Force free. It sounds great, doesn’t it? Of course dog training should be force free! Yet when a recent client asked if I was a force free trainer, I said I wasn’t. My client was taken aback, as many of my blog readers probably are. Let me explain.
I have several issues with the idea of labeling the training that Paws Abilities offers as “force free.” My biggest problem with the label is that it says nothing about what we actually do. Focusing on negatives like this is one of the biggest advertising gimmicks of all time. “No corn, wheat, or soy!” the dog food package proclaims. Yet, reading the label shows that there’s enough barley, rice, and oatmeal in the food that dogs who have issues with carbs are still going to react negatively. “Sugar free – No Sugar Crash!” the 5-hour Energy drink shouts, saying nothing about how your body might react to the caffeine crash later in the day.
Focus on negatives like this is meant to make you think poorly of competitor’s products or services. When you see the label that says “no by-products” on the dog food package, you start thinking that maybe by-products are bad for your dog, and wondering why other dog food companies would use them. When you see “force free” on a dog trainer’s website, your mental image of a trainer shoving or jerking a dog around makes you feel relieved that at least this trainer doesn’t do that.
What the focus on negatives doesn’t tell you is what the trainer actually does. While I don’t use or recommend choke, prong, or electronic collars, that doesn’t tell you a single thing about what I will do to your dog. Can I solve the behavioral issues you’re experiencing with your pet? How quickly and effectively will I do so? These are probably the bigger questions on your mind, and knowing what tools I do or don’t use isn’t going to tell you a whole hell of a lot about how effective I am. There are good and bad trainers of all training methodologies, and more has to do with the trainer’s experience than with the methods they use.
Which brings me to the second reason I don’t consider myself or my other instructors force free. The dog decides what “force” means, and we can’t always know that until we try a given training intervention. Is it considered forceful to stand on a dog’s leash so that he has enough leash to comfortably sit, stand, or lie down, but not enough to jump up on a stranger? Is it forceful to use body blocks to keep my dog from lunging at a passing bike? Is it forceful to fit a dog with a Gentle Leader or front-attach harness so that when he pulls on his leash he ends up facing his handler? I can’t tell you, and neither can anyone else. Each of these training methods is one that I frequently use, and each of them produces different results for different dogs. For some dogs, these methods might be considered forceful. A soft dog who’s very sensitive to spacial pressure might be really uncomfortable when her handler body blocks her, for example. For that dog, we may have to adjust the handler’s technique (perhaps having her handler lean towards her instead of actually stepping in front of her, for example). But we can’t know until we look at the dog’s response.
I’ve watched as a friend’s dog was happily and quickly recalled using low-level shocks from an electronic collar. While the tool isn’t one I use or recommend, in this dog’s case I didn’t see any body language that told me that the dog was uncomfortable or stressed by the use of force. Rather, the dog understood what the sensation on his neck meant, knew how to turn it off, and had a great relationship with his handler. I didn’t consider the interaction forceful and was not uncomfortable with anything I observed, even though the training tool was not one that I typically like seeing used.
On the other hand, I’ve watched a trainer shape a dog to “bang” the teeter totter using a clicker and treats at a seminar and felt highly uncomfortable. The dog was on a leash but was not being physically guided in any way. Still, she couldn’t go more than 6′ away from the teeter totter, and was clearly uncomfortable with the amount of pressure placed on her by the trainer. The dog’s body was low and she was licking her lips and turning her head away from the trainer. Even though I often use clickers and treats to train dogs, I was very uncomfortable with the interaction and didn’t feel like the dog was enjoying the training or building a good relationship with the well-known presenter at all.
The force free training movement would have you believe that the first trainer is evil because of her use of an e-collar, while the second trainer is good because she was using a clicker and treats. However, I bet if we asked the two dogs which was happier with the training they were experiencing, we’d get very different answers. This doesn’t mean that I’m going to start using an e-collar anytime soon (I’m not), or that I don’t think clickers and treats are good training tools (I do). But we have to ask the dog, and the mark of a good trainer has a lot less to do about what tools are in their repertoire as it does with how they modify their techniques based on the animal in front of them. Dogs are individuals, and cookie-cutter techniques don’t work any better for them than they do for the owners at the other end of the leash. The more dogs a trainer has worked with, the better that trainer will be able to change his or her methods to suit the individual that they’re working with at the moment – and the happier and less stressed the dog will be with the training.
I still get it wrong sometimes. Everyone will. I yelp loudly when a puppy nips me, then watch as that puppy shrinks away and realize that I’ve been too forceful. Next time I’ll need to make less noise. I clap my hands and cheer, offering a tug toy as the dog I’m working with gets into heel position, then feel my heart sink as the dog lags behind me. Next time I’ll need to praise and pet quietly, handing the dog a small piece of hot dog. I back an excited adolescent dog away from the dog he’s lunging and barking at, and watch as he continues to carry on. Next time I’ll need to body block him with a quick verbal “I don’t THINK so,” and be ready to reward him when he quiets down. The important thing in each interaction is that I modify my response to the dog to better work for that individual animal.
I’m not force free. I make mistakes in how I handle dogs. But I strive to be fair, kind, and respectful. I’m not force free. But I am helpful, effective, and a trainer who prefers reward-based methods. And doesn’t that tell you a lot more than focusing on what I’m not?