Why There’s No Such Thing as Force-Free Dog Training
“Is This Really Necessary?”
You’re Using Force
You’ve just come home from work. Your dog is happy to see you. You put the leash on and take him for a walk. You want to go to the bank, which is to your left, but your dog wants to go to the park, which is to the right. What do you do?
If you take him to the bank, you’re using force.
You let your puppy out of her pen for some free time. You try to keep an eye on her but your attention wanders. And when you look back you see her chewing on some electrical cords. Do you let her continue chewing or do you pull her away from danger?
If you pull her away, you’re using force.
You’re teaching your dog to heel. Your “force-free” trainer recommends using a head harness. “It’s more humane than a collar,” she tells you. Yet every time your dog pulls forward, his head and neck automatically get pulled to one side or the other.
If you’re using a head harness, you’re using force.
All dog trainers and dog owners use physical force in some form or another. Those who say they don’t are either mistaken, misguided, or mendacious.
“One of the Biggest Advertising Gimmicks of All Time”
On her blog at DogStar Daily, positive trainer Nicole Silver writes, “All training incorporates an element of force.” She goes on to define force as “the denial of access. The leash, the muzzle, even the collar, the crate, the fence are all force tools.”
Sara Reusche, another blogger I like, writes that the phrase force-free “is one of the biggest advertising gimmicks of all time.”
She goes on to explain, “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?”
Of course the answer is yes.
Reusche goes on to describe watching a friend’s dog happily run back to her owner, motivated by low-level shocks from an electronic collar. The dog seemed perfectly happy and not at all distressed.
Rausche also says she once saw a well-known “positive” trainer give a demonstration of clicker training at a seminar. Yet, according to Rausche, the demonstration dog “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.”
She goes on: “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 [their] training … we’d get very different answers.”
This doesn’t mean that all dogs will enjoy being trained with an electronic collar or that all dogs will feel uncomfortable or anxious when used for demonstration purposes at a seminar. All dogs are different. Yet in some very specific ways they’re all the same.
Internal and External Forces: The Natural Mechanisms for Learning
It seems to me that all learning takes place through feelings of tension, pressure, and stress, along with how an organism finds ways to reduce those feelings.
If we look at one of the most fundamental principles of behavior—the stimulus/response chain—a stimulus is, by definition, something that applies some kind of energetic impact—or force—onto an organism. This is a universal process and includes everything from the strong and steady forces at work during cell division to the behaviors of a dog chasing a squirrel or the sexual tension felt by two young people deeply attracted to one another. In each case, the organism’s response is, on the most basic level, a means of finding a way to reduce or release feelings of internal tension, pressure, and stress. That’s why the dog is driven to chase the squirrel and why the potential lovers can’t stop thinking about each other.
When B. F. Skinner set out to form a scientific model of learning and behavior he made certain that his lab rats and pigeons were not only fasted to 2/3s their normal body weight but were also trapped inside boxes. unable to get out. Talk about tension, pressure, and stress! Skinner’s work also shows that all learning takes place through external and internal forces. The external force was confinement; the internal force was hunger.
Was Skinner’s model natural or artificial?
I think that it mostly artificial, but had some elements of both.
Associative Learning vs. Emotional Release
Skinner’s thesis was that learning took place because of the associations his test subjects made between a) pressing or pecking a lever when a light came on b) and the subsequent food pellets dropped into their artificial habitat.
Yet what seemed unimportant and perhaps even unknowable to Skinner, was the simple fact that pressing the lever and eating the food pellets gave his rats and pigeons a feeling of release. Being in the box was stressful. Being hungry was stressful. So there’s no question that the sudden release of the food pellet also created a sudden release of internal tension, pressure and stress in the rats and pigeons. Like a magician with a deck of cards, Skinner was forcing the animals to choose the behavioral card he’d already selected for them.
So whenever trainers talk about the use of force, and whether it’s right or wrong, necessary or unnecessary, they’re usually defining things within a very narrow, not to mention unrealistic, window. They’re also ignoring their own use of force, which happens on a regular basis (as with their recommendations of using a head harness).
Yes, things like hitting a dog, pushing a puppy’s tush down to teach him to sit, or forcing the dog over on his side in an alpha roll are improper uses of force. If training were a football game, they’d get your team a penalty flag. Granted these examples are not an integral part of the positive training methodology. But even in the magical, make-believe world of +R, there’s no such thing as force-free dog training. The only questions are whether said force is appropriate to the situation, and how the dog feels about what’s happening.
But the most important thing to remember is that learning doesn’t take place through associations between a stimulus (the light flashing) and reward (the food pellet). They take place through the sudden release of internal tension, pressure, and stress.
The dog trained with an electronic collar was getting that feeling of release. The demonstration dog at the +R seminar wasn’t.
Lee Charles Kelley
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”