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.


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?

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

  1. Well. This was an annoying forum. It became a war of pros and cons between people and methodology. Blah, blah, blah.
    The facts are:
    No one! wants to be cruel.
    Everyone wants a well adjusted, trained and happy pet/companion.

    There is something that is missing here. The fact that a dog, is a pack animal.
    Have you ever seen how dogs, in a pack/litter/more than one dog household, teach each other? They are NOT kind. They are not mean either (in their own estimation) they are simply… effective. Bad behaviour is enforced with? Guess what? Force. It establishes the pecking order. It teaches what is acceptable behaviour and that which is not. There is NO guessing, there are no subliminal suggestions, there is just the here and now, “Puppy, this was your action, and this is the consequence.” Simple.
    And, the dog learns.
    I am not condoning cruelty, OR harsh training methods. But (yes there is a but), a dog… is NOT a human. They have a different language, responses and mentality.
    What we are aiming at, is to teach a dog to behave as WE wish/need it to… in a human environment.
    I landed here, on this page, because I am searching for an answer as to how to retrain an aggressive, 10 year old fluff ball, (Cute as. Bischon X.) to not bite, not go berserk when someone tries to groom him, not go ballistic when someone arrives at the door, not run away should the door be left slightly ajar, not bark at the slightest noise, etc etc. Sigh. This is not my dog.
    This dog has ISSUES. So far, I found the old squirt bottle VERY effective!), and with a great deal of patience (and a muzzle) I have managed some grooming. The dog is vicious and unpredictable and WILL bite. It is impossible to groom this creature without a muzzle. In fact, he was sedated; to be groomed, vet checked and vaccinated etc, before I came along, so I feel that I have achieved a great deal! so far.
    I am NOT an accredited trainer (I have been a training school instructor, for beginner classes), I am merely an animal lover and owner.
    So please, stop arguing technique, and give some definitive information.

    • Well said & well done Eva.
      I’m not a certified trainer either and have been a volunteer trainer for 8 years teaching obedience classes from basic to AKC competition. Every dog responds differently to training but in the end they are all looking for approval. In the natural world especially when they are puppies they learn right from wrong from their parents and siblings. I growl, a snap, a bite, a yelp, all learning tools from the home front.
      How about giving a high value treat as you groom? With the muzzle on, the dog can still get treats as you gently groom. Small chicken or cheese pieces if you can get fingers close enough, or peanut butter on a spoon if you need to have more distance. Good luck!

    • Eva, if you don’t want to give the nightmare thing a dirt nap (which seems a lot more appropriate by the way), condition it to an e-collar. Follow the collar’s instructions to set “working level.” Once you have done that, teach the dog that it turns off the stim by looking at you, at which time you can reward it. After that, when the dog acts up, stim it with the collar, going up a level as needed. Eventually the dog will go “Oh, damn I can’t ignore that sensation anymore” and stop being a shit and look at you. Release the stim immediately. Then reward it. You might have to get pretty high in the stim to break through the dog’s frame of mind when it’s spun up, but after a time or two of that it will get easier. Then turn the stim down as allowed. THAT is how you fix aggressive behavior as you describe. The dog needs a serious come to Jesus to learn that hey, that behavior is painful to you, dog, so stop it and life will be better. YOU, Eva, just stay calm and don’t talk to the dog while you are using the stim on it. Let the dog figure out that it’s the behavior causing the hurt. Hope that helps.
      (but I do think dogs like this are a waste of damn time. I mean, why? What on earth is going to be better in your life from dealing with this nasty thing?)

    • You are not a dog. You don’t have a dog’s timing or ability to communicate like other dogs do. Stop using “well dogs do this to each other therefore I should do it to them” to justify your laziness in not wanting to find out how to properly train your dog without fear or intimidation or pain. Dogs also sniff each other’s asses and hump as communication methods, are you going to start doing that?

      • JoAnn DeAngelo

        Well said. Applying human psychology to an animal is plain faulty thinking and potentially harmful to the dog. Does anybody discuss prey drive? Making the dog feel safe in your presence bc you are in charge? The dogs really tell you what they need. Listen. And then apply your tools/skills.

      • I have to applaud your response. I am so over Cesar Millan worshippers. Dogs are not able to communicate in the HUGE variety of ways humans can but that doesn’t mean they can’t understand us. And just because they have a method, it doesn’t automatically mean they have the best method. I have a reactive dog with hyperkinesis and the ONLY way I have ever been prepared to both train and manage him is 100% force free. Yes, it takes commitment, dedication, patience, perseverance and consistency…but so does raising children properly. If you don’t want to put the effort in, don’t have them…dogs or kids!

    • I’m sorry. You are recommending interventions that should be unacceptable.
      Force does NOT ‘establish the pecking order. Force increases opposition.
      As Newton said ” For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
      Personally i would recommend the sedation what working on he dog toaccustom him to handling and grooming. The poor dog must have undergone some terrible treatment for humans to behave like this.

  2. Eva, rather than use spray and a muzzle, would you prefer to maybe help this dog enjoy grooming? Or at least tolerate it? Sometimes we need to know when to ask for advice from a professional and a good pro will work on desensitising (and also help the dog to associate the grooming etc with pleasant experiences). I’d say get professional (reward based, but effective, you can find such people I promise!).

    I hope that if you consider this, you will get someone good who will show just how effective good reward based training can actually be.

    Below is just an example (you don’t have to use clicker training).

  3. PS not saying muzzles are bad, they do have their place. But it sounds as if the dog will still bite and you are just using it to avoid being hurt and the dog is still stressed out. Need more than that.

  4. Charlotte Standage

    I love your article!!! As a trainer also studying dog behaviour this is exceptional and helpful!!! You really should write a book detailing your experiences… I would definitely buy it!!! Thank you for this!!!

  5. Excellent informative article! If someone finds fault in this, they are solely searching for negativity.

  6. I don’t understand why you would say over and over how you don’t like e-collars and don’t like seeing them used when you saw with your OWN EYES that they are just fine and don’t hurt the dog. I don’t understand being so attached to an idea that you can’t just shrug and let it go when it’s shown to you quite clearly that you are wrong. I mean, I know you are trying to sort of(?) say this in the article, but you keep pushing the idea that e-collars are bad while telling a story about how effective and humane they are. Force free/positive only as a philosophy needs to die and this sort of cognitive dissonance is not helping.

    • The thing I really don’t like about e-collars is; it takes a long time to learn to use them effectively , I think expert trainers who have been appropriately schooled in their use for behaviors that need 100% compliance for things like military and police work are a very different story than having a pet owner use them. Unfortunately there are several dog training franchisees now using e-collars. The owners of the franchises get less than 2 weeks of education on dog training , and are then expected to educate pet owners on using an e-collar.

    • She’s not saying they’re a good idea, she’s saying it’s important to evaluate force based on what a dog is telling you. What she doesn’t mention is that for it to “work” it has to cause pain and/or fear at the beginning, period. That’s how it works. The fact is shock collars are never necessary, period. There are always other ways. Force free (there’s no such thing as positive only) is based on science, it’s here to stay. That’s why so many countries are banning prongs, chokes, and shocks. You’re going to need to spend some time actually learning canine cognition and behaviour, because otherwise you’ll be left behind with the rest of those people who get off on causing pain because they can’t be bothered to actually learn how to train without it.

  7. Loved your article. I train gently with an ecollar. Use prongs, sometimes. Lots of relationship building and teaching CALM. It’s hard to teach dogs if you don’t have their attention or a very cluttered mind. Same with the owner. I also use treats and PATIENCE. And gasp…muzzles. Let’s get these dogs and owners out in the real world practicing walking and socialization with their dogs. Both the dog and owner can relax when there is no worrying about biting.

    • Muzzles are great. But causing pain while they’re wearing them doesn’t teach the dog to enjoy that muzzle. If you’re using patience and a reinforced that the dog actually wants why would you ever need a prong? That makes no sense. Using a prong is the exact opposite of being patient.

  8. Good article
    Thanks for sharing. You had some good, valid points to consider.

  9. Pingback: What Does a "Force-Free" Trainer Do Anyway? - Ottawa Canine School

  10. Pingback: Force-Free and the Professionals - OnDogBehavior

  11. So sad to see people here still recommending electric current devices for dog training.
    I don’t call myself force free either. We force our dog to do lot of things — like go into your crate, let me cut your nails, come to the vet’s, etc. We even, Heaven forfend, force them into Competition rings. What we DON”T do is use pain to compel them to do things they don’t like and we rewards them handsomely afterward. Neither is any reason to use force when things are no absolutely necessary or the dog/human is freaking out.
    Pain has NO PLACE whatsoever in training. Pain begets aggression and resistance.

  12. It’s not that hard people. Ask yourself, would you wear it? Okay well there you go. If you don’t feel comfortable walking around with it on you being used then why would you use it. Pushing a button to get a reaction with absolutely no direction teaches a dog nothing but “Oh crap if I do X, Y, Z then I’m going to get zapped, sprayed, chocked, or poked, so I don’t want that to happen so I better not do it (a.k.a. “fear”. Direct them show them the alternative behavior and how much more rewarding it is (praise and treats) and guess what not only are you going to have quicker results, but your not going to run the odds of creating an underlying unwanted behavior because you have guided them to the correct and appropriate behavior.

  13. A sensible article. Thought provoking. Personally I consider so called ‘focussed heelwork’ abusive. Luring a dog to hold its head in an unnatural position for long periods of time seems quite cruel. I’d really like to know how this affects the dog’s muscles and joints. I really yearn for the old days when dogs had a genuine relationship with their handlers rather than an artificial attachment to a food source.

    • Joe. I agree. When this dreadful fashion for asking your dog to twist its neck so it could forge ahead of you but look back and up into your face, I was told that I would NEVER win in comp if I didn’t.
      My reply was, that I wanted a trained dog that enjoyed working with me.
      There is no way I would compromise my dogs’ health and well-being for competitions.

  14. JoAnn DeAngelo

    Well said. Applying human psychology to an animal is plain faulty thinking and potentially harmful to the dog. Does anybody discuss prey drive? Making the dog feel safe in your presence bc you are in charge? The dogs really tell you what they need. Listen. And then apply your tools/skills.

  15. I AM a force-free trainer. And a punishment-free trainer to boot. But I and NOT a force-free manager not a non-punishment manager.
    To me there is a world of difference between “training” and just living.
    Though IF you have to resort to force or punishment then maybe you SHOULD look towards a training plan to overcome the problems.

  16. Well written and useful. The individual reaction of the dog is tantamount – and many ‘positive only’ theoretical dog training ‘methods’ fail to take the dog into account, instead treating it like a child that can be reasoned with, and who has directly correlative human emotions and body language…

    In reality, ‘force free’ essentially provides an excuse for the lazy to praise themselves when they randomly get the desired effect, and then ignore bad behaviours their method cannot handle with no solution… This is why so many dogs end up in shelters after being emotionally traumatized and trained to essentially heard and dominate humans.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s