Frustrated by Force Free Fundamentalism

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).

"I do what I want."

“I do what I want.”

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 simply too “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 (note that I am not saying they are unimportant, just… don’t worry about them so much).

Probably how force free fundies view the quadrants.

Probably how force free fundies view the quadrants.

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) – The following is some boring comments and my boring responses to them, feel free to skip this part: 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.

Someone commented:

“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.


22 responses to “Frustrated by Force Free Fundamentalism

  1. “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. ”

  2. exceptional!!!! and thank you for alliterating so well!!!

    my question for fundies is: have you seen a momma dog correct her puppies? do they seem scarred for life?

    dogs function from a survival mindset- yes even our domestic dogs- so when it comes to training they are very very clear about proper corrections if the dog is a balanced dog. so why in the good lords name would anyone think that a dog could not handle being told no and not recover. and while science may provide some interesting talking points for humans, no one has figured out that dogs don’t have a clue about science. but they are truly the best trainers of other dogs. so why don’t we just observe them more. :))))

  3. You’d think that someone who has no problem with “force” training dogs wouldn’t be so darn sensitive about a few verbal corrections directed at herself…

    If you’re so confident about your training methods, why should you care about what others think?

    And of course there are no “fundamentalists” of force training who misrepresent what “force free” training actually is. For example the commenter above who implies that “force free” means “no corrections”…


    There are many others seeing thing similarly. BTW – Force Free does not mean without punishment. Withholding an expected reinforcer (-P) is certainly allowed, as is ignoring unwanted behaivor (extinction) – as long as one then does actually take the few moments to re-train the dog s to what is expected. The idea is, wherever possible, to set the dog up for success, not to see what you can do to get the dog to fail in order to “correct”.

    Be that as it may, as long as some force free trainers hold themselves in judgement of all others, we have a BIG problem.

    • Seriously Leonard Cecil?
      YOU are talking about righteousness?

      Really?, YOU?, ONE of THEM?
      Then, can you say?:
      – “Prong collars can be used effectively. So can shock collars and choke chains, when used properly (yes, there is a proper way) then they would not be so widely used still. ”
      I don’t think so…

      Is because you got kicked out from The Pet Professional Guild?

      It’s at what you refer with:
      – “What is needed is a discussion of, whether we trainers need a holy church of dog training passing judgement upon us as to whether we are upright and ethical enough. And what makes these people holy enough and beyond reproach themselves to take on that job?”

      Correct me if I’m wrong but, wasn’t YOU one of their “founding steering committee members”?

      How you got kicked out of the Holy Church of the “purely positive” training? (I like how it sounds)

      I was right all this time, isn’t?

      They found that the only experience that you have in training is, have semi trained your eager-to-please flat coated retrievier and perhaps (not confirmed) three or four more dogs?

      or perhaps they found that you used to train your unleashed dog in traffic busy streets?

      Again, where you said you got your education in training?…. on line?

      Which are your qualifications?… a trick dog champion certificate that cost you $200 dlls and an edited video with your dog?

      YOU being… well, you… a Hypocrite : – “These people are depending upon the “play nice” mentality we’ve (the positive community) cultivated.”
      I can easily bring a ton of insulting posts made by you using faul language and doing personal offensive remarks…. and No, even if they don’t insulted you, was enough to have a different philosophy in training than yours.

      How was that you decide to become a “dog trainer”… just three years ago?
      I saw your comment about how you want to be the Dog whisper.
      You wrote:
      Leonard Cecil- “Hey, they’re more of these people out there than flies around sh@t. $500 for 2-3 hours. Wow – now you know why I’m starting training to be a Dawg Wheesperer myself. Beats the hell out of my wage as IT-geek.”

      Now, you even give “lectures” at the University where you work, isn’t? … mind blowing!

      You claim that: – “They don’t answer direct questions with direct ANSWERS, having learned from some of the best politicians around. When presented with concrete facts and asked for their own, they don’t present any.”

      Well, can you answer me?

  5. Thank you so much for your clear and thoughtful post! I am a cross-over trainer and I’m quite familiar with the “fallout” of +P based training methods. However, when I finally embraced +R training I was surprised by all the +R and force free trainers that were very punishment based when it comes to people. If trainers really value making a difference in the lives of dogs I would suggest starting first with how they treat each other. The reality is life is messy and sometimes training is as well. Using the four quadrants to analyze every single moment of training is not particularly practical or helpful. What IS helpful and practical is a good understanding of canine body language, behavior, physiology, and motivators. Understanding and applying the principles of Antecedent>Behavior>Consequence and adjusting your training plan according to the INDIVIDUAL dog. Personally, I find the humane hierarchy (linked below) a much more useful and relevant framework for guiding my training.'s%20Wrong%20with%20this%20Picture%20-%20Dogs.pdf

  6. Does saying that you don’t need something make you a fundamentalist? I think it does in some circles. At what point does “I don’t do that because….” turn into being a fundamentalist? When someone else says, “You’re not positive!!!”
    Which is the most hurtful, insulting and “designed to sting” comment you can throw in force free dog circles.
    Have mixed feelings about the manner in which the “be more positive” threads of late are being used. What I see are people posting them on the pages of people they have issues with – like a passive aggressive stone hurled at them as if to say, “Yeah – YOU should read this…it’s so fitting for YOU.”
    Interesting. Just….interesting.

    • I think what makes someone a ‘fundamentalist’ is consistently and persistently pointing out that someone else is ‘wrong’ in their approach to training and then simultaneously stating or implying that what they are doing is abusive or cruel. It’s not really all that complicated. Since these ‘fundies’ are ‘real’, and, imo, are a very bad influence on many young or newbie trainers, I’m very glad to see more people speaking out more often, and I hope that trend continues. I agree with you that there might be a tendency for people to “use” an article like this to, at least mentally, throw a stone, but I think that can be tolerated for the time being while the bigger picture is sorted out.

      We need to be able to have this discussion and continue to have this discussion and to learn to be respectful and tolerant of each other. I also think that it’s worth advocating for a behavior pattern of simply talking about how one trains and why, if the why is relevant to the conversation. There are so many places where a conversation can go wrong, isn’t it better to eliminate one very predictable source of that, which is deliberate criticism of someone else’s training choices?

      • “At what point does “I don’t do that because….” turn into being a fundamentalist? When someone else says, “You’re not positive!!!”
        Which is the most hurtful, insulting and “designed to sting” comment you can throw in force free dog circles.”

        It turns into being a fundi, when using that humane method gets you
        ” “You’re not positive!!!”
        Which is the most hurtful, insulting and “designed to sting” comment you can throw in force free dog circles.” from that fundi.

        Which is exactly what’s been done and is still being done. And we’re not talking about shock, although the same fundis like to equate the two, prongs, chokers, chemical sprays etc. We’re talking about people who simply have another opinion and promote that opinion in a moralist manner, as if they have the word of goD and are spreading it. And like any religion, either you agree or you are heathen, ignorant, unbelieving and not worth of their time (although they give richly of it to attack). Because they have the one and only true answer. That is the definition of fundamentalism.

  7. I would say I am force free, but I certainly use -P and consider it a useful and kind way of explaining things to dogs. I do however use it judiciously and not just willy nilly as it can be devastating. But used well, it’s instructive and creates nothing but good stuff 🙂

    I don’t think there’s a “right” way to use a prong, shock collar or whatever. Yes, they can work sometimes (I used to use choke chains and believe me, you need to be absolutely consistent and also best to use praise too, and most people simply cannot do it). People using these methods tend to argue amongst themselves as to the “right” way and it’s usually about how high up on the neck to put it, or whether to use -R or +P with shock. As far as I am concerned, that is unacceptable as it is all about “how hard, how long, how much” and it’s unfair on the dogs.

    Once we start using that sort of criteria, we lose something.

    As owners and trainers, we do need to stand up for dogs. We need to be ethical and improve our own understanding. It goes without saying that in an emergency, you do what you can or need to. So if that means grabbing the dog’s tail or throwing the dog out of the way of an adder (something I had to do last year) then do it. But be nice after and show the dog all is well in the world. The great thing about having a good relationship not based on force or aversives is that the dog will still trust you and just think you were having a funny moment! You have to love them!

  8. Re the being nice to others.

    I personally pride myself on this and it’s very rare, if ever, that I am “mean” to anyone who is using a choke chain or even a shock collar. I try to be pleasant, to discuss and educate if I can. I have been known to be friends with people I disagree with on such a point, because we have a lot in common and a common goal.

    However, I do think it’s understandable that people can get upset when they see horrible and upsetting videos of aversive and harsh methods being used and people supporting them. It is hard not to be upset and sometimes angry when seeing a dog shocked or strung up etc.

    So understanding needs to be spread all over, amongst those who strive to make the world a better place for dogs and owners. I know of many force free trainers who are utterly embarrassed when their friends berate those who use aversives. I am one of those in that I think ” you really do get more using honey than vinegar!!”

    But also I think it would be nice to just understand that they may be coming from a place of great sadness at the way dogs are still treated so appallingly and may not have as much self control as others.

    Just something to put into the pot 🙂

  9. I agree with 99% of this. I agree that choke, prong, shock can be used effectively, but I just think we shouldn’t. The fallouts and negatives far outweigh the positive. Dogs trained with them are more stressed and let’s face it – the average person (maybe even client) won’t use them correctly (hence non-effectively)

  10. Hi Rafael Carreon!

    How are you doing? Thanks for linking to the video of our Dog Dance performance from yesterday. As you can see, all had a great time.

    Maybe you’d like the video we did, a couple of days earlier, showing us “training” a couple beginner behaviors of Schutzhund:

    And you’ll see that this is also “Force Free”.

    Looking forward to seeing your training videos.

    Have a great day


    Buzz Cecil

  11. I’ve always thought of “fundamentalism” meaning a strict and unwavering adherence to doctrines perceived to be fundamental to an ideology or belief. Sadly, I think that describes well some of what I see going on in the force free training community, where the quadrants or a “humane hierarchy” have become a rigid set of rules of what to try and in what order rather than the general guidelines or descriptive models I believe they were supposed to be. Sometimes I don’t pick interventions low on the hierarchy first. Not because I am not good enough or because I apparently *need* to use something else, but because I think the scenario does not fit neatly into the humane hierarchy in the first place. There are many roads to Rome, and the interaction between the behaviour of a complex being and its dynamic environment are difficult to partition into neat little boxes. I think that we can be at our most kind and supportive of other force free trainers by accepting that many of those roads probably have negligible long-term impact on a dog and their relationship with their humans, or at least, it is difficult to detect from their behaviour what impact occurred. I think we would all be better served discussing how we might tell when a training intervention is going right or wrong than deciding it is right or wrong based entirely on what someone on the internet has described, or what you think they would do, having never actually seen them train, yet formed an opinion about how they do it. At some point, we have to trust that person on the internet who is the only one with eyes on the dog for any useful amount of time. So, let’s talk to them. Nicely. And listen to them. And help them do what they want to do well rather than telling them they are doing it wrong because it’s not what we would do. I’m all for explaining what I would do and why, or why I would not do something suggested, but it’s not a competition. If they want to do it anyway, it’s got to be more useful to offer my support than my condemnation, or a remark about how I don’t need to do this and why would you ever make that choice. This is our community. Make it something supportive that fosters new ideas and applications rather than something where people are afraid to speak up lest they get lynched. The in-fighting and bickering over differing ethics makes people angry, bitter and defensive. That is not a healthy environment for innovation and progress.

  12. For Clover, not using negative punishment (NRM) during free shaping is actually… punishment! The behaviour I want is her trying new things, and without NRMs, she gets stressed and reverts back to old behaviours (or just barking). Which is a decrease in the desired behaviour, caused by me witholding something (feedback), which is…

  13. Having run across the fundies in horse training (where they are VERY active), I appreciate your post. I always try to tell people to be open to the idea that each animal is an individual and what works for one may not work for the next. I have one horse that excelled with +R based training. I also have one that hated it and was totally frustrated by it (and believe me, 1300 lbs of very frustrated equine can send a pretty clear message to change the training style). She excelled and was noticeably happy when trained via -R primarily.

    Unfortunately this meant I ran amok of the fundamentalists and was attacked, belittled and basically so turned off by it that I abandoned the +R world for the most part. It’s sad really because there were some great people there. I just couldn’t take the cult attitude of the fundamentalists. I still keep a lot of +R in my training but I don’t associate with that crowd anymore sadly.

    People rarely change the world in a positive way by declaring war.

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