I hate labels but why Force Free dog training?
Before I immersed myself in the dog training world, I thought that if your dog is running wild or you have very little control over them, you are lazy and you don’t care about them enough. I thought that there was a very simple explanation for every behaviour and that some people are just ignorant of something that should be so easy. Naïve little Sky.
I feel like I should start this blog with “a little about me” but if you ever had any interaction with me, you’ll know this is exactly what I can’t do – tell a little about me. I could bombard you with dry facts and make even myself go for a nap while writing this or I can tell you a story of my dog training journey – how I moved from alpha theory to balanced training to, finally, force free – and hopefully grab your hand somewhere in the middle of your journey and shine some light on what all these fancy terms mean, why I believe what I believe in and tell you that even after all these years, I still make mistakes or get overwhelmed time to time.
I want to bring some raw emotions, thoughts, and experiences into the industry. I want to show that the title dog trainer doesn’t mean that you are an Instagram perfect dog owner and that Jenn from next door can relate to your life with dogs more than she’d ever think.
ALPHA THEORY (or baby Sky enters the dog training world)
I was a couple of years into volunteering at the local pet shelter by this point and I’ll warn you now: if you ever decide to volunteer, it’s just a matter of time before you rescue your first pet. It happened to us too and my dream of having a dog has finally come true. We never knew how old Beta was when we took her, but she must’ve been around one. Yup, sweet adolescence. She loved to chew the expensive shoes the most, hated barriers (aka doors and leads) which she kept destroying, she would still have an odd accident in the house, and probably a lot of other issues that I can’t even remember now.
Dog trainer was more of a luxury service in our country then and Instagram or affordable dog training courses were not a thing. You would simply Google a lot of things and listen to the training advice your friend heard from their friend’s mum’s unicorn who attended dog training classes run by a man with a military background and “15 years of experience” (why is it always 15) in training dogs.
This was exactly where alpha/dominance theory spread its wings and hosted me – a girl with a new high-energy dog that she wanted to train to be like those pups she saw doing tricks on TV.
I was presented with the list of rules that will sound so cringy now, but I swear they were a thing back then. “Dogs not allowed on furniture”, “you should always walk first through the door”, “you have to eat first or even if you’re not, you have to pretend that you’re eating before giving dog their dinner”, “dog’s head can NEVER be higher than yours”, “you should show very limited affection and very rarely”, “you should squeeze your dog’s paws or knee them when they jump up”… well, you got the idea. Seriously, after a month of pretending to eat my dog’s kibble like an absolute lunatic and bullying her in many other ways to “prevent her from thinking she’s the Alpha” (how ironic is that her name is Beta), I realised there must be another way.
BALANCED TRAINING (or if it doesn’t hurt you, it might still hurt your dog)
After putting the idea of completely alpha’ing my dog aside I sort of resorted to trick training and there’s very little space for punishment or other harsh behaviours in tricks, so while not tricking around, we were just sort of… winging it. Like most, we learned what situations are uncomfortable and how to avoid them (for example, avoid public places because of Beta’s reactivity) and in my free time, I was using tasty bites to teach Beta party tricks. Life was great.
I would’ve probably stuck to it if not for that huge desire to learn more about dogs. I didn’t want to be the “lazy” one and, clearly, by my previous beliefs, I was because my dog was still going absolutely bonkers as soon as she saw another dog on the horizon. For that exact reason, I started looking for answers and talking to local dog trainers. I was in no position to be able to afford one, but I could save up for their seminars, so that’s what I did. I attended so many that I don’t even remember all, and they were all contradicting each other. There were positive reinforcement trainers in the mix too but with very general rules and no one to look at our specific case, tricks were as far as we were able to go with positive reinforcement, so once a balanced trainer presented her theory and methods, it made SO MUCH sense to me.
If I was misbehaving, I would receive consequences that I don’t particularly like, however, when I was good – I’d have been rewarded. How does it not apply to dogs then? I was also allowed to try all the different tools and, hey, none of them hurt me. The prong collar didn’t rip my wrist, the slip lead didn’t stop my blood flow and the e-collar felt like a nice tingle on my wrist. I cannot express right now how much sense it made to me and how hard I believed this was my answer and road to a calm, not bothered about others, dog.
I preached it for a good few years. I was still mostly using rewards (I think because deep inside corrections and force never sit with me anyway) but the occasional lead yank and a cookie following afterward seemed like THE way to go. I also continuously repeated “no tool was created to harm dogs, it’s just silly people that don’t know how to use it” like a parrot with broken batteries and told everyone that positive reinforcement only works for some dogs and mostly in trick training anyways.
THERE COMES FORCE FREE (or it’s so much more than treats)
The reason I’m telling this story is that I constantly get comments about force free or positive reinforcement being a well marketed approach given to young trainers on a silver plate. They say that because we only work with puppies and never see “serious” cases, it is easy to preach force free. The reality though is that changing behaviour is a hard task for humans, never mind dogs. If you were taught how to and trained dogs using force for 15 years, you will more likely find it hard to suddenly change your methods and that's where young open minded trainers will seem as "know nothing's" to you.
I know you are waiting for some big event that made me change the camps but the reality is... there wasn’t any! I stopped just listening to others and went on my own journey of building knowledge. I read studies, read literature, tested it and made my conclusions. Behaviour change is much more complex than just rewards and corrections. There’s management, environment control, genetics, learning history, thresholds, and other fancy terms that make an individual act in a certain way and you simply cannot limit it to lead yanking and cookie stuffing to a dog’s mouth. It's not THAT simple.
I refuse to believe that people who dedicated their lives to studying animal behaviour and emotions were just having fun creating “a well marketed dog training approach”. That being said, I am open to a discussion, and, who knows, maybe another ten years down the line we will discover more about how dogs learn, and I’ll change my ways. I think this is what a good trainer has to do, but at the moment, I’ll pack my ego and my “I want my dog to act in a certain way” and if they don’t like to be touched by strangers or be too close to other dogs, I will not simply suppress those emotions and shut the behaviours down just so I can look good on social media.