Why I’m Not a “Force Free” Trainer

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.

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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?

67 responses to “Why I’m Not a “Force Free” Trainer

  1. Thoughtful and interesting. I tend to not think much past some labels, and “force free” is one I’ve never really thought about. Now that you mention it, it makes so much sense that of course the ‘force’ depends on the dog. Thank you for being so clear.

  2. I so agree with this post! I have had a 4 year old sled dog rescue for two years. Never have I seen such an anxious, fearful dog. I have read, watched videos, worked with my vet, 3 trainers, 1 behaviorist and my girl is still mostly afraid of the world. The progress we have made is the result of asking her, “how is this for you” and modifying my responses/expectations. I am fortunate in that my girl remains non-aggressive and my patience is holding up. Thank you for reinforcing my beliefs.

  3. I never considered the different meanings of force, either! It’s very inspirational to read this, and makes me really think of other ‘labels’ and what they could mean.

  4. Hallelujah…and thanks for this! I have the same level of discomfort with trainers who call themselves “purely positive.” The label is meant only to disparage other trainers without providing much information about THAT trainer. Always ask the dog.

  5. My definition of force-free is that I do nothing to inflict fear, intimidation or pain upon a dog. It seems to me to be a pretty clear and positive distinction. I am also proud to be a member of PPG and FFTW.

  6. To me, the term force free, in the broadest sense, was intended to describe people who want dogs to be trained without choke, prong, shock, and other coercive methods. But as the various professional organizations jockey for position in a changing landscape that may someday lead to regulation similar to that in other professional fields, the stakes become higher. For decades, some of us have sought to belong somewhere where we did not have to share a credential with those who used choke, prong, or shock collars to train. Existing organizations failed to answer that need. When they dropped that ball, it was only a matter of time until the call was answered by someone. That was PPG (Pet Professional Guild), which will soon develop an independently tested credential that members and non-members alike can apply for. It’s mostly those with a vested interest in PPG’s failure who are ringing the “force free is a bad word” bell. You’ve unwittingly, or maybe deliberately, contributed to that backlash by becoming picayune about labels. PPG states clearly what force free means in terms of membership in that organization. I, for one, am happy to sign on to that definition.

    FWIW, force free trainers who identify as such *do* certainly realize that the dog determines what constitutes force, and they even realize that a training trial and an emergency are different (i.e. you might respond differently when breaking up a dog fight than you would if you were teaching a retrieve) , but just something to think about as we explore the rationale why some people want to attack the term itself – I’ve heard people argue that their dog “loves” his prong collar because when he sees it that predicts going for a walk. Does that *really* mean it’s not an instrument of force when the dog is actually out walking???

    Should we really play into the hands of those who’d like nothing more than to see the “force free” movement derail, or should we worry less about what we call ourselves individually and pay attention to who is doing the nit-picking. I’ve noticed that some of the loudest voices against the term “force free” are those who use force, disgruntled people with an axe to grind, or those affiliated with other professional organizations who appear to view PPG as some kind of threat to their own membership numbers. Something to think about before climbing on the anti-force free bandwagon – who exactly are you aligning yourself with, and was that really your intention?

    Me, I’m just going to keep calling myself force free, positive, humane, progressive, and any other thing I want – and go train dogs with kindness.

    • I agree. What is with the new trend in distancing yourself from the very thing you actually stand for and completely derailing the conversation when huge strides still need to be made? We can nit pick about semantics when dogs are routinely being electrocuted and chocked in the name of training. Why do so many trainers suddenly feel like they have to apologize for not hurting dogs and not needing to? To make concessions to “balanced” trainers in the hopes that they might one day wake up and realize what they’re doing?

      I’m not a “force free trainer” because the term was actually trademarked by a shock collar trainer! I am certainly a force free trainer because I never force dogs to do things they’re uncomfortable with or use force to teach them. It’s not an obfuscating concept at all.

      And I think if you asked the dog which trainer it preferred- the shock collar enthusiast or the “force free” clicker trainer- the answer should be completely obvious. An incompetent clicker trainer will give you a fat dog with no skills. An incompetent OR competent shock collar trainer will be equally likely to give you an emotionally damaged, shut down wreck of a bite liability.

      • “An incompetent OR competent shock collar trainer will be equally likely to give you an emotionally damaged, shut down wreck of a bite liability.”

        Meh, I disagree.

      • “Why do so many trainers suddenly feel like they have to apologize for not hurting dogs and not needing to?”
        I have no idea, but I’m glad we don’t seem to be among the, Fran. Thanks for your comment.

      • My dog was trained by a behaviorist who competently used a shock collar. (I don’t use one). He is emotionally healthy, happy, and the opposite-of shut down.

  7. Thank you for this! Really well done.

  8. Reblogged this on Guard Dog Blog and commented:
    Well said, although I think that we all can benefit from learning how to use tools we aren’t partial to in an effective way.

  9. Thank you for this needed and thoughtful article. I’m an Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (ACAAB) and CPDT. I’m about 98% reward-based, but as you point out, that still means we use aversives. “Ouching” a puppy for nipping is positive punishment. Using a head or body halter relies on negative reinforcement (relief from pressure or control when the dog focuses or turns). Even negative punishment is an aversive (mild to moderate, depending on the dog). If it weren’t, it wouldn’t reduce behavior. People get black & white about this issue when it is anything but. It’s a spectrum. In human applied behavior analysis, we have the LRA (least restrictive, yet effective, alternative) concept, which is helpful. But it’s complex, not black and white.

    I’ve had a couple of clients over the years with predatory dogs, one had killed livestock repeatedly and two others, siblings, had killed (disemboweled) a neighbor dog. The owners did not want to euthanize. We worked all levels to advanced proofing with positive reinforcement. That was the “want to” phase. Then we taught the dogs the “have to” part at long distances on low-level e-collars. Minimal stress, no more “force” than a head halter, the recalls became 100% reliable, dogs’ body language still upbeat, no more animals died, and my clients’ dogs kept their homes.

    People forget that even in the Delta Professional Standards, there is rationale for aversive-based treatment plans, including when it’s an emergency and when the benefits outweigh the risks. As a behaviorist, I need (per our ethical standards) all tools in my box, even though 98% of the time I reach for rewards and mild aversives like GLs and negative punishment.

  10. I know quite a number of force and balanced trainers. They use these types of posts to “prove” that trainers who use R+ can’t agree what is and isn’t cruel and that they are mean and cruel.
    I am deeply saddened and really wish all of this would stop.

    • Thumbs up!

    • I know several e-collar trainers, and they’re not in perfect agreement either! Each one has a different take on what’s okay and not okay to train with it, when it becomes inhumane, etc. There’s never been an organization or movement in history in which all members were in perfect agreement. Diverse perspectives and dialog are good things. They don’t detract from the general sentiment/philosophy that brought the group together.

    • Maybe it will stop when trainers that use predominantly positive reinforcement can stop judging one another for their training choices because they are not force free enough for the sensibilities of one trainer but are force free enough for the sensibilities of the other. The reality is that there are many ways to train a dog with minimal to no detectable negative impacts. We are all on the same side, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it. In spite of this, there are some little islands of peace amongst the turmoil where everyone trusts that everyone else has the dog’s best interests in mind, and useful discussion ensues. Maybe it will stop when they are small nations instead of little islands.

  11. Very Good Article!

  12. Well, “fair and balanced” may be abused but it does describe you! That’s what makes you such an excellent trainer. I’ll also mention that I did “go to the dark side” with my reactive dog (e-collar with trainer). Didn’t continue but must say that trainer spent more time keeping him under threshold with rewards and shock free than ever placing him in a situation where he might have been shocked.

  13. You knocked it OUT OF THE PARK, Sara!!

  14. Excellent. While I may be a member of the chief “force free” association(s) and follow their general methodology, I’ve never been entirely comfortable with that label. Not one of us is 100% force free, even if we strive to be. Its impossible for the reason you mention–the dog determines how they feel, not us. Its so complicated. I am learning, finally, to focus less on the labels others use and more just on working towards what I know will create the best outcome for the dog. Thanks for making me feel like I am not so out there in my own left field.

  15. Well said Sara. I’ve been ruminating on this point for the last several months. I won’t call myself “force free,” because I think of it as a dishonest term. I prefer the term reward based, because at least that represents me as a trainer who uses rewards to motivate. I’m so happy when I find evidence of others who support the use of positive reinforcement based training, without having to try to somehow define themselves as morally superior to those who don’t do things exactly as they would. Thank you for this well thought out and well expressed post.

  16. spatial not spacial

  17. “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.” I disagree with that statement – some trainers have been using the wrong methodologies for many years so they are very experienced but I wouldn’t consider them good trainers. I do agree that every dog is an individual and should be taught the way he learns best – but that never means using force, fear or intimidation. My first goal is to make a dog feel safe. I am also a member of The Pet Professional Guild and proud to say I am a force-free trainer. I also suggest trainers be very transparent when explaining what methods and tools they use because of the terms “force-free”, “positive”, “dog friendly”, and so on being thrown around. I like the World Dog Trainers Motivation Transparency Challenge started by John McGuigan who was inspired by Jean Donaldson’s 3 questions to dog trainers:
    •What will happen to my dog if he gets it right?
    •What will happen to my dog if he gets it wrong?
    •Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose?

    • I’ll agree with you that experience alone is not the key, but suggest it’s how they use the methods that’s important. To say that you never use force, fear or intimidation, of any degree, is just silly and has no basis in ethology, psychology or life. Your Pet Professional Guild lists in their resources texts from Lindsay, Overall and O’Heare, and none support that.

      I just argued with a (yet, another) Force-Free trainer who said I was too aversive, based only on her KNOWING what an aversive is, although she couldn’t explain it. I then explained in detail why her approach was both more aversive and less effective than mine, and had the dog confirm this, but she refused to listen or even discuss this further. A bit later I brought this up with a Karen Pryor Instructor who focuses on behavioral work and, although our approaches are rather different, she agreed with me.

      As for tools making the difference, I’ve seen many who don’t even know how to use a leash, so maybe it’s not the tools themselves, as Sara explains.

      Nor do I try to prove things by quoting three sentences from Jean Donaldson. Instead, I’ll bring out the syllabus from her Academy for Dog Trainers and use discussing those topics to form a logical conclusion.

      Finally, I’ll thank Sara for the very nice article.

  18. Excellent and reflective article, Thank you.

  19. I very rarely comment on dog training posts. But I had to say. bravo. And thank you.

  20. In the example below that you used, I just want folks to be clear that in order for the dog to understand what would happen he had to first learn what the shock was about and why he would want to avoid it. How do you think that happened? Yes, he had to be shocked and the pain had to be great enough for him not to want it to happen again. And why would he want to turn it off it it wasn’t uncomfortable, I don’t understand?
    “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.”

    • Absolutely. A great unbiased study was done in the UK, proving that even if we think the dogs are not affected by e collar training, the levels of stress recorded prove this wrong.

  21. Good answer, the minute we put a collar and lead on out dogs, we are no force free?

    • If you use the collar and the lead to train, you are not force free. In other words, if the collar is being yanked, and the lead is used to be restrictive, that is not force free.

  22. EXCELLENT Post!- wish I could write as well!

  23. Excellent post. I’ve struggled for years to avoid “force” training only to find that the results I got were not the ones I sought. (as in miserable failure) I do use an e collar now, I was fortunate to work with experienced trainers who use the tool effectively, with consideration for the effect it has on the individual dogs, and I have found it to be a far more effective information sending tool than my voice or pops on the leash or cookies and treats. It can be difficult to know what the best tools/methods are for an individual dog and well worth the effort to keep my “toolbox” full. I have learned that limiting myself to a standard of no corrections is a huge disservice to the dogs I share my life with.

  24. I’m always glad to read the writings of someone who’s highly skilled at reading dog body language, and whose highest priority is a dog’s physical and mental well-being (and I’m especially glad when the person is a decent writer, as you are). The fact that you, too, were unable to find a catchy phrase for what you are, and felt forced to describe yourself in terms of what you are not, reminds us again of the difficulty in coming up with a name for what we do which will have stickiness for the general public. My hope for all of us is that we will immediately cease, “I’m-proud-to-say-I’m-not-that”ing anyone, and will start coming up with suggestions for our sticky name, which is long overdue. It’s annoying that people are still riding the wave of, ‘Dog Whisperer’ (and not even the ‘right’ one!) Imagine if we all started calling ourselves, ‘Dog Readers’…

  25. I guess I am just disappointed that this blog “attack” on a name continues. Every Ed Frawley in the world just loves to post these things in support of aversive training, because we all seem to be so focused on bashing what we call ourselves.
    Perhaps your next blog could be more constructive by describing what you ARE as opposed to what you are not, or don’t agree with?
    Reading between the lines in the blog, I saw “balanced trainer”. Unfortunately, the pet owning community will not pick up on this, and will be willfully hoodwinked.
    “What happens to my dog when he gets it right?”
    “What happens to my dog when he gets it wrong?”
    “Are there any less aversive methods to get the same result?”

    Would love to read a blog about that!

    • I think if you look at the site you will find four years worth of blogs and much “about us” info that explain in a constructive detailed way what Sara does do.

  26. I applaud you for saying what many are afraid to admit to these days for fear of being shot down in flames.

    As a Trainer I got so fed up feeling the need to justify my methods. It seems that if a Trainer dare to say they tell a dog no they should be strung from the nearest tree. Lure and reward doesn’t always work when you have a snarling 45kg dog trying to get hold of another dog, Nor does picking it up, as I have seen some people do.

    I also love that you put your hands up and admit you have made some mistakes but as you are aware of that you immediately rectify it.

    The current way of thinking seems to be there is only one way to train a dog which is crazy. Every dog is an individual and what works for one wont necessarily work for the next dog.As Trainers its our job to find what method works best for the individual.

    Well done you!

  27. Beautifully thought out and written.
    Refreshing.
    I am with you.

  28. rexthewonderdog2007

    While “force-free” may not be perfect terminology, I think it serves a purpose. Sadly, many people understand “dog training” as “using force.” A term such as “force-free” is necessary to bring about the cultural shift that needs to happen.

    • Well said! Your post reminded me that less than a decade ago I was afraid to take my dog to a trainer because I thought I would be asked to use force. The relief to find that our trainer was what we generally call ‘force free’ was an eye-opening relief, and I started down the road to being a trainer myself. Fast forward to now, and I hope and trust that the label I give myself, ‘force free trainer’, while not perfect, will be enough for potential clients to differentiate between dog trainers and handlers who endorse the use of electric shock and other aversives, and me, because I want to be part of that cultural shift you mention. It’s a whole different way of thinking about relationship, a true and beautiful way. Sometimes the truest and most beautiful concepts are complex, and don’t lend themselves easily to labels. The conversation about, and search for, the perfect words to describe complex concepts has its own value. I will keep searching, but for now, ‘force free trainer’ is a phrase I’m proud and happy to use to describe myself.

  29. Good thought-provoking article. I agree with everything that you said. I sell e-collars and training tools,, but their use must be modified to the dog, or not used at all depending on the individual circumstance. Thank you for sharing your perspective!

    Sharon
    http://www.ShopForPuppy.com

  30. In trial competitions PO train dogs excell 1 for 2000 dogs train using balanced training methods. Force Free is bs, dogs and humans need corrections once in a while, low level stimulation from my e-collar has giving me the most happy dogs I have in my 35 years training dogs. Don’t get me wrong I still introduce basic behaviors using food and markers and but my 2 month old puppie is already wearing a dummy e-collar, for him the e-collar will part of every activities we participate for the rest of his life.

  31. Great post.

    It’s a fine line between simply arguing semantics (i.e. what is the meaning of “force” anyway…) and doing what your blog achieved; highlighting that the importance lies not in the meaning of the word (however whoever decides to define it) but rather in the intent and outcome of its associated actions.

    • Shenanigans Sam, what did you mean by the word, ‘intent’, in your last sentence, and what did you mean by the word, ‘outcome’? I’m assuming you meant them to refer to what you called the actions associated with the word, ‘force’, yes?

      • Ummmm…not sure how to respond here. I meant exactly what I wrote. There is much less room for equivocation and objectivity when discussing the semantics of a single word, like intent, outcome and action – I mean, that’s why we have dictionaries. In contrast, discussing an entire idea/concept/theory, for example “force free”, is subject to greater shades of meaning (each person’s idea of it being different…for example we all have a notion of what makes a good teacher but each of our answers would be different). What I said, paraphrased and reiterated as follows, is that in my meagre opinion the author sagely expounds the notion of using terms like “force free” to encompass, or rather pigeonhole, a person’s entire value system rather than taking it as part of a whole…seeking clarification on their intents and actions. There is too much subjectivity and debate for such terms to aptly represent any one person’s stance on the matter and, at that, have it coincide with what everyone else believes the terms to signify. It’s an argument of semantics, to often folk get caught up in the meaning of the label rather than what else its use might imply…but I digress. I just meant she did good at making her point: call it what you want, forceful or force free, this is how I train dogs, end of story.

  32. Thanks for this post. This article expresses what I by now thinking. “Force Free” is dogmatic and only a philosophy but the reality shows a different picture.

  33. I think this is well articulated and makes some good points. Thank you. I have never been asked if I am a force free trainer. Occasionally, a client has asked me what kind of things I might do to their dog, and I can honestly answer that I use a lot of rewards because I want happy dogs and happy owners. I haven’t so far found that I really need a label. The only ones that care are other trainers, and they can damn well read my philosophy page on my website if they so badly need to categorise me as friend or foe.

  34. Good stuff, thank you. As a creative writing major and former magazine editor (16 yrs) before finding my true calling helping dogs and humans live in harmony, I well know the power of words and how difficult in can be to communicate properly. My problem with words like force-free and positive reinforcement is that they are vaguely clinical-sounding and sort of lay there. I like words that evoke specific images and feelings. I am big on using the word KIND. That one is hard to misunderstand. I try to get people to think past pennies in a can, yelling and squirt bottles by giving them kind, effective alternatives. But I am also a realist. I had a client with acreage whose large dog wandered onto the neighbor’s land one too many times, and the neighbor threatened to shoot him. The dog had also crossed the road multiple times. We worked through all sorts of exercises so he became reliable staying on property and highly responsive when called. But since one mistake could have been fatal, I also gave her an electric collar with vibration as a safety net. To do anything less, in my view, would have been unkind, and doing a disservice to dog and human. Hope we can have many more civil discussions about this complex topic.

  35. This is a great example of being flexible and learning from mistakes. It is a bad idea to become so ingrained in a pattern of handling a situation that the specific dog and their reaction is not given top priority. I am so glad you broached this topic in such an eloquent and educational way.

  36. Tweeted this post! The term force free is often used as a market trick and nothing more, it says nothing about what the trainer will actually do with your dog.

    Thanks for the educational article!

  37. I don’t think saying that you’re not force free gives people much information at all. Just like people calling themselves “balanced trainers” doesn’t tell us that they use shock prong and choke collars, alpha roll, scruff, kick and hiss at dogs. Consumers need to educate themselves and ask questions. They need to ask about methods and tools, and whether the trainer truly understands operant and respondent conditioning and when either or both need to be used. What the term “force-free” does provide the consumer is a start. It tells the consumer that harmful and violent methods will not be used by the trainer.

    Your example of the friend who trained her dog with a shock collar is interesting. Because we really don’t know what that dog is thinking. And that was the point of your article, no? Like we can condition a deaf dog’s response to a vibrating collar, perhaps she conditioned a happy response to the shock collar. I doubt it, but perhaps. As a force-free trainer, I can do the same thing with the recall but without the electronics. And for me, even if I didn’t have an issue with shocking a dog, those dogs know when the collar isn’t on and compliance will decrease because the collar has become part of the cue.

    I’m a crossover trainer. I used all of those tactics and all of that “common wisdom” about being alpha, dominant, pack nonsense over a decade ago. And I know better now. And I’m a better trainer now. And my dogs and students are happier for it.

  38. Reblogged this on DogSentials and commented:
    When I first started to read this I thought: ‘this is semantics’ — reading one I concluded that Sara makes an excellent point. I recently had a client grill me before joining my class. He understood that my method is reward-based but was very concerned about the use of force, he did not believe in prongs, shock, and other compulsion tools and methods. I have witnessed that same man yank, scold and even slap his dog in the face with his leash in moments of frustration. Guiding him to be more gentle proved to be very difficult because he did not perceive himself to be using force, after all the dog was on a harness or a martingale collar. The dog was more responsive to me and every other handler in the class then he was to his owner. The owner concluded that the walk about exercises we were doing to help the dogs come under stimulus control while out in public were not helpful to his dog because the dog was too distracted and would not respond to his cues. The dog did however, respond with minimal latency when I offered the cues. He could not see that his dog was under stimulus control with a high rate of reward and a gentle attitude. For the dog the handler was like a poisoned cue.

  39. As someone who has been trying for almost two years to train my dog using the so called force free method, I am greatly relieved to read this as I have recently had to resort to stronger methods in order to protect myself, my dog and others from his over excited nature. These stronger methods (blocking, terse verbal comments etc.) have been proving very effective on a dog that is either totally distracted or hyper focused with no in between mode at all. I had been feeling both thankful for finally getting results and a failure for not getting results with a clicker. But my dog has no interest in treats, toys or me once he is outside the house (despite being my absolute shadow inside) – the only thing he wants to do is sniff/lick every blade of grass and/or bulldoze every other dog he sees, no matter how big/small they are or how far away they are. He will even stop dead in his tracks,when he sees people until he is sure they don’t have a dog with them, at which point he takes off for that interesting lamp post he has just spotted! He is a northern breed (Tamaskan), possibly with hyperkinesis, and I have been reduced to tears on more than one occasion after putting all my efforts in to clicker training resulting in a bored frustrated dog. Nothing would delight me more than to use nothing but a clicker and treats to manage my dog but my dog just doesn’t like that method. Since changing the way I work with him, he is becoming more aware of my presence when we are outside and is beginning to relax more when other dogs appear. We are a long way from where we want to be but, after 22 months, we are finally making progress in the right direction and, thanks to this post, I now feel confident that we are, at last, doing what works!

    • With all due respect rebelwolf, reading with the eyes of a trainer with 12 years experience and many hours teaching and shaping human behavior so they can get good results from their dogs, it sounds like you have made a couple of common errors in your training that resulted in tons of frustration for both you and your dog: 1) Before taking your dog anywhere to try to teach/rehab any behavior, you first must get a calm dog in the environment. Clearly, you have an insecure pup with low stress tolerance (shadow inside, insane outside) who goes off the charts when taken outside. I’ve worked many a dog like this, including my own darling girl. To create a calm dog in any environment, you must enter that environment with a clear plan for teaching him how to act from the moment he enters that space. So for example, if you take Sparky out the door and he goes into crazy mode immediately, you turn right around and go back inside. Let him calm a little, say GOOD, go back out. You continue going in and out the door until you get less crazy outside. You say GOOD and take a step forward. When crazy returns, you return to the spot where he was calmer and wait. Faster than you would ever think possible (for me, it usually takes 10-20 minutes), your dog will be walking better and paying more attention for short stretches. With the brain back online, now you can start to work the problem. The reason this works, and works quickly, is because you are clearly identifying the behavior you want (by using GOOD marker) from the start, and delivering the reward he wants (WALK). Which brings me to the other error: 2) People get stuck on the standard reward stuff (treats, toys, praise), which is not always what the dog wants. It’s super important to know what the dog wants AT THAT MOMENT so you can help him figure out how to get it. Anything can be a reward as long as the dog perceives it as such! For example, my dog is a sniffaholic, so when I was teaching her walking, I would reward her with sniff-time after a short section of good walking. Sorry to be so long; trying to be helpful. Note I don’t use the term force-free because it doesn’t make sense to me. I am a kind teacher, that’s all.

  40. Lovely blog.

  41. I stopped reading when the author tried to justify the electric collar. :(

  42. Thank you for this! I agree with all of it. I have two dogs who respond very differently to training. Both Am Staffs, one is deaf the other is not. We have always used a spray bottle with the deaf one to get her attention when she is not looking at us not for punishment (I know, evil eh?) I’ve always said that she reminds me of a teenage girl that if she had bangs she would be flipping them at me and rolling her eyes. My boy (non-deaf) will slink if I even touch a spray bottle. He is very soft. Of course I don’t need the spray to get his attention because he can hear me. The point is that they take to training very differently.

  43. Great read! Labels are mostly misleading in the pet industry. As you’ve read here, there are also misleading comments that want to persuade your subconscious. I believe that as in construction, there are multiple tools in your tool box that can be used for various jobs, so to are the training tools of a good trainer. As said earlier, each dog has it’s own personality and requires a quick study to determine what tools to use. I’ve been an owner of working dogs most of my life and now having 2 Rotties with opposite training needs I use different tools for each. My adopted male, in his youth (2yo), would ignore cooked liver placed at his nose/mouth if he was “fixated” on another dog. Treats were not the tool for the fix. Confident and trust in me as well as patience on my part has him 80% improved. I don’t use or promote e-collars but an acquaintance of mime trains his Boykin Spaniel to hunt with one and she adores him. Maybe I need one for the wife? Just kidding…….

  44. Have you read this article? Your explanation of not wanting to use the term ‘force-free’ because ‘dogs determine force’ certainly seems like a continuum fallacy. Even if the dog had ‘learned the rules’ on how to turn off the shock collar, it is still very obviously P+. If you are familiar with the quadrants the clicker trainer you mentioned was also exposing her dog to an aversive.
    http://eileenanddogs.com/2013/07/24/dog-training-continuum-fallacy-open-concept/

  45. Pingback: What does a “Force Free” Trainer do anyway ? | Come. Sit. Stay!

  46. Pingback: What Does a “Force-Free” Trainer Do Anyway? | Ottawa K9 School

  47. I didn’t have any problems or disagreements with this article as I began reading. However, from the first problem mentioned and described until the conclusion, I found a number of things that I wanted to throw out there for consideration as possible ways to understand that your own perception of how a label functions is subjective AND maybe these things can help change it or at least open minds to middle-ground.

    The first and biggest problem of the label telling someone nothing about what you DO, is understandable on a surface level, but you go on to describe that you DON’T call yourself a “force free” trainer due to it not explaining how you DO train, but you never actually present other titles/labels/details for what you call yourself other than just a “trainer” since that alone does not tell me what you DO or DON’T DO when it comes to approaching training. I tell people that I am a “No Force” trainer and rather, I am a “Positivity” trainer. I think that saying what you do not do as a trainer is and should be comforting and at least a place to start describing what YOU mean by “force”.

    That leads well into my issue with your second problem mentioned, which is that the dog decides what “force” means…The dog does not like when you use a leash period to walk them because it does restrain them, but that is not “force” according to any “force free” trainer as far as I know. It is a safety measure that does NOT “force” a dog to perform any behavior, but it RESTRICTS the dog to ensure safety for others, AND to ensure the dog is safe. So your question regarding the foot on a leash allowing the dog to move in appropriate ways when interacting with a person, but restricting them to prevent motion in inappropriate ways, does not go against any “force free” trainer definition I see used in a general sense by trainers. The body block behavior question actually is the opposite of “force” as you are acting like a wall or fence that ONLY RESTRICTS the dog from engaging in a behavior that could put others and themselves in dangerous situations. It also PREVENTS the dog from doing any lunging on a leash that would continuously pull on their neck and choke them over and over and over again and instead offers a guideline for behavior, but more than that, it can offer a secure feeling for the dog and stops you from being in the position of a dog in a pack just tugging on them and enables you to give them the structure they NEED to feel comfortable and less anxious because they have someone to tell them what to do AND someone to protect them from any other living thing that does the OPPOSITE behavior of what they are told to do so that they experience less fear and stress. Without another long explanation, the harness question is a combination of the responses to the first two you mention. It protects the neck, inflicts LESS pain, and GUIDES the dog AWAY from inappropriate behaviors WHILE actually showing them the correct behavior and using praise to confirm why they need to do it – it is how they get your attention as a leader and not a pack member who they ignore.

    The pain response to a nip is not “too forceful”, but it is the literal expression of your physical and emotional feeling inflicted by the puppy and is instinctual, not decided upon as a way to MAKE the dog do or not do something. When puppies play together and are specifically play-biting, often times the first few yelps by the “other” puppy are a bit alarming and frightening to the puppy who bit and caused pain, but it is not mean, harmful, or “too” emotionally upsetting for the biter, as it is the only way the puppy who is bitten INSTINCTIVELY knows to react immediately to a new and unpleasant pain from the biter. That is why after the pain sound, the puppy who yelped or person who did, almost always is the one to try and re-initiate play with the biter to let them know that play is good, but that they caused pain and need to not make the other puppy or person THAT physically and verbally upset because the biter generally will be the puppy who yelps at least once to alert the other playmate that what they just did was not fun or pleasant and this is how the puppies and people can communicate using the SAME language solely produced by nature programming it.

    Lastly, the two trainers you describe are doing things right and wrong in each situation, but the latter trainer is doing wrong to the point of “force” since the dog is showing that they aren’t simply not doing the desired behavior, but they are not comfortable enough to even behave how they would in inappropriate ways for the situation because the dog is SO stressed and fearful and anxious that they are actually petrified. The first trainer just has shown that they do have a good relationship with their dog. That does not mean that the dog is always happy with the trainer or that the dog is always in the mood and/or mindset to work on training, which is not a choice in that case. You saw two training interactions and one was a better trainer than the other, but one was also not advertising a demonstration with a dog that they didn’t know was going to have problems with training at that moment and feel the need to still deliver the information to the audience with a visual of it working. THAT is what the second trainer is doing wrong…they respond to that feeling and forget to try perspective-taking as the dog, much less understanding that they are hurting the dog to demonstrate a fully functional method that the dog has probably done well with before, but is not able to do that much mentally the day of the demonstration. They need to ALWAYS remember to put the dog BEFORE an audience or an expectation even, and that is simply a bad trainer for reasons that have NOTHING to do with the “force free” label.

    As you said, everyone gets things wrong sometimes, such as how loud to be when showing enthusiasm, which is something that we can control and can prepare to expect needing alteration of it for different dogs. Simply because a dog expresses that they do not like something, does not mean the trainer is wrong for doing it. The first dog example only shows that the dog is able to enjoy the positive praise and love the owner shows after the shock that the dog likely first DOES feel anger instinctively toward the owner due to and eventually has enough fear or uncomfortableness because of, does NOT mean that the owner is using the right training method for their dog when choosing the method of RESTRICTION (the shock collar), BUT also including the ACTUAL right method for training when PRAISING/REWARDING properly. The second step of the method being right and well received by the dog does NOT mean that the first step of the method is right or necessary or not harmful for the dog simply because we don’t notice a visible expression of dislike…don’t we know that almost all living creatures dislike being shocked even slightly, ESPECIALLY when there are other options that do not inflict pain to punish or restrict.

    I don’t care who coined the term “officially” and I doubt that they were the FIRST person in the whole history of human language to say that pair of words and define what it meant…That person was just noted first by other people as having said and explained the two-word phrase. I am a “No Force”/”Force Free”/”Positivity” trainer and those terms DO tell the potential clients what I will NOT do to their pet in order to communicate and train, that the owner may see as abusive OR may see as the right way for their pet…I don’t feel comfortable inflicting pain, discomfort, etc. once I know it happens, but there are things that we can label as universally not appropriate ways to interact with other creatures because almost all of us will experience some amount of pain or discomfort from that thing, and we know that we can be taught that we should not do something because there is something we SHOULD DO that evokes the same response from our interaction partner without causing any unnecessary comfort past the first moment of realization that we may have gone too far accidentally, even in showing praise and affection.

  48. Hi,

    Thank you for this article. I enjoyed hearing your perspective on the “force-free” training movement. I have been volunteering at an SPCA near me and have been doing a lot of self study training. I Really want to have a well rounded education and wish there was a good dog training school. Is there any you recommend that fit your philosophy?
    Starmark academy? K9? Any thoughts on these.

  49. You folks in the industry can argue back and forth all you want about the merits of various labels. As a soon to be dog owner I found the analysis of force free versus “non-force free” methodologies to be helpful in understanding the term force free and its implications for the methodologies used. I could care less about the turf war between various industry organizations. What I care about is identifying and hiring an effective trainer who will teach me a means of training my dog in a way that will foster a positive relationship between me and my dog and will not do any physical or emotional harm to my dog. To that end, this post has given me information that will help me make the choice that is right for me and my dog.

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