Force-Free: Are You Getting the Correct Message Across?

Recently I learned of a trainer whose specialty is working with hunting dogs. For the purpose of this blog I will call him Bob, mostly because I like that name, and I like the trainer.

The majority of hunting dog trainers use traditional methods, but several years ago Bob gave up the methods he was most familiar with and formally studied modern methods based on reinforcing desired behaviors.

Today Bob identifies himself as a “positive” trainer meaning that he does not use a shock/choke/pronged collar and does not impose fear, pain or intimidation upon the dogs he works with. His emphasis is on positive-reinforcement of desired behaviors…as is mine.

"No shock, No prong, No choke"
“No shock, No prong, No choke”

It sounded to me like the PPG definition of “force-free” and I was encouraged.

As a member of two force-free trainer organizations I have had conversations with others who genuinely want to engage the hunting community and invite them to explore our methods, as Bob did of his own iniative. Bob even discovered that his positive methods yield faster results that maintain very well in the field, under real-life conditions.

By virtue of my involvement on the PPG Advocacy Committee I am especially eager to connect with trainers who specialize in fields that rely upon traditional methods, so I reached out to Bob. We seemed to have a lot in common and I invited him to investigate PPG.

Bob replied very nicely that he was reluctant to do so.
I wondered “Why not?”

From my perspective it seemed that Bob had already crossed-over, as we like to say. Most of us made the same choice to switch.

I asked Bob to educate me about the obstacles blocking him from joining PPG and possibly have a powerful voice in the hunting community by virtue of BARKS magazine or his own PPG blogs .  We exchanged email for a few days and Bob generously offered me his heartfelt honest feedback. It became clearer to me that we had a “messaging problem” as Bob put it.

Bob explained he knew several PPG members that tended to be “abrasive in their approach to canine advocacy” and “got pretty heated toward others who disagreed with them.” He pointed out how inconsistent it is to approach dogs with a R+ attitude and people with a P+ attitude.

Hmmm? I agreed that PPG members ought to be professional and that individual conduct may reflect poorly on the organization, but not actually represent it.

I explained that I have personally heard PPG founder Niki Tudge state on several occasions how important it is for each of us to be respectful of others and that PPG was founded to be an inclusive organization that educated and informed, not to personally attack or judge. In fact, an ethics committee exists to oversee member conduct and I invited Bob to consider that option, if he thought it was warranted.

Bob also pointed out that some highly respected trainers and behavior experts do not rule out punishment, citing Dr. Susan Friedman’s Behavior Hierarchy model. I heard Temple Grandin, Ph.D. and Dr. John Ciribassi state they would not rule out the possibility of using a shock device as a last resort. The example given was that of a dog chasing livestock, after all other options had failed. Their answer was in response to my direct question. (1)

Others, like Dr. Karen Overall very clearly state the use of shock collars is never justified. PPG has stated the use of shock devices is “off the table” and I embrace that position.

I suggested to Bob that all four quadrants of operant conditioning were available to force-free trainers…just not aversive methods that caused intimidation, fear or pain.

When I teach a jumping-bean puppy to stop climbing up my leg scratching me for attention, I do so by withdrawing myself from the puppy (negative punishment) when he does so, and rewarding (positive reinforcement) alternative preferred behaviors.

"I sit for attention!"
“I sit for attention!”

The punishment is benign and helps the puppy learns that jumping on people makes them go away, while sitting gains their attention. Punishment is not forbidden, per se, and I am not using an aversive method or equipment.

It still sounded to me like the PPG definition of force-free.

Another roadblock in the force-free definition was in the prohibition on use of physical force or compulsion. Bob was the first to say that he would not choke a dog and push its butt to the ground to teach a sit, and neither would I. He made it clear that he does not use that kind of force or compulsion.

"I see a bird..."
“I see a bird…”

There were times, Bob explained, when he needed to be able to help a specific dog in a specific situation by using a long lead and preventing a dog from breaking a (trained) position, rushing ahead to grab a bird. Ultimately he may have to turn and walk the dog away, as gently as possible, but still using force and compulsion.

I thought Bob’s explanation was reasonable and within the realm of how I interpret force-free. It reminded me of “reactive” dogs I have worked with.

First I teach fundamental skills, then I began desensitizing and counter-conditioning exercises with a neutral decoy dog in an environment where I have some measure of control. Lacking a training facility to work in I must go to parks and neighborhoods. I try very hard to keep the training dog from going over threshold.

Sometimes things occur that we cannot predict, as when a neighbor’s dog scoots out the front door and rushes the dog one is working with. As such times I would use the emergency U-turn suggested by Dr. Patricia McConnell and would have to turn and walk the client dog away, most likely with some force and compulsion if the dog was going over threshold.

Doing so would not make me feel that I have violated my force-free principles, but it would make me plan more carefully in future.

Bob’s final words on the matter were “In effect, the PPG seems to me to be RESTRICTIVE, not INCLUSIVE. If I am wrong, then I think you guys have a messaging problem.”

The communication process consists of a message, a sender and a receiver. As the sender I may think that I am delivering a message as intended, but what if the receiver gets a different message? In that case, I think it is the responsibility of the sender to fix the problem.

Just one day after our email conversation the “Tiny Pig Slayer” petition to National Geographic splashed across social media, with scores of daily posts. I recognized many contributors to the conversation as PPG members.

The majority of posts sounded professional to me and focused on the issue of California law relating to the treatment of animals, and appeals to contact appropriate enforcement and oversight authorities.

Then I read a few posts that sounded angry, abrasive and more like personal attacks. I wondered what Bob would think of those?

As PPG members we have a right to speak for ourselves, but the words and tone we use will ultimately reflect on the organizations we belong to. I understand and share a passion for animals and will speak out against things that I interpret as cruel and abusive, but we can do so in a professional manner.

If there is a messaging problem within the force-free community then I will use my conversation with Bob as a learning moment and try even harder to represent myself, my business and the professional organizations I elected to join in a manner that is consistent with the code of ethics and guiding principles I embrace.

Mostly, all I need to do is listen to and watch Niki Tudge as an example to follow.

(Bob had an opportunity to review this blog before publishing, and is still considering PPG.  We continue to discuss this in a civil and professional manner.)

(1) Applied Animal Behavior Conference, February 9, 2014. Sponsored by School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Daniel H. Antolec, CPT-A, CPDT-KA is the owner of Happy Buddha Dog Training. He has membership in Pet Professional Guild, Force-Free Trainers of Wisconsin, Association of Professional Dog Trainers and Dog Welfare Alliance. He also sits on the Board of Directors for Dogs on Call, Inc. and is Chairman of Pet Professional Guild Advocacy Committee.

About Daniel Antolec

Daniel H. Antolec, PCT-A, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA completed a 30-year police career which included several years as an instructor of two tactical fields. In 2007 he took a job in a dog daycare and began studying canine behavior and training, which led to credentialing as a professional trainer and behavior consultant. In 2012 Antolec founded Happy Buddha Dog Training. His Labradors (Buddha and Gandhi) are registered Pet Partners therapy dogs.

13 comments

  1. Thank you for this blog. I think we all know how mean some trainers can be to each other, and I whole-heartedly agree that we should all strive to be nicer in general in all areas of life. But I wanted to comment on a few points that you made:
    1) I, for one, joined PPG because of its exclusivity! I want to belong to on org that holds its members to a higher standard- one that only admits members who have been vetted and adhere to a code of ethics.
    2) Not unlike other industries that are slowly becoming obsolete, those that cling to the past (I’m with Pat Miller here using the terminology “old-fashioned” rather than “traditional” when describing compulsion-based training) and see their techniques, and everything they thought they knew about their chosen profession, going the way of the dodo bird, are angry and nervous about their future. Understandable, but still no excuse to mistreat dogs when alternatives and informational resources are everywhere. After all, we’re talking about real damage to dogs.
    3) And lastly, I’d like to point out, that while we should always take our clients’ (or colleagues’) complaints/criticisms into account and constantly think about the ways we can improve our business/profession, I do not agree with the suggestion that the “sender needs to change the message” every time the recipient doesn’t get it. Especially if the vast majority of recipients do get it. We need to speak up, call out abuse, change minds and do it as politely, but resolutely as possible.

  2. I love this. I often feel (especially as a dogwalker, who can’t, say, take the time to DS/CC a dog to a harness or coat they hate) like I’m “not force free enough”.
    To that, my answer is: I’m a force free trainer. Key word: TRAINER.
    For example, I’d never teach a dog not to run into traffic by physically grabbing them or yanking on the leash, but if a dog I’m walking tries – you bet I will to stop them being hit by a car. I don’t train “leave it” with force, but if a dog grabs a bottle of pills, I’m going to wrestle it out of their mouth.
    To me, being a FF trainer is how you teach dogs. The emergency situation thing is a straw man.

    1. Thank you Katie. I have found PPG to be a welcoming organization and our founder sets the tone. We are many thousands strong, sharing common core values across continents and yet remaining individual. It is through our individual differences that we can learn to grow as a whole. My personal attitudes have evolved since I joined PPG and began hearing different voices, and it has made me a better trainer. Perhaps I am even a better human being?

  3. This is an interesting conversation. I am a feline specialist and haven’t been exposed to the kind of discussions being described. However, they very much resemble the passionate and (too) often volatile and divisive discussions on pet nutrition and raw feeding.

    I work with several volunteers on CatCentric efforts and I regularly remind them (and myself) – approach people with compassion. We all love cats (dogs, etc.)… that’s our common ground and should be all we need to have civil and productive conversations.

    It’s not always easy, but it’s far more effective than indulging our emotions and alienating people permanently.

    1. Hi Tracy Dion. Thanks for yet another perspective on this. Dr. Ian Dunbar addressed this when he spoke in Madison (WI) in recent memory. We need to approach one another in a civil manner.

  4. I too had reservations about joining PPG at first. I started training dogs professionally in the early 70’s. Most of my efforts were focused on using well timed, “light” corrections, and “bringing my dogs up out” of the correction quickly. I became quite proficient…but by the mid 80’s I quit training because I just could not correct my dogs any longer. It seemed to me I was not allowing my relationship with my dogs to be what it could be because I had taught them I really wasn’t interested in what they had to offer beyond doing what I told them to do. Skip ahead and 4 years later, after a lot of research, I embarked on my journey to become a positive trainer. Skip ahead until PPG was founded. I had gotten hazed by my old training buddies when I switched over, so I was sensitive to the effects of insults and arguments between the factions. And I had seen to my dismay, quite a bit of heated name calling aimed at “traditional” trainers from those calling themselves positive. I was hesitant to join .The educational opportunities given the membership was an incentive, and I believed in Nikki’s vision, so eventually I signed up and have never regretted it. Being associated with like-minded professionals has been cathartic. I hope Bob will feel comfortable enough to join PPG eventually, but even more I wish him luck as he continues along the positive path with his hunting dogs.

  5. I have to agree about the rudeness and just plan bullying that I have seen and witnessed. I personally pulled away from many organizations because of this known problem. Many forget why we became so passionate about animal behavior and lost site of the mission.

    So many label themselves positive only and literally attack well known trainers in the industry and many of us that been around know this to be true till this day! Wish we all will listen to Dr friedman about labels.

    Thanks for the post and IMHO we as an industry will never progress if we cannot communicate in a civil manor or walk away when someone does not have an open mind or wants to listen!

    Remember the titles, letters and orgs you display and preach is effected by your actions!

    TY hope many will have an open mind tho this needed change!

    1. Thank you Vinny Olito for your comments. Yes indeed, let us bring pet professionals together and not create further divisions. By respecting one another and exchanging ideas and perspectives we learn how to create new solutions. I am encouraged by the positive feedback thus far.

  6. Yes Dan. Exactly. We cannot educate and engage if we do not open dialogue. PPG has a provisional membership for those who wish to learn about our methods and whom philosophically are aligned but need support in tools, skills and knowledge. We do draw a line in the sand on equipment use and fear and pain but we should not judge others or we lose our credibility and our ability to positively influence. This is such an important piece to our educational mandate that I addressed it in my opening address at the PPG Summit last year. You can listen to the short video here

    I too have these types of discussions on a weekly basis. I urge people to reach out and talk to us. I always find that conversations bring about awareness and appreciation. Lots of members have joined PPG having been given the opportunity to discuss PPG’s position and attitude and having removed the misunderstanding that is sometimes circulated.

    1. Niki Tudge, thank you for this affirmation. “Bob” is following the comments to this post and I hope he finds your own words reassuring. His last hesitation to joining PPG is that he wanted some direct and official recognition that all four quadrants of operant conditioning would be available to him; I previously mentioned the provisional membership and hope he will pursue that. As always, thank you for your leadership and professional approach to training and advocacy.

  7. Thank you Ada Simms. I completely understand how passions and anger can rise when we believe animals are being subjected to harsh training. It pains me to see aversive methods and equipment, but I do not “hate” or want to attack the people who are uninformed about force-free methods. I am very grateful to the pet dog trainer who showed me how to work with Buddha, force-free. Until she taught me, I did not know.

  8. Thank you Daniel for bringing to light some of the attitudes and demeanor that is exhibited in some force free trainers. I couldn’t agree with you more. Sometimes we are or own enemies.
    The philosophy of positive dog training and the PPG is to do no harm to dogs or people. Yes I have disagreements, another point of view, and anger when it comes to dog owners and trainers who still use old fashion methods. I don’t want to close the door of opportunity to educate (however slowly) by giving them “shade” or attitude making them defensive. That is where we lose them and forever leave a bad impression on what we are really all about.
    I have had opportunities to have great conversations and form friendships (WHAT??) with shock collar trainers and users. Slow changes are made, but slow is better than none.

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