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Alumni Spotlights

Kathy Sdao, '83: Talking with Dogs and Dolphins

  • on March 11, 2014
  • by Lisa M. McMahon, M.A.'09

If it wasn't for an independent study at the Niagara Falls Aquarium, Kathy Sdao might have become a doctor. She was enrolled in Niagara University's premed program when her psychology professor, Patricia Ebert Heiman, asked her to help with a research project she was conducting. The project involved training a harbor seal, and Kathy, a lifelong animal lover, found her calling.

“Pat changed my life,” Kathy says. “I got hooked.”

It took Kathy a while to find the path to her passion, however. She switched her major to psychology and, knowing that she did not want to be a clinician, went on to the University at Buffalo's organizational psychology program after graduation. It took only one semester for Kathy to realize that area of psychology wasn't for her.

And then she saw a NOVA episode featuring the University of Hawaii's Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory and its work with dolphins. On a whim, she applied for, and was accepted into, the university's cognitive psychology program.

While pursuing her master's degree, Kathy worked as a research assistant at the lab. She participated in studies on the sensory, cognitive, and communicative capacities of the resident bottlenose dolphins by helping to teach them sign language. After graduation, she found work as a dolphin trainer for the U.S. Navy's Marine Mammal Program.

For three years, Kathy worked with Manini, one of 10 wild bottlenose dolphins that were being trained to locate and mark the location of deep-moored mines in the open ocean. The program used positive reinforcement to teach the dolphins a variety of behaviors, from hitting a paddle at the back of the trainers' motorboat when a mine was detected, to “beaching,” (jumping into the motorboat onto a mat for the ride back to the Navy base). Seeing the positive effects of this rewards-based method changed her life, Kathy says, and she's been a staunch advocate for force-free training, specifically clicker training, ever since.

Kathy moved back to the mainland in 1991 and joined the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Wash., as a zookeeper. For five years, she worked with harbor porpoises, beluga whales, sea lions, and a two-ton walrus named E.T., who had been brought to the zoo after being abandoned as a baby. E.T. was “profoundly aggressive,” and training him was a significant challenge, one that other trainers had refused to undertake. Although she, too, was afraid of the giant creature, Kathy and her two co-trainers were able to teach E.T. to perform nearly 100 behaviors by the time she left the zoo in 1996.

Ready to pursue other career options but not willing to leave her beloved Tacoma, Kathy decided to train dogs. She had no prior experience with dogs, so she and her business partner opened Tacoma's first “doggie daycare” ”“ Puget Hound Daycare ”“ which served as a laboratory of sorts for her. “It was a wonderful way to be immersed in lots of dogs for 12 or 14 hours a day,” she says.

In addition to caring for dogs while their owners were at work, Kathy offered training classes and private consultations for her customers. She also earned certification as an Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist*, one of only 18 in the world, making her uniquely qualified to assist owners modify their dogs' undesirable behaviors. Today, she owns and operates Bright Spot Dog Training and travels extensively to lead workshops and seminars for dog owners and trainers. She provided assistance to Guide Dogs for the Blind when the organization began implementing the use of positive training methods, has been on the faculty of ClickerExpos since 2003, trained animal actors, and appeared on an episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy! She has also written numerous articles and recently published a book, Plenty in Life is Free ”“ Reflections on Dogs, Training and Finding Grace.

As the title of her book suggests, Kathy views her work as more than simply training dogs. It's teaching people about behavior in ways that can be applied to all aspects of their daily lives, whether it's interacting with work colleagues, building relationships, or raising children.

“The skillful use of positive reinforcement changes the world,” she says.


* There are two separate certifications for animal behaviorists. Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists have earned a Ph.D. in addition to the certification. There are 33 CAABs in the world. Associate Certified Applied Behaviorists, like Kathy, hold a master's degree. For more information about becoming a certified applied animal behaviorist, visit