Guest Essay by Jessica “Sky” Elliott
I will not apologize for my love of alliteration, by the way.
So, it’s time for a rant. I am what many would call a “positive” trainer – I use reward-based methods, I focus on building trust and guiding the dog to perform the appropriate behavior. I never use any physical corrections (unless you count nudging my very oblivious dog to get him to move out of my way in my tiny apartment).
There is a relatively new movement in the training world called “force free” training. They also heavily focus on rewarding the dog for doing the correct behavior and are against any harsh corrections. They feel using pain or intimidation to coerce a dog into doing what you want is an unnecessary use of force. These forceful corrections may be administered via choke chain, prong collar, shock collar, hitting/kicking, body blocking, shouting “no!”, or anything that makes the dog feel “forced” into performing the behavior to avoid something unpleasant. I am, technically, a force free trainer. If a dog is uncomfortable with something I don’t make them do it. Instead I will work with them until they are comfortable with it or find an alternative way.
I know some force free trainers who are lovely, reasonable, talented people. This post is not about them. This is about the force free fundies. The people who make me ashamed to call myself a force free trainer for fear I will be associated with them. There’s a reason the word “extremist” has a negative connotation. That is when you start to lose perspective and reason. There are some force free fundies out there who seem to believe causing the dog any amount of stress is “mean.” Some of the particularly nutty ones will go on to tell you that even withholding a reward is “mean.” They argue that it’s technically “negative punishment” (one of the four quadrants of operant conditioning). The annoying thing about the quadrants is that some trainers focus way, WAY too much on them. If something can technically be considered “positive punishment” they will refuse to use that technique. They don’t stop to think and take into account whether or not that individual dog even finds it punishing. It’s kind of a complicated mess drowning in technicalities, so I won’t bore you trying to explain the quadrants further. Some folks need to stop treating the quadrants like some dog trainer religion where positive reinforcement is your almighty God and positive punishment is the dark lord Satan. In fact, don’t even think about them when training. They are irrelevant.
For example, some force free fundies are even very much against no reward markers (when you essentially tell the dog “no, sorry, that’s not what I asked for, try again”) because it’s technically a punishment and OH LAWD HAVE MERCY, WHY WOULD YOU BE SO CRUEL? Training should be a fun and engaging experience, yes, I totally agree. But whether they want to admit it or not, there are some dogs that are totally okay with no reward markers. Some even do better with them because it’s helpful feedback that can get them on the right track quicker and set them up for success more frequently. I can’t use no reward markers on my German Shepherd mix. He is a very sensitive flower and would get very upset if I told him “nope” even with the happiest tone and body language. When you give our Border Collie a no reward marker, though, she has that “oh okay, I should try something else, got it, thanks!” moment which gets her back on the right track more quickly than if I didn’t use it at all. Instead she would likely just keep flailing down the wrong track and get incredibly frustrated that she wasn’t nailing it. So what would be more “mean” there?
The force free fundies are also the people who will recoil in horror if you so much as say “prong collars can be used effectively,” because their filters are completely screwed up and all they hear is “I love inflicting pain on dogs, and I probably also punch toddlers for fun.”
I’m gonna say it. Prong collars can be used effectively. So can shock collars and choke chains. That does not mean I use or recommend them. If they were not effective when used properly (yes, there is a proper way) then they would not be so widely used still. Some dogs are not sensitive to the corrections at all and the rewards (whatever they may be for the dog) outweigh the discomfort of the punishment enough to keep them engaged and learning. I would be an idiot in denial if I refused to admit that. But I still don’t use or recommend them because largely I find them unnecessary and the potential behavioral fallout is too great a risk to take in my opinion. But force free fundies will close their eyes, plug their ears, and go “LALALA CAN’T HEAR YOU” because they write it off as “too mean.” Thinking and observing in an objective and critical manner is apparently too much effort. Some use and misinterpret science to push their moral agenda. To make matters worse, the fundies I’ve encountered are very rarely positive in their approach with people. They can’t even consistently practice what they preach.
To my reasonable force free peeps: keep on doin’ what you’re doin’. To the fundies: take a deep breath and get some perspective. You’re not winning anyone over this way.
Edit (11/03/14): Oh me oh my, this post is getting a lot of attention lately. There have been some comments on social media I wanted to address here in case anyone else had the same thoughts and were curious about a response from me.
“This person is missing the point. I wonder if they realize there is a REASON some people stick to pesky things like science, behavior psych, and learning theory. ANY form of +P is susceptible to the SAME fallout, no matter how mild. We chose to not use +P and -R because of documented potential for fallout, coupled with the fact that there ARE better ways without that potential.
No matter the subject, I really don’t like to see people brush off science and facts as personal agendas and as things that are optional or to be taken into consideration but not too seriously. Learn to science, plzkthx.”
I am totally not dismissing science here, but I didn’t go into detail because when you think critically about something, especially science, it can become an impressively deep rabbit hole that is incredibly boring to most people who stumble across my blog (Prescott Breeden and Eric Brad have already posted on why the quadrants are more dicey than we think, I recommend seeking out those articles if you want to get into it more). And while I don’t necessarily care if I get a ton of readers, I don’t want to bore them to death either.
I completely understand that +P carries the risk of fallout. I don’t know if you missed the part in my post about my dog who is extremely sensitive to any kind of punishment. He would attempt to disengage from training if I so much as used a no reward marker with the happiest tone and body language possible. In my early training days I accidentally poisoned his “stay” cue by using body blocking, which I didn’t recognize at the time he was very uncomfortable with. Teaching him has been a great learning experience and how to go about things without using anything the dog considers punishing. I am absolutely not advocating for the use of aversives in dog training (an alarming amount of people think just because someone says they can work means they advocate for them – I just don’t want people lying to themselves). But I do recognize that they can work on certain dogs with little to no fallout – otherwise these tools and techniques would not still be so widely used on service, military, and police dogs. But I also recognize many of those dogs probably wash out because the correction-based training does not work for them in particular, whereas they would have succeeded beautifully with positive techniques and a good trainer. I have never used leash corrections, choke, prong, or shock collars and I do not foresee myself ever needing them. But I have not trained every dog in the world. I preach about how every dog is different, and that means it is entirely possible there is a dog out there that thrives just fine on a prong. I don’t know. It’s unlikely a dog will do better with those tools and techniques than with just positive training alone, but I keep an open mind.
By the way, when I talk about science, I mean legitimate science – peer-reviewed papers by people with PhDs. Not some article written by a KPA graduate or what have you. But I totally agree that the legitimate science does support “positive” training methods. That is why I use and advocate for them. But the science also says that things like prong collars are sometimes not straight-up torture as some of the extremists seem to believe. Science and emotions don’t mix. I understand it’s hard not to get passionate about this. It is very hard to watch dogs suffer from the owner’s ignorance. But we’re not going to win them over if we come off as condescending and puritanical. I know people who have been pushed away from positive training simply because of the extremist attitudes of some folks in the community. We’re screwing ourselves over and making positive training look bad. So it’s a problem I’d like to see diminish. This is just a little rant thrown into the depths of the internet in an attempt to get people think more critically and be a little less judgmental – I assure you I spend much more time actually out at public events working with organizations to promote positive training and an understanding of canine behavior, as well as working with shelter dogs so the adopters can see what this training is capable of.
Another comment said:
“I get the intent especially since her next blog talks about how some people are using fake profiles – talking to themselves in threads using multiple profiles and a bunch of other stuff.
However, I usually find that people who express, “I don’t do x because…I’d much prefer y” are immediately attacked as being fundamentalists. I’m not sure we should set up a scenario where expressing how to get better results or use fewer aversives is belittled or censored in a “you ought to be more positive – yeah – you the person who is expressing how you do things.”
I find that these types of posts just act as a call to arms – a “hip hip hooray that someone is telling those R+ trainers to shut up already.
I don’t think the majority of R+ trainers are taking a moral high ground. I’m a crossover trainer. I wouldn’t do that to the harshest force trainer because I used corrections in the past.”
It may be because my experience with the extremists have been particularly abundant and frustrating, so I was perhaps a bit heated when I wrote this post. I totally have no problem with the “I don’t do x because I’d much prefer y” people. I love anyone who can have a civil conversation about training and be reasonable, even if I disagree with them. I know sometimes they get targeted, but rest assured they’re not who this post is about. I won’t go into detail about who it is about because they don’t need the extra attention and as you pointed out, my next post “Beware the Crazy” goes over some of them. I can understand how some may feel this is a “yay someone is telling those R+ trainers to shut up” post, but there’s only such much control I have over how someone interprets my words. If they took two seconds to read the “about me” page they’d know that’s not what I’m saying. I love R+, I practice it, I advocate for it, I educate the public about it. But in a reasonable manner. I suppose I wouldn’t say the majority of R+ trainers are taking the moral high ground, no, but there is definitely a very vocal minority who are souring it for many people – myself included. I just don’t want to see more and more people going down that extremist, holier-than-thou path. I love seeing people be reasonable, critical thinkers just as much as I love helping people understand and work with their dogs more humanely.