Force Free vs Balanced Dog Training?

There has been a long-standing dispute between the “force free” dog training community advocates and the “balanced” dog training community advocates. What’s that all about?

The “force free” dog training community are generally those who advocate that all dog training should be comprised of positive reinforcement methods. In this group, it is considered inhumane to do anything that might be defined as negative reinforcement, positive punishment, or negative punishment (I’m not going to define them here, to shorten the length of this article. You can look them up yourself). Thus, they wouldn’t even tell a dog, “No” if it was about to grab a rattlesnake.

The “balanced” dog training community are generally those who advocate the use of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment. Unfortunately, in this group, there are trainers who should not even be training dogs because pretty much all they do is aversive dog training.

I am not an advocate of either camp, and I will explain where I am coming from.

First, you can’t have a reliable dog off leash without using some kind of aversive teaching along the way. This is why the government of New Zealand requires all dogs must be given avoidance training to prevent them from ever encountering Kiwi. Period. (Again, look it up.) There is no way to keep an off-leash dog away from an endangered species, like Kiwi, without aversion training. The same is true with keeping dogs away from rattlesnakes, poisonous toads, or chasing wildlife. If you research the top, famous “all positive” trainers anywhere in the world, what they do is avoid letting their dogs off leash around anything that would trigger their dogs to chase or investigate anything harmful. The obvious problem is that dogs do escape from their homes and handlers. The probability that at some point your dog is going to get loose from you is extremely high. I can’t recall the exact statistic (I have it here in my library somewhere), almost every dog will at some point get away from their owners during their lifetimes. Generally, the dog is normally and easily recovered, but not every time. Without adequate training, you have a serious problem on your hands. Furthermore, they will claim that the tools they use are not aversive… but they are. Head halters, no pull harnesses, and a lot of the other devices they use are aversive to dogs. Either they don’t know that, or they don’t care to admit it. And the strictly confined lives these pros impose on their dogs, in my opinion, are cruel. A happy prison is still a prison. And a controlled “picture” of a trained dog in a canned competition routine isn’t the same as a trained dog that can do all that stuff outside in the real world.

I remember being criticized online by one of these “force free” advocates. I checked them out online since I had no idea who this person was. The amazing thing was the stories I read of how they had experienced exactly this kind of thing, and how it turned into a tragedy. Oftentimes, fanatics of any sort suffer from a serious case of cognitive dissonance. It wasn’t worth debating this person, but it did remind me of the stakes in this debate.

Second, you can’t have a humanely trained dog if all you do is focus on instrumental learning techniques, such as positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment. There is a lot more to training a dog than this narrow mindset. For example, let’s say I have a dog that isn’t good with other dogs. So, I use an aversive method to force the dog to remain on a Place, such as a dog cot. Then, I parade dogs past this dog. Any time the subject dog gets off the dog cot, the dog is given an aversive stimulus (in most cases, either using a slip lead cinched up high on the neck or an electric collar). The trainers will call this impulse control. Instead, what they are training is learned helplessness. You can “crack” a dog (my term) by putting them in an impossible situation. I was familiar about a trainer like this many years ago in another city. One dog that was put through their program had to be pulled and sent to the emergency vet because it had cracked and came down with a life-threatening case of Pancreatitis. The dog was bleeding out the rectum and vomiting up blood. I heard of a Doberman that had the same fate while being trained to track. Same mindset, similar tactics, similar disaster. Yes, a lot of these “balanced” trainers will say they use positive reinforcement as well as aversive methods, to balance things out. But truthfully, they are boxed in by their lack of understanding of what they are doing. They are endangering dogs, in my opinion, just as much as the “force free” trainers.

So, there is a third way. The third way is to be a behavior focused trainer. A behavior focused trainer understands the main theories of animal behavior and learning. Thus, they can apply solutions that are congruent with how a dog thinks and reacts and keep a dog out of psychological conflicts that could possibly crack a dog. They can also teach this method in easily understood ways so dog owners can do the right things themselves without having to do all the background research.

It starts with a study of animal behavior. For myself and my students, I have a huge library of animal behavior and science books, written by the most notable animal researchers over the past 200 years, which I have read. I also have breed specific books since there are significant trait differences that need to be understood. I don’t just have dog books. I have books on animal behavior on species as diverse as solitary bees, crocodiles, coyotes, porcupines, fish, sea mammals, migratory birds, spiders, lions, etc. I have read a lot of dog training books, as well. After a while, you find out that a lot of books are just rehashes of someone else’s book. Yet, there are important differences in how spaniels, retrievers, pointers, scent hounds, competition dogs, sport protection dogs, police dogs, and companion dogs are typically trained. Specialists in these fields need to be listened to. For example, spaniel trainers typically have a program that is very soft, fun, and happy to get the most out of their dogs. The precision that is demanded of, say Labrador field trial competitors, is not expected of the Spaniels. That’s good to know. It is also interesting, and useful, to know how Bloodhounds are trained. Or search and rescue dogs. Or tactical military dogs.

I have “attended” many, many hours of behavior videos by experts. I have had many years of experience being coached by these experts. I continue to sign up for any good online programs that I think would be useful for my students. It is unfortunate that some of the videos I purchased long ago are now useless because they were in VHS format. I don’t have a VHS player, and I really should just throw the rest of them away now. I had videos from a wide variety of hunting dog trainers, for example. I learned a lot from them. I’m sure some of these old timers are now deceased. I’ve also been fortunate to watch very old videos of trainers from long ago to see how things used to be done (including some very awful and abusive techniques that should never be done to a dog). For the past several months, I’ve been “attending” recorded and live online seminars. You can never know too much, and it isn’t always practical to attend some training programs in person.

I have many years of hands-on experience working with rescued dogs. This is where you get to see what has gone wrong and learn what might have been done to prevent the tragedies that cause dogs to be lost or abandoned. Plus, it gives a trainer an opportunity to help with the more difficult cases. I am glad a friend introduced me to rescue dog work in the late 90’s. I’d say half of what I know about dogs, and dog owners, came through these experiences. Most of this stuff isn’t going to be found in any book.

Another great experience has been the classes I have attended in person, from the early group classes to the one-on-one training I received along the way. I am a curious type, and there is no substitute for the opportunity to see, do and ask questions. And I have many years of hands-on ownership and teaching experience. I have spent my own money and spent countless hours trying to be as good and knowledgeable as I can be, and then applying what I learned, and sometimes discovered, to help dogs.

When you have a behavior training approach you will view these other simplistic labels of “force free” or “balanced” as silly and potentially dangerous. They are putting the method ahead of understanding dog behavior, what works and what doesn’t, what is necessary to own a happy and safe dog, and how to increase the probability that everything will work out.

I don’t get in debates over this or that “method”. It isn’t worth the time and headaches of trying to break through fixed mindsets. What I do know is that even the best scientists, and top master dog trainers, say they haven’t got it all figured out. There is more to learn that will never be accomplished in any of our lifetimes. The current frontiers in animal behavior are going beyond all of this to understand how the brain works, and how those functions coordinate with the environment and other living beings. No longer are pigeons being put in Skinner boxes, or dogs in Pavlovian harnesses. Genetic studies are being done to pick apart the dog genome. Brain chemistry tests are being conducted to figure out how the different body and brain systems communicate. Magnetic imaging, electrical stimulation techniques, and other methods, are being used to figure out to hopefully explain the variety of emotional states and how they relate to resulting behavioral patterns. The goal is to link what has been theorized and observed with the underlying bio-mechanical processes in the living dog. The kind of reading I do now keeps running into this kind of analysis, and I guess the next step will be to pop open some chemistry books and work my way forward. Ugh, that’s going to be a lot of work.

There has been a more important debate regarding animal behavior that hasn’t yet been fully answered: How and what do animals feel? This is still an almost untouchable frontier. Talking about feelings has long been deemed unscientific since they are difficult to define and measure. Early attempts, such as the writings of Sigmund Freud, were initially found interesting, but often were disproved. But we can’t ask animals how they feel, or dream, so we turned to theorists who introspectively tried to describe those feelings and what they meant. Such thinking fell into disrepute. But we are coming full circle on these concepts again through brain research, and the early questions of motives, feelings and such now are getting a serious second look to see if feelings can be understood. For example, we can say we experience happiness. But can a dog experience happiness, and can that be definitively defined and measured? I know that dogs feel happiness, but from a science standpoint, where things must be proven, this is not yet something that has been settled. The ethics of dog training will ultimately rest upon the results, if they can ever be determined. Even concepts of “drive” are coming back for a reassessment as behavioral systems are being found within the brain. That kind of research is becoming a game changer, because there is now ample proof that animals are not just machines that only respond to whatever is going on around them, but instead are actively seeking and exploring through innate brain programs.

So, “force free” isn’t a very good model for training any dog, nor is a “balanced” approach. Good training is way beyond this division of approaches. It is time to stop being stuck in the past, rehashing debates that scientists abandoned decades ago. Scientists don’t think in these terms these days. It is time to move on.

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