In both parts 1 and 2 of this blog series, I mentioned that balanced trainers sometimes pose as modern trainers by mentioning that they use “positive reinforcement”, are “science-based”, and avoiding obvious words that describe punishments. Instead of "punishment", they will use extremely tricky vocabulary and euphemisms to hide the fact that they still use aversive techniques.
My goal in this final part is to break down the vocabulary and help you identify and analyze these words.
Learning by example
By visiting several different balanced trainer’s webpages, Youtube channels, and even podcasts, I was able to find specific examples of some words and phrases that they use. It was disheartening to see that a lot of the phrases that I found were similar to ones that you’ll find on my, and other Force-Free trainers’, websites; they used phrases that are supposed to be a good indicator of a Force-Free trainer. These phrases include (but are not limited to):
- building a relationship with your dog based on mutual respect and understanding
- positive reinforcement
- fear-free techniques
- scientifically-proven methods
- giving your dog the choice to make the right decision
- better communicating and understanding your dog
But digging further on these sites reveals other phrases to the effect of:
- becoming your dog’s leader
- simply and effectively stopping unwanted behaviors
- getting your dog to listen to you
To the average dog owner, these phrases seem innocent enough. You might even say, “I am hiring a dog trainer BECAUSE I want my dog to listen to me, for their bad behaviors to stop, and to be a leader for my dog! Aren’t leaders supposed to be good?”
Yes, that may be true, and you may want those things. But a good Force-Free trainer understands that the wording and the mentality behind these words are all wrong.
So, let’s go through these phrases one by one.
“Becoming your dog’s leader”
When used in dog training (and even in the human world), there are two types of leaders:
- Leaders who demand and expect things from their subordinates
- Leaders who help and guide their team to success
Unfortunately, due to the popularity of ideas such as dominance, being alpha, pack theory, etc., “leadership” has often become synonymous with controlling and dominating your dog.
That’s not to say that a great Force-Free dog trainer can’t be an amazing leader for their dog; in fact, they will be a better leader than any trainer who believes they are their dog’s “boss” or “alpha”. However, because of the misuse of the word by the aversive crowd, most Force-Free dog trainers will avoid putting it on their websites.
Also, it is not generally a goal of the Force-Free trainer to want to be a leader to your dog, but instead, a happy side-effect. I, myself, prefer to think of my dog as a family member or partner, and try to have the same leading role as a parent might have towards a child, instead of a boss to his employees.
This is why the phrase “become your dog’s leader” is a red flag.
“Simply and effectively stop unwanted behaviors”
We looked very briefly at learning theory in part 2, and learned that, by definition, anything that decreases, discourages, or stops a behavior is a punishment. By just this definition, punishment is neither good nor bad.
Where punishment can go “bad” is the way we use it.
There are two ways to use punishment: one where you add an aversive to cause pain, fear, or discomfort to the dog to decrease or stop the behavior (positive punishment), and the other where you simply remove or prevent the dog from getting something that they want, like a reward (negative punishment).
The latter (negative punishment) is actually sometimes used by Force-Free trainers, since we are not causing the dog pain, fear, or discomfort in this way; simply getting the dog to think about which behaviors they need to stop to get their reward.
Although negative punishment works, because it tends to require more thinking on the dog’s part, it is not necessarily “simple” or “effective” and so is not used as often as Positive Reinforcement (a Force-Free trainer’s bread and butter!).
And more often than not, Force-Free trainers prefer to think about how to CHANGE a dog’s behavior, as opposed to stopping it. Therefore, the phrase “simply and effectively stop unwanted behaviors” has an underlying message that the technique used will not be force-free, but instead will be aversive.
That is why the phrase "simply and effectively stop unwanted behaviors" is a red flag.
“Get your dog to listen to you”
I love a dog that responds quickly and precisely to cues as much as the next person. However, my goal as a trainer is to give dogs choices when I can, and to never have to force a dog to do something that he doesn’t want to do. I prefer to “ask” a dog to do something as opposed to demand, command, or order it. This means that if I give a cue, the dog always has a choice about whether to listen or not.
Granted, with positive reinforcement, you will get a dog that responds to cues 99% of the time (treats in sight or not). However, with that 1% of the time that they don’t, I do not get mad. Instead, I take the dog “not listening” as a information that something may be wrong.
Possible reasons that a dog may not respond to your cue include:
- Your dog does not understand what you are telling it (the training for that cue is not complete)
- The reinforcement history is not strong enough (the dog knows the cue but has lost motivation to do it)
- Your dog has not practiced that behavior enough in different situations (different distances, durations, and distractions)
- Your dog did not hear the cue to begin with (dogs can hear higher frequencies than us, but they do not hear louder than us. This is a common problem when recalling from far away)
- Something is wrong with the dog biologically (with the dog’s health)
- Something is wrong with the environment
And that’s mostly it. Those are the main reasons, with a few exceptions. Your dog is not being stubborn, is not ignoring you on purpose, is not misbehaving. He either doesn’t understand, hasn't been trained enough, or something is wrong.
For instance, a dog that normally sits really well is not sitting because the floor is too slippery or too hot (environment is bad). The same dog could also chose to not sit because it’s developing early arthritis, and sitting/getting up again takes a lot of effort (biological). So, when a trainer demands that a dog listens, and goes as far as pushing the dog’s butt down or yanking on the leash when it didn’t “obey,” they could be putting the dog in a lot of extra pain or distress from these unknown causes.
And that is also why, when a trainer says that they will GET your dog to listen to them (or that the training WILL make the dog listen no matter what), it implies a certain force, certain consequences, that takes away a dog’s choice.
And that is why "get your dog to listen to you" is a red flag as well.
What other red flags are there?
So, despite some balanced trainers posing as quality Force-Free trainers, a little bit of digging can show us that some trainers can contradicted themselves or give us red flags about the methods that they use.
Of course, we only covered three potential phrases, and there are many more ways for balanced trainers to try and dupe a well-intentioned dog owner. So I’ve attempted to make a list of some other common, “tricky” words that aversive trainers can use, and what a Force-Free trainer might say instead, include:
*Force-free trainers will not use aversives, punishment, pain, fear, or discomfort on your dog, and because of that, have no need to use synonyms when explaining what they are to a client
NOTE: Some of the synonyms are interchangeable up and down the column, but I did not want to repeat the words more than once. It's also important to note that some of the aversive terminology is so common in our every day language, that a Force-Free trainer may slip up when talking to you in person. The point to remember, though, is that they are not asking you to use any of these on your dog.
Other things to watch out for are:
- Trainers who use “positive reinforcement”, but insist that the dog only needs praise, and no treats or toys
- Trainers who use any words such as pack theory or dominance/submission
- Trainers that have “guaranteed” success
- Trainers who preach about “control” (either stating that you don’t have enough control of your dog, or demand that you have to “take control”)
- Trainers who insist your dog wears a collar instead of a harness or head halter
- Note that in Montreal, all dogs above 20 kg (44 lbs) HAVE to be on a harness or head halter, so a trainer asking you to do otherwise is breaking the law
- As of Jan 2020, no dogs in Montreal will be allowed to be trained on a choke chain, prong collar, or e-collar
- Trainers that insist that, if a aversive certain tool is used “correctly,” it’s harmless (includes choke chains, prong collars and e-collars)
- Trainers that insist that your dog needs to “respect” you
- Trainers who tell you that you need to alter your “energy” levels (such as having “calm assertive energy”)
- Trainers that try to set up your dog to show aggression or fear so that they can “correct it”
- Trainers who have “board and train” facilities and do not want you observing or questioning their methods
The list, of course, goes on.
Double checking a trainer’s intentions
It’s possible that some of these phrases are still used by modern trainers who are perhaps less aware of the ramifications of their wording. Regardless, if you are not sure, or have a “gut feeling” about a trainer, double-check their intentions by calling or emailing them and asking them Jean Donaldson’s suggested questions for trainer transparency. These are:
- What exactly will happen to my dog when she gets it right?
- What exactly will happen to my dog when she gets it wrong?
- Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose?
In part 2, I talked in more detail about possible answers to these questions, both with how a Modern trainer would answer vs. a balanced trainer.
But remember: trust your gut!
If something smells fishy, don’t risk your dog’s well-being for the sake of convenience.