Force-Free, Positive-Only Dog Training…..Does It Work, Is The Concept Realistic, Does It Even Exist?


leadThere are certain phrases that I hear used in dog training and behaviour circles that make me feel more than a little uncomfortable. And force-free dog training is one of them.  I dislike it for several reasons. Firstly, people use it as a kind of badge of honour…they don’t seem to feel any need to actually tell you how they intend to train your dog, what techniques that they are going to use and how they are going to use them, only that they are force-free, as though as an owner, this is all you need to know.

But perhaps my biggest concern is that it isn’t actually true. Your dog trainer is going to advise you to force your puppy to do all sorts of things that it would rather not do, and on a daily basis, and I have written some examples a little further on in this article. But if that is the case, why are they then calling themselves force-free? I believe that it is not because they necessarily because they believe that it is best for you or your dog, but simply in order to appease other trainers and behaviourists. The current fashion is for trainers to only use positive, non-confrontational techniques, as these are believed to be more effective. And among many behaviourists and trainers, any form of punishment or aversive is now seen as a very bad thing. So many now call themselves force-free so that other trainers will think positively (see what I’ve done there) about them. But I believe that this is often at the expense of the dogs education, which is why I am proud to say that I am not a force-free dog trainer, and why I am in my opinion, more successful at training pet dogs than those who say that they are. Below are some of the ways that I forced my puppy. They are also ways that pretty much every trainer and behaviourist out there forced their own dogs, and ways that you are in all probability going to have to force yours:

When I got my puppy, I put a collar on him…he hated it but I forced him to wear it anyway.

Then as though that wasn’t bad enough, I then forced him to wear a lead as well.

Then I forced him to only relieve himself when and where I wanted him to, even though he wanted to pee and poo anywhere he liked.

Then I forced him to listen to noises that frightened him like traffic and trains as this was ‘good socialising,’ even though it frightened the life out of him.

When I walked him, I forced him to only go in the directions that I wanted to go in, even when he didn’t want to go that way.

I then put the lead on and forced him to come home again, even though I knew he wasn’t ready to.

Then I forced him to only eat the things that I wanted him to eat, even though as a puppy he wanted to eat everything.

Then I forced him to go to training classes, even though he initially found it intimidating and would have clearly rather not gone again.

Then I forced him not to chase other animals even though he thought it was great fun.

So I guess I can’t be a force-free trainer, can I? I suppose they must not do any of these things, or they only do them if the dog wants them to, and never force a dog to do anything it doesn’t want to. I still have so much to learn.

As trainers/behaviourists, we should all be actively encouraging dogs to make good choices, and rewarding them when they do. Although I cannot think of any species of animal that naturally rewards those within it’s social group for good behaviour, we know that rewarding them increases the likelihood of them repeating a desired behaviour. And we can do this very effectively with our dogs, and should do. EVERY dog I work with, I focus on finding ways to reward good behaviour, and to reward them well. But that coin has another side, and that side acknowledge that they also need to be taught what they should not do, and that repeating that behaviour has consequences. We also know that creating an effective consequence will reduce the likelihood of the dog repeating an undesired behaviour. We all know this whether we want to admit it or not. But because there have been exponents of punishment who have used it excessively, or too harshly, too readily or inappropriately, we have now in my opinion throw the baby out with the bathwater and deemed ALL forms of punishment or consequence unacceptable.

Science constantly informs us of the detrimental effects of punishment, and of the psychological impact of punishment on the dog, and on our relationship with it. And yet we see dogs punishing dogs all the time. A mother would punish her puppy if it needed it, and yet this doesn’t seem to negatively affect their relationship. And the punishment she uses seems much more loud and intimidating than the way that I would use a rattle can.

I have read numerous papers on the use of punishment, and why we shouldn’t use it in any form, but they all seem to have one thing in common. They all talk about what I would consider pretty harsh, severe forms of punishment – e-collars, prong collars, alpha rolling etc. ones that I never use, even though I am a trainer who uses punishment where necessary. And because they find that these forms of punishment can cause serious distress in the dog, then report this as proof that punishment shouldn’t be used at all. They talk about how punishment only supresses an undesired behaviour as though that is a bad thing. There is nothing wrong with suppressing a behaviour, as long as you then educate the dog on an acceptable alternative one, that then allows you to reward the dog for making a better choice. Sometimes you have to be able to make a dog stop barking in order to then be able to reward it for being quiet. And no, getting an owner to walk in the other direction when it barks at another dog doesn’t teach it not to bark, you gave it exactly what it wanted, distance from the approaching dog, thereby rewarding the barking.

Why do research papers always compare rewards VERSUS punishment? Why can we only use one or the other? I don’t believe that there is a dog owner that doesn’t sometimes punish their dog, including those who claim to be force-free, positive only, or reward only, whether a purely pet owner, or a professional behaviourist or trainer. And some of the most embarrassing dogs I know are owned by so-called force-free trainers. If it’s not even working for you, and you cannot effectively force-free train our own dog, why would you make an owner pay you for the same technique? When a client pays you to help train their dog, giving you money that they really may not be able to afford, you have an obligation to give them the best advice you can, that will work in the shortest possible timeframe. Dogs may end up in rescue or worse because the training you gave them would take far too long to work, or would be so impractical that even you would be unlikely to follow it with your own dog. You might be the dogs last chance.

For those of you not already aware, I am a reward-based dog behavioural trainer. I focus on finding incentives for the correct behaviour with EVERY dog I work with, whatever issues it has. However, sometimes although aware of the reward being offered, the dog disregards it, as it has already chosen what it considers to be a more profitable one. Some of you reading this may have already found this. You offer your dog a treat to stop it barking at another dog, but it ignores the treat as it finds the barking more rewarding. Or you offer it a toy to stop it from chasing a squirrel, but it ignores the toy, as chasing the squirrel is much more fun. Much as I would love to train the dog using only rewards, sometimes there is no reward I can offer greater than the one the dog can get itself. So what do I do now?

A force-free or reward-only trainer may tell you to ignore the bad behaviour and it will just go away given time. But you’ve probably already found that although a great theory, it really doesn’t work well in practice. In reality, the training that works the quickest, and the most effectively in my humble opinion, is if the dog is aware of both the benefits AND the costs of the choices that it makes. This will help it settle for the reward the owner is offering, since it understands it can’t ignore them. So when I work with owners, I will try to create effective rewards for whatever the dog gets right, but I will also create effective, non physical consequences should the dog choose to reject the reward the owner is offering. This is not rocket science. I believe that pretty much everyone is aware that reward only training is only effective if you can always offer better rewards than the dog can get itself. If you are not aware of this, I hope you are not charging people for dog training.

And I believe that while behaviourists and trainers are fart-arsing around trying to perpetuate the myth that we can effectively train pet dogs for pet dog lives just using rewards only, owners and dogs are paying the price, while the person who sold the owner this myth walks away with blood on their hands.