22, 2012

Book Review: Plenty in Life is Free

I just finished Plenty in Life is Free: reflections on dogs, training and finding grace, by Kathy Sdao. It was revelatory. It is funny to say that I had trouble putting down a dog training book, but I did (I put off email and sleep to finish it). It’s a short book, but truly lovely. The two Sdao seminars I’ve attended have both stuck with me years later and informed my training, and Sdao is as engaging and thoughtful an author as she is a speaker.

This book seems to be written for an audience of dog trainers, but it has plenty in it to appeal to the dog owner as well. Don’t expect it to walk you through how to train your dog to sit, or to provide details on how to handle a new puppy or to turn around dog-dog aggression. It’s really a philosophy book about how to approach dog training: we don’t have to control our dog’s every move and obsess about leadership. We can be our dog’s parents, protecting and guiding but leaving them a reasonable amount of independence too.

Sdao discusses the concept of “sticky stories,” stories that stick in people’s minds, such as the story that dogs evolved from wolves and therefore a good dog owner acts like the alpha wolf. She provides an alternate version of a story that is more accurate and hopefully just as sticky: dogs evolved from scavengers and we should be their parents, doling out resources as good parents do. I like her proactive approach; let’s hope that the new, improved sticky story takes root.

Sdao also constructs a sticky meme in the same vein as Michael Pollan’s famous advice about how to eat (“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”). Hers goes “Reinforce behaviors you like; remove reinforcement for behaviors you don’t like.” She correctly identifies that, while pithy, this is probably not catchy enough to be sticky, and goes on to describe a SMART (see, mark, and reward training) system, in which you train your dog by doing little more than rewarding the dog 50 times a day for doing cute or useful things. (I may be oversimplifying, but not by much; the point is that it’s simple.)

It’s a short, fun, useful read. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Available at Dogwise.