Many trainers who use aversives dislike force-free trainers and, quite frankly, sometimes I don’t blame them. So I thought I’d write about why force-free trainers can be so annoying and what we could do differently. I’m sure some of the Posi-Nazi’s will hate me for this post, but that’s okay. I won’t lose any sleep over their hatred. I will also cover what balanced/compulsive trainers could do to stop being so disrespectful to FFT’s. So, let’s begin first with some definitions (as I’m using them, not official!) so we’re all on the same page:
Aversive – Something the dog finds painful/scary. There are trainers who tout themselves as “purely positive” because they don’t use physical punishment, but they do use intimidating body language/staredowns to get dogs to obey. I consider those aversives as well.
Balanced trainer – I consider a balanced trainer to be one who knows how to train basic obedience without aversives. They later add in compulsion for proofing or for training higher-level skills.
Compulsion – Synonomous with aversive.
Compulsive trainer – These are the people who slap prongs and e-collars on puppies to teach even the most basic obedience skills. You’ll often find their dogs wearing a training collar of some type 24/7 so they don’t become “collar smart.”
Force-Free Trainer (FFT) – People who choose to train without using the positive punishment quadrant; people who avoid frightening/intimidating/causing pain to the dog during training.
Posi-Nazi – Hardcore “all positive all the time” people. Those who feel that dogs should never be denied anything in life. Feel that you should never hurt your dog’s feelings by turning your back on them to reduce unwanted behaviors. These are the ones who give regular FFT’s a bad name.
Now, let’s start with what FFT’s need to do/not do to stop being so annoying to non-FFT’s:
1. FFT’s claim that aversives don’t work – Really? If they didn’t work, nobody would use them. Far-reaching claims like this do nothing but make FFT’s look ridiculous and uneducated. Aversives absolutely do work, and they often work quickly which makes them attractive to a lot of people. The problem with aversives is that they need to continue being used to maintain their efficacy. When I was using a prong on Inara, she’d walk nicely for weeks and then start pulling again so I’d have to “pop” her again, thus buying myself a few more weeks of good behavior. But flat-out claiming that aversives don’t work is false, and FFT’s need to stop saying that.
2. FFT’s claim that anybody who uses aversives is abusing their dog and ruining their relationship – False again, sort of. When it comes to compulsive trainers, those who slap prongs and e-collars on puppies to train even basic behaviors, yes, I consider that abusive. You are punishing your dog for not being able to read your mind. Often the dogs of compulsive trainers look truly miserable – sure they’re doing an attention heel and obeying commands, but you can tell they certainly aren’t comfortable doing it. On the other hand, many of the balanced trainers I know have dogs that are lovely to watch and obviously adore their owners. When I used aversives, Inara and I still had a good relationship and she only looked miserable if I gave her an unfair correction (when she should have come up the leash at me – I’m so fortunate she’s good-tempered!). If she had “earned” a correction, she took it and shrugged it off, didn’t blink an eye. When FFT’s claim that dogs trained with aversives are miserable all the time and don’t trust their owners, all balanced/compulsive trainers need to do is show their dog being happy and we’ve been proven wrong. Far-reaching claims, like #1 above, don’t work.
3. FFT’s say our methods are “science-based” and compulsion is not – False. Compulsion is Positive Punishment (P+), hence, one of the four quadrants. What does this make it? Science-based. All of the four quadrants are based on science. Just because it is a quadrant that FFT’s choose not to use does not make it any less scientifically proven as a way of teaching. Now, perhaps when FFT’s say “science-based” they really mean to say, “peer-reviewed studies have shown that using compulsion often has fall-out associated with it and training without compulsion has been shown to be more efficient as the learning is more permanent.” Granted, it’s a bit wordy, but it’s much more true than saying, “science-based.”
4. FFT’s claim that all dogs trained with force are shutdown – Not true. Are some? Oh absolutely without a doubt. But many are not. So much of it depends on the dog’s temperament. If you have an already soft dog to begin with and then you add physical corrections, you’ve got a good chance of shutting your dog down. But if you have a “harder” dog (temperamentally speaking), those dogs are able to take the corrections and shrug them off without any lasting issues.
5. FFT’s can just be flat-out insulting – I’m thinking about times where we are pointing out body language of a dog to somebody else: “Oh my god, how could they NOT see that the dog is miserable? Even a blind person can tell that at a glance.” You know what, not everybody is trained in body language. Should they be? In my perfect world, absolutely. But being rude about it isn’t going to make the person want to listen to you. They’re going to shut you out. Maybe try loaning them a book, or a video. Offer them a discount to a body language seminar.
Now, on the other hand, there are a few things that balanced/compulsive trainers could quit doing that would help mend this giant rift between the training camps.
1. Stop calling us “cookie pushers” – Believe it or not, I very rarely have treats on me when I’m out and about with Inara. Why? Because the beauty of FFT is that dogs learn to do things for the joy of it, and because they get life rewards. I absolutely have no issue using huge amounts of treats when training a new behavior or doing counterconditioning, or when in a situation I know can rapidly turn into a good training session, but I don’t want to always be carrying treats and a clicker! Sometimes you want to travel light and NOT have an odor of lamb/turkey/beef/tripe hovering around you! Treats can be minimized once a behavior is learned. If an FFT is a “cookie pusher” 24/7, then they haven’t learned about variable reinforcement schedules and need to do some more reading/learning.
2. Stop saying that our dogs are not reliable at behaviors – Is your dog perfect 100% of the time? Hell, are YOU? Of course not. Neither are our dogs. However, our dogs can be trained to be just as reliable in behaviors as your dogs trained with aversives. What you will find though is that often our priorities are different and we train for what is important to US. So just because Inara doesn’t have a flawless recall doesn’t mean it’s because I haven’t used aversives. It means that I’ve been lazy in teaching her a flawless recall!
3. “I don’t have time to train without force.” – Do you know how often we hear that? Do you know how ridiculous that is? Using a clicker and treats to train new behaviors is so fast and easy if you know what you’re doing! Do you need to proof them and continue training after it is initially learned? Of course you do, just as you do when using force.
4. “Dogs need to know who’s in charge.” – Sure they do! And you know what? I’m the one in the household with opposable thumbs that can open up the fridge. *wink* What’s that saying? “Dogs are selfish creatures and I control their things”? It’s true. Who decides when Inara eats? I do. Who decides when Inara goes outside? I do. Who decides where we go on walks? I do. Who decides who gets the best spot on the couch? I do. Who decides which toys are out and available? I do. But I certainly don’t have to use force to teach her those things.
5. “Their dogs have no rules.” – I cannot say this enough – POSITIVE DOES NOT EQUAL PERMISSIVE. This kind of melds with number 4 about being in charge. Just because I choose not to use force with my dog doesn’t mean she’s running rampant through the neighborhood, preparing to overthrow the city and start a mass revolt of dogs. Just sayin’.
Why did I write this blog? Because FFT’s need to remember that positive reinforcement works on PEOPLE as well as dogs. I have many friends who are balanced trainers that I can have perfectly civil training discussions with - ”Oh, you trained it that like that? Interesting. Here’s how I would try it.” I actually love those discussions! I try not to berate and belittle those who use aversives. We are all at different points in our training and we all do what we are comfortable doing and what we see working. The best way FFT’s can spread the word about force-free training is by using our own dogs as examples. Get them out there competing. Get them out there just being good dogs on walks. Trust me, people notice. Have civil discussions with balanced trainers, see where they’re coming from without judging them. Perhaps even, god forbid, compliment their dog’s happiness/obedience! Maybe if we all learned to talk to each other without derision and without overly sweeping generalizations (and yes, balanced trainers – this goes both ways) we’d get a lot further and you know what? The dogs would benefit. We all want the same thing – happy, healthy, well-trained dogs. Let’s remember that.