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How Does Force Free Training Work?




Force Free Training: Teaching an animal without pain, intimidation, threats, force, or coercion. It’s done without corrections, without collars (including those “vibrating” collars used to “get your dog’s attention), and without pain.


When I was growing up, my parents implemented corporal punishment with our animals. Their butts were spanked when they did something wrong. They also used choke chains and electronic training collars (the shocking kind). They were told to squirt a mixture of vinegar and hot sauce in our dog’s mouth when she barked too much. They used squirt bottles with water on our cats when they jumped on the counters. They did these things because it was the only way they knew to convey to the animal that they were doing something wrong. This type of response was never fully effective and that level of punishment continued to be implemented long-term. My parents LOVED our animals; they had birthday parties and presents under the tree at Christmas. They were very much a part of our family and not just viewed as animals. 


The unfortunate piece of information in all of this was that force free training was not as widely prevalent in the late ‘90’s. There also was not as much research available to disprove the efficacy of punishment-based training. Now that resources are readily available, there are many more well-informed pet parents who specifically seek out force free training when looking for a trainer. 


So how do we create long lasting behavior change without consequences for the problem behaviors? We first start by explaining that punishment in any form does not teach the animal what to do instead or how to feel instead. Do we typically see an immediate behavioral response when punishment is implemented? Of course. Pain and/or discomfort is typically very effective at interrupting behavior. There are a few things that occur when punishment is incorporated:


  1. A reliance is created. Many clients who come to us that use punishment-based training tools tell us that they would not know what to do if they were not able to access the tool. They have no other options at their disposal for navigating challenging social situations. This level of reliance also shows that the tool is not creating long-term behavior change. 


  1. The animal very rarely associates the punishment with their own behavior. When we look at the scientific definition of punishment, it must meet 3 criteria:

  2. The punishment must begin the moment the problem behavior begins

  3. The punishment must stop the moment the problem behavior stops

  4. The punishment must ONLY be associated with the animal’s behavior


As you can imagine, there is a lot of room for human error with implementing punishment, especially because humans have no control over what the animal associates the punishment with. A common occurrence with the implementation of punishment is that there is a chance that the animal associates the punishment with whatever is happening around them. One example is a dog getting shocked when they bark and lunge at other dogs when they are on a walk. Instead of the dog associating the shock with the barking/lunging, there is a possibility that they will associate the shock with the presence of the dogs. The end result is that dogs become the predictor of pain, which can escalate the problem behavior. If there are any other stimuli around (novel people, vehicles, sounds etc), then pain can be associated with these as well, creating new behavior problems. This is a phenomenon called behavior fallout, which unfortunately is something that we see frequently. There are certainly instances where all of this does not occur, but people have no way of knowing if their animal is going to be one of them. They are gambling every time they use punishment-based training tools. 


  1. The animal never learns how to cope with their behavior or changes their emotional association with triggers and/or stressful situations, which is the foundation of creating long-term behavior change.



So how do we address behavior concerns in a force free manner? The short answer is that it takes a combination of management, learning healthy coping mechanisms (which act as tools in the client’s toolbox that help to successfully navigate social situations as well as alternative behaviors that the animal can engage in to actually deal with their emotions in a constructive manner), and changing the animal’s emotional association with triggers. Changing their emotional association is basically helping the animal learn that whatever is triggering for them is the predictor of something good and that it no longer creates a knee-jerk negative emotional response. 


The purpose of management is to prevent the animal from practicing problem behaviors as much as possible. Management also keeps the animal under their stress threshold. When an animal goes over their stress threshold, they are no longer in a place mentally where true, impactful learning can occur. If we were to attempt to train with zero management in place, not only would the animal continue to practice the problem behaviors a number of times between training sessions, they would also continue to create a negative learned history with whatever is triggering them. 


Once management is in place, then we are ready to train. There are a variety of coping mechanisms that we teach in order to help the client feel more confident and less stressed with navigating challenging social situations as well as giving the animal alternative behaviors to engage in when triggered. These coping mechanisms are incorporated in a lot of different contexts in order to make them more reliable, especially in the situations that we need them to work in.


The “meat and potatoes” of training is changing the animal’s emotional association with whatever is triggering the problem behavior(s). An analogy that we frequently use to explain this is that the path that the animal takes mentally from the time that they are presented with a trigger to the animal exhibiting the problem behavior(s) is very well-used. The grass on this mental path has been worn down and the branches have been cleared. It is very familiar and easy to travel. The process of changing an animal’s emotional association with something consists of allowing the well worn mental path to grow back over and to wear down a new path. As you can imagine, this takes time. The problem behavior path did not wear down overnight, and the new path won’t either. Once it is though, the animal has a much easier time with navigating previously challenging social situations/stimuli. 


Both Jolene and Emily absolutely love to talk about this, so please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any thoughts, questions, or concerns!


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