What Being “Force Free” Means to Me

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What Being “Force Free” Means to Me

A lot of dog behavior professionals these days identify themselves, their training methods, and their businesses as “force free.” I am one of those folks. Force free is a term that usually applies to dog professionals who do not use aversives or punishment techniques on their client dogs. I’m sure some folks who use this term for themselves also use aversives.  But simply put, force free means “I’m not going to make your dog do something based on coercion or fear of punishment.” Force free professionals usually incorporate choice and consent into training, as well as behavior modification techniques that change emotions instead of punishing behavior, which is the result of those emotions. But also like any label, there is usually an individual twist that makes the label our own. Being “force free” is very important to me. But what does it mean to me?

Here’s how I apply this guiding principle – to dogs, to their people, when dealing with social media, and in how I conduct myself as a dog professional overall:

Dogs: I use positive reinforcement methods with dogs. A growing number of professionals these days are highlighting the importance and effectiveness of choice, consent, and letting dogs “be dogs.” The true reason so many dog owners have dogs is because there’s something about “doginess” that they love and admire. The force-based training of the 1970’s operated on the principle that dogs are subservient and should do what we say. This is also the logic history shows us has been used to justify subjugation of groups of people. It’s not a logic I can embrace. I coach my clients to teach their dogs how to cope with their environments and live healthy, happy lives with their people. My focus is not obedience. If a dog doesn’t want to sit when their person says sit, we sometimes have to work through why that might feel sticky to them as a dog owner. We’ve been told dogs should do what we say. But we made that up. Dogs should be able to say “no” and we should honor that response. Force free to me means working with our dogs – not against them – and allowing healthy autonomy while guiding them in our human-centered world.

People: I use the same guiding principle with my human clients. I fully believe that most people who employ my services are doing their best. They’re asking me for guidance and help, and up until beginning their work with me, they’ve gotten by with whatever means they could in regard to their dogs’ behavior. No one ever requests my professional help who truly doesn’t have their dog’s best interest in mind. I believe I have to meet people where they are, knowing they know their dogs better than I ever will.

Practically speaking, this looks like giving my clients information and allowing them to make the choices for their dogs. While I don’t ever suggest the use of, let’s say, a prong collar, the vast number of clients who have come to me using one on their dogs have done so because a)that was what they found on the shelf of the big box pet store b)they are afraid to walk their dog without it because they don’t yet know techniques for leveraging their body, using reinforcement, and training their dogs to walk on leash without pulling, barking, or lunging, or c) someone else told them to. Oftentimes a client has previously been pulled down by their large dog, or fears that they will be. How short-sighted would I be if I removed that tool from them because I consider it “aversive” without first doing the work to replace it with a better option? If a client discontinues using a certain tool upon my direction and then is injured or their dog slips out of other equipment, I haven’t done my job as a force-free professional. That job, as I see it, is to present information and viable options to my clients and let them make the decision. It’s not mine to make.

Social Media: Oooh, it’s a doozy. I see lots of conflict on social media, complete with trainers talking about what other trainers are doing wrong and arguing about methods. My force-free approach to dealing with social media involves refraining from engaging with people who are using virtual platforms to argue, trash-talk, or make others feel bad. When working with dogs, I encourage owners to reinforce behavior they like – and ignore behavior they don’t. I don’t like the behavior of some trainers I see online, and so I do not engage, do not give them or their page attention in the form of commenting, nor do I make posts about them or their techniques. The information I put out on social media is for my clients, potential clients, and anyone seeking solid, science-based information. It is wonderful if one of my respected colleagues likes or benefits from some of the information I post. But I am not doing it for them. I am posting accurate information and resources for dog owners. That is all.

Engaging with Others: This is also how I engage with people in the real-world who are not my clients. I don’t spend time correcting people on misinformation in non-professional settings, unless I can do so conversationally. No one likes being told that they have it wrong when it comes to their dog, unless they’re asking for feedback. I also don’t engage with people in public settings who may be doing something I don’t agree with when handling their dog.

I expect the same in return. I work with clients who are willing and able to collaborate with me respectfully to get their goals met. My business attracts like-minded people who share many of my views on dogs, and if folks are not a match, we usually come to a natural, amicable parting of ways so my schedule can be filled with those kindred spirit clients.

To be very clear, I will always speak up if there is abuse, neglect, or cruelty being inflicted towards humans or animals. That’s not what I’m talking about here.

Ultimately, the choices are all up to my clients. How they treat their dogs, what training methods they use, what behaviors they opt to modify, what behaviors they opt to manage, which dog professionals they rely on.  I believe working with our dogs should mirror how we wish to engage with everyone and everything around us, and I believe acceptance, choice, and collaboration are central to building a force free world.

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