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Book Review: “Plenty in Life is Free” by Kathy Sdao

by | Mar 21, 2012 | 3 comments

I read a lot of books, but it’s rare that I get excited about a dog book.  I find that the information in them is typically either inaccurate or dumbed down, and I just can’t tolerate that long enough to turn all the pages.  Generally speaking, two kinds of dog books capture my interest; philosophical-reflection-type books written by excellent writers who love dogs with all they’ve got (my favorite book, Bones Would Rain from the Sky by Suzanne Clotheir, and another life-changer Pack of Two by Caroline Knapp come to mind), or innovative game-changing behavior modification manuals (the last one to hit my shelf was Behavior Adjustment Training by Grisha Stewart, and it’s a game-changer indeed).   So, when Kathy Sdao’s new book, Plenty in Life is Free: Reflections on Dogs, Training and Finding Grace went up for presale on dogwise.com, I ordered it immediately.  Why?  Because it miraculously falls under both categories.

There is a popular paradigm (paradigm? here’s a blog about that) that incredulously falls into most camps of dog training (dog trainers usually can’t agree on anything).  It states that in order to heal behavior problems we must demonstrate to our dogs that we are in charge by controlling their access to resources.  They must work for everything they get.  This is often referred to as the Nothing In Life is Free (NILIF) or Learn-to-Earn program.  It is rooted in the pack theory model (pack leaders control access to resources), but the amazing thing is that it is practiced by a lot of trainers who reject the pack theory model (as I do).  It is a program that I have experienced a great deal of cognitive dissonance over.  It seems to work.  It seems to reinforce impulse control which is often at the root of many behavior issues.   It seems to teach dog owners to communicate effectively to their dogs.  It seems like it can’t hurt.  But it sure seems like a whole bunch of hierarchy malarkey, too.  The progressive side of dog training might call it a “Leadership Model,” but as a brilliant friend of mine pointed out, insert the word “pack” before “leadership” and you’re suddenly Cesar Millan.  So, needless to say, I struggle with using this protocol, but wasn’t sure how to get away from it and maintain good mangement protocols in behavior modificaton.

Enter Kathy Sdao.

In her book she talks about the problems with NILIF-type protocols and provides the reader with lovely alternatives.  She dissects the roots of these programs, and investigates their effects on our relationships with our beloved dogs.  All dog people, whether they are using NILIF programs in their work or in their home, should read this book and give what they are doing closer examination.


  1. Kim B-G

    LOVE this post and ‘hierarchy malarky’–fabulous! Can I borrow this book from you sometime?

    • cogdogtrainer

      Of course! And I have to admit that I first heard the term “hierarchy malarky” from Kathy Sdao…brilliant!

  2. cynthiablue

    I’m also reading Plenty In Life is Free, and really enjoying it. Thought I’d check out some other reviews. I have never practiced NILIF and now I am glad I have not!


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