I’m supposed to be editing video right now. I’m supposed to be productive. But I’ve been watching an article circulate the web, spreading like wildfire through the dog training community. And I can’t bite my tongue any longer.

Originally, I read the article when a friend forwarded it to me. I didn’t publish my opinions. I didn’t want to take a position. Didn’t want to make waves. But as the days passed and the article picked up steam, it began littering my newsfeed, passing from trainer to trainer, accompanied by a slew of hateful comments.

Screen Shot 2016-06-13 at 2.13.19 PMTHIS is the article I’m referring to. And as I scroll past it for the umpteenth time, I feel compelled to speak.

Now, as much as people believe otherwise, I am NOT a Force Free trainer. I am however a kind trainer. If you want to try and tell me that I am cruel and that I use torture devices to force dogs to cave to my demands, I’ll tell you that you couldn’t be more wrong. I’d also tell you not to speak to something you know nothing about. And I’d invite you to come train with me or come talk training over coffee. I train from a place of complete love and respect.

I’ll be honest – I didn’t start out my endeavor training dogs that way – I started in a time when the Force Free movement was just getting off the ground, a time when old school ideologies were embraced with open arms, a time when “yank and crank” was THE way to work dogs. I always trained from a place of love, but I’ll be honest in that my initial ideology was pretty darn disrespectful, and I’m not proud of it. Although I feel I was kinder than most, I still cringe when I look back at the techniques I thought were acceptable. And I cringe at the very poor implementation of those techniques, as was taught to me by supposed experts in the field.

But enough about that.

As I read the article, I was instantly triggered, instantly rubbed wrong, and I felt immediately defensive of the Force Free movement, despite the fact that I don’t prescribe to their ideology.

Here’s the rub. This trainer or handler (I’m not really sure what she is), doesn’t have enough experience with the Force Free ideologies to make such rash generalizations – This is clearly evidenced by her language, by her descriptions of her personal experiences, and by the sweeping statements she makes. She generalizes about an entire movement, blaming Force Free trainers for a dog ending up in a shelter…..twice. But blaming an entire ideology, especially when it is apparent that she’s had some bad experiences with trainers who don’t have any idea how to properly carry out Force Free training methods as opposed to focusing her frustration on the owners and trainers who failed this particular dog, is irresponsible and only perpetuates divisiveness within the dog training community.

There, I said it.

Now, I can’t speak to her experiences. I don’t personally know the trainers who did this particular dog such a disservice. But I do have extensive understanding and experience in Force Free training, and I’ll tell you without a doubt, there are some spectacular Force Free trainers out there… Some really amazing folks who have the science down pat and who can read dogs better than most. Folks who can teach behaviors that leave other trainers scratching their heads, and folks who can solve even the most serious cases of aggression with no coercion or aversives whatsoever. Folks who I would love to spend an afternoon with, picking their brains and learning their craft.

I can also say that statements such as this one: “…as R+ requires very specific skills to work, namely excellent timing, a dog that is toy/treat-motivated, and an environment devoid of any stimulation that is more rewarding (like squirrels) than the highest value treat you happen to have on you…” glaringly illustrate that her experiences can be attributed to folks who don’t quite have a handle on the Force Free methods they are pushing. Sure, Force Free training requires very specific skills to work, not excluding excellent timing. But it doesn’t simply work on dogs with high food and toy drive. That’s a misconception. And it doesn’t only work in environments devoid of stimulation – if that were the case, I doubt the movement would have gained the momentum that it has in recent years.

The fact that SO MANY trainers latched onto this article indicates to me that there is a serious lack of education regarding Force Free methods and some very serious, and in my opinion irresponsible, assumptions being made about the techniques being used.

The article then goes on to say that this particular training ideology is inflexible and that it is cookie cutter training that doesn’t work for all dogs. I’d argue that Force Free trainers are some of the most flexible trainers out there, constantly adapting and changing their training to minimize conflict and work with the natural drives and state of the dog. Well, the good ones at least.

And if the good Force Free trainers think that dogs chase squirrels because they are fearful, the movement wouldn’t have as much steam as it does. Force Free trainers aren’t stupid. Perhaps her experience has simply been with a few bad apples.

I think the problem is not with the ideology. I think rather, the problem lies in the reality that there are so many trainers out there, taking people’s money, who have no clue how to practice their prescribed ideology correctly. And they are doing dogs a disservice – not their training ideology, but them as individuals.

Photo credit @ Tamandra Michaels

With positive training methods, more so I believe than their balanced counterparts, it can be easy to think that making mistakes in timing or reinforcement is no big deal and won’t have much fallout. I mean, how much damage can you do when you aren’t applying force? But this couldn’t be farther from the truth, and because of the quick results positive trainers seem to get (I can lure a dog and make them look great in an instant) and the assumption that damage can’t be done to a dog if aversives are left out of the picture, people are putting stock into trainers they shouldn’t really be trusting. And because positive reinforcement is tough to get right, I’d venture to say there are more bad apples than good ones. And this is the problem.

But let’s not forget about “Balanced” trainers (I think that term is a ridiculous oversimplification of a training ideology, but we’ll save that discussion for another day).

What about the Balanced trainers that couldn’t get a handle on a dog’s behavior? Is that a problem with the ideology as a whole? I’ve seen countless cases of Balanced trainers advocating haphazard application of aversives that added so much stress, that the dog in response became reactive, and in some cases had to be surrendered. Over stimulation, heightened arousal, fear, and reactivity are all part of the fallout I’ve witnessed first hand in response to very poor Balanced training implementation. So do we blame Balanced training as a whole?

Truth is, there are plenty of so called “Balanced” trainers out there who get quick results using heavy handed correction and label themselves pros. Those people do as much damage as the all positive trainers, who lack the skills to do the job right. Just as their all positive counterparts, there are far too many Balanced trainers that think that just because they can get quick results, their way is the best way. And they remain close-minded to the other alternatives out there. They are just as much to blame as the bad apple, Force Free trainers.

It isn’t the movements that are damaging our dogs. In fact, there is some good to be found in all of the training ideologies.

So can we quit with the divisiveness already?

I remember back when I was first getting started in training dogs. I was a “Balanced” trainer, if balanced meant I operated mostly in the negative reinforcement and positive punishment quadrants of operant conditioning. Remember, I said I’m not proud of how I got started – but it for sure made me who I am today, so I can’t discredit the experiences.

I, just as I am now, was eager to learn. Training was non-emotional for me. I felt like I had so much to learn, and I felt like there were so many wonderful trainers out there to learn from. I was doe-eyed and naive and eager to get started.

I walked into a seminar I had registered for. The topic: Using Force Free Methods to Combat Aggression and Reactivity.

I entered the room. Instantly, it seemed as though the whole place quieted, and a small circle of people gathered in a corner and began to whisper. Feeling a bit awkward, I took my seat and made myself comfortable.

Soon after, the woman took her place at the front of the classroom, at one point glaring directly at me as she went through her lecture.

I listened.

When the seminar was over, I thanked the trainer and left. I didn’t agree with everything she said, but that was okay. I wanted to learn her perspective as she was highly respected in the field. I wanted to see how she operated. I wanted to compare notes. After all, the two of us had the same goal – to improve the lives of the dogs we worked with.

The next day, I received an email. It was from the trainer who had led the seminar. She was upset that I had come and was questioning my intentions. She knew I wasn’t a Force Free trainer, and she alluded to the fact that I was not welcome in her classes.

My response was simple.

“I’m sorry if I offended you,” I wrote as I stifled my anger at her response. “I was there to learn a different method for dealing with aggression. I wanted to get your take, because I value your opinion as a very well respected trainer.”

Insert foot in mouth. The trainer apologetically responded, her initial superstition about my presence subsiding, being replaced by appreciation that I had wanted to learn.

This is a problem, and a prevalent one… This line-in-the-sand, us and them mentality is so rampant in the dog training community. And if we are ever to evolve, we need to get over it already.

Author and Former Navy SEAL Eric Davis and his Malinois, India
Author and Former Navy SEAL Eric Davis and his Malinois, India

Training has evolved like crazy over the past few decades. But we remain, as a whole, pretty close-minded to the evolution because, as trainers, we’ve latched onto our prescribed ideology and we, as a whole, have become inflexible, not willing to learn from one another. Instead, we find greater value in spouting hate filled rhetoric – rhetoric devoid of actual facts – rhetoric we’ve formed after a few bad experiences with some not so great trainers.

The brilliant thing about dog training, and about people in general, is that we can all learn something from one another. But for some reason, especially in dog training, we so often refuse to glean any lessons from ideologies which aren’t identical to our own. I say, we need to learn to eat the meat, and spit out the bones – learn what we can from one another, and respectfully set aside the things we don’t agree with.

Many Force Free trainers refuse to associate with anyone who uses Balanced training methods, because they jump to the conclusion, after experiences with a few bad apples, that we are torturing dogs, that we are heavy handed, and that our techniques are wrought with abuse.

Many Balanced trainers, on the other hand, refuse to associate with the Force Free community, making the same assumptions spewed in the article above, speaking on Force Free methods they know very little about, and speaking about experiences with trainers that likely just aren’t very good.

I hate to break it to you, but there is no universally correct way to train a dog. As a math nerd who studied and taught statistics for ages, you can show me a study to prove your method is “IT”, and I’ll find a hole. And then, I’ll come back with a study that completely discredits it. I want to see results. I don’t want to read about them on a piece of paper. I form my ideology based on what makes sense and what works. And if you have pieces in your training program that fit that description, I want to learn about it! Regardless of the title of your ideology.

For that reason, I challenge you, as trainers who, believe it or not, all really have the same end goals, not to make assumptions based on things you know nothing about. Don’t write off good trainers simply because their ideologies conflict with yours. I don’t care who you are or how you train. It’s when we alienate one another because of differing opinions that we start to get rigid and inflexible, that we stop evolving, and that we contribute to the divisiveness which, in my opinion, is negatively impacting dog training as a whole.

Author and former Navy SEAL Eric Davis with his Belgian Malinois, India
Author and former Navy SEAL Eric Davis with his Belgian Malinois, India

Here’s the thing. Training has evolved by leaps and bounds BECAUSE of the Force Free movement. Balanced trainers have something to learn from Force Free trainers and, as much as you’ll hate me for saying as much, Force Free trainers have something to learn from Balanced trainers.

These days, it seems that we preach tolerance more than ever. We tell folks to be respectful to one another despite their creed or color, their preferences, their religious views, and their political affiliations. But why not be tolerant of dog trainers who operate a little differently than you do.

I’d challenge you to replace your anger, your mocking, and your hateful rhetoric with research. Don’t seek out the trainers that fail only to use them as fuel for your argument. Seek out the trainers that succeed and who perform well. And despite differences in opinions, try your best to learn from them. The awesome thing is, you don’t have to agree with everything they say. But you absolutely can learn something from them. I guarantee it. And it doesn’t matter their ideology. We all have something to learn from one another if we can humble ourselves enough to try.

The positive reinforcement movement as a whole isn’t responsible for this dog ending up in the shelter. Lack of corrections is also not the reason he had a rough start in life. I don’t know his specific circumstances, but I’d venture to say it was a toss up between owners who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, manage him, and trainers who didn’t quite have a grasp on the practice they were prescribing.

Don’t write off an entire movement because of a few bad apples. Instead, seek out the really great people, and learn from them. Park your ego at the door, and quit being so divisive. Quit generalizing, and quit making assumptions. Instead, seek to learn. If someone is latched onto an ideology, ask why, and approach from a place of learning and respect. And if you don’t agree, don’t seek to argue or belittle. It isn’t productive, and it isn’t flattering. Be respectful, take the good, and agree to disagree on the rest. And quit shifting blame where it doesn’t belong. Practice acceptance, and be open to learning things from unexpected sources. You’ll be a better trainer for it in the long run.

Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    15 replies to "A Few Bad Apples: Assumptions about the “Punishment of Positive-Only”"

    • Lauren Miller (ZoePhee)

      Great post, Meagan! I have had a similar journey where I was more on the punishment side of balanced, then completely crossed over to force-free where I ran into a bunch of awful fanatics who would attack anything they didn’t agree with. Now I’m still mostly PR but I call myself LIMA (least invasive, minimally aversive). I honestly think there’s something to be learned from everyone and I never want to limit myself.

      As for the dog who ended up at the shelter, I completely agree with you. It’s time that we stopped blaming trainers for that and instead we need to really focus on the owners who are the true problem children. Maybe that force free trainer was new and wasn’t that great but what if the owner didn’t follow through with any of their instructions and either couldn’t or wouldn’t manage the dog. I see it all the time with regular pet owners. “I don’t like it when my dog gets into the trash”, “Can you put the trash where the dog can’t get to it?” “No way!! What an inconvenience to me!! Of course not! Why would you make me do that!?”

      Who really knows what happened…

    • David Crow

      The problem I see and have been told when using a correction I am training to fail. Even though I teach the dog with rewards and never correct them till I am sure they know what I want them to do. Whether it is with holding a reward and resetting or using a physical correction. I even went as far as showing a video of my dog heeling and asking where did I fail the dog. I got no response from this person after the video. The dogs attitude was excellent tail up wagging and pushing for reward not avoiding a correction.

      • Meagan Karnes

        Yes. For sure there are Force Free trainers, just as there are balanced trainers, that are set in their ways and can get rigid about their techniques and a little nasty in their discussions. But I’m hopeful that people don’t look at folks like that and take it as a representation of an entire training ideology. I’m hopeful folks seek to learn from those they can learn from and don’t make generalizations about an entire movement by the poor behavior of some.

    • Jacquie Humphrey

      Excellent article. I have been training dogs now for over 50 years and have worked on both sides of the coin in equal parts. Training is about understanding behaviour and being humane to both the dog and the handler that comes to us for help. I work with trainers from all walks of life and often have deep and enthusiastic discussions. We can all learn something from each other and from the dogs we work with.

      I think the main problem is that our industry is not regulated and anyone can call themselves dog trainers this allows all sorts to get in and do damage either to dogs,clients or the industry as a whole.

      Watching the handler and the dog in combination will soon tell you all you need to know. If that dog is happy confident and eager to participate with the handler then the method being used is working. If the dog appears apprehensive or robotic like then the method is questionable.

      • Alain Fortin

        Hello Mr, Humphrey,
        Im in dogs since 1974.
        I usualy dont write or give out my opinion,dog training is a touchy subject.

        After readind your article, i swear you read my mind.

        I do use the right method depending on the dog in use and explain to owner what im doing ,also keeping it simple,im. no psy for humans ,dont know what way he understands life so keep it simple.

        And your right,the trainors has to adapt to the owner and his dog.

        Have a nice day.

    • Bob Eden

      Superbly written and on the money.

    • Vicki

      What a well written article. I couldn’t agree more.

    • Renee Hall

      Very nicely done Meagan!

    • Cathy Keating

      I really appreciated this article, and I’d like to come into this discussion not as a trainer, but as a dog owner who has greatly benefited from “balanced” training techniques. No one likes to be critiqued, but if we’re good people, professional, of sound judgment, wanting to grow and get better, we try hard to set emotions aside and listen, almost no matter from where it’s coming.

      When our dogs are involved, just like when our parenting skills are being challenged, emotions come into play. I want to learn everything I can about working with my dog. But it’s very hard to listen when I’m vibrating with anger. No one really understands unless they’ve worked through what I have with a highly reactive, insecure, territorial and aggressive dog. And by the same token, if you haven’t been in my shoes, you don’t know how incredible it feels to see what you’re doing with her, is actually working. And I’m sorry for you, if you’re still struggling with your dog’s worrisome behavior.

      It just tweaks me to hear or read people who want to judge the use of an e-collar, or a prong, or any tool of reinforcement and correction, especially when their comments include the bias that the use of these tools in any context is an abuse of the dog. I have read that I am “lazy” because I have resorted to these tools. And if I only worked harder with all positive reinforcement, I would have gotten the same results.

      So, I admit to being prideful and a bit scornful when I see someone frantically and ineffectively trying to treat and distract their dog out of reacting aggressively as my dog and I pass by calmly, at a distance. I’m sure my response to this is wrong and that I am not a good person to have these feelings. And frankly, my dog and I are on a different path than we were when she learned that these reactions were not what I was looking for from her. She was given this information with prong and e-collar corrections, fairly administered. And the word “No.” It did not take her long. She now gets it and we’re in a completely different world where she pretty much only gets reinforced and affirmed for her increasingly good choices. It took six months to get to the place where we no longer need correction. We are now light years away from the dog we took in 2-1/2 years ago. I love and learn from her every day. And I can’t wait for the learning and adventures to come.

      The upshot is, I can’t imagine teaching her in a more immediate, effective way than we did. It kept her from hurting people and dogs. I would never have given up on her, but I’m sure there are others who would have. I am not a trainer, just someone who applied “balanced” training techniques with a dog who responded extraordinarily well. Maybe she’s unusual. But I will stand by what we did with her and the life it’s given us together and defend it as long as I have air in my lungs to do it.

    • Bob D

      The barrage of insults hurled at the “balanced” side of dog training by the “force free” side is vicious and constant. As such it’s a bit hard to blame some “balanced trainers” for having a large chip on their shoulders. That, I suspect, is the root of videos such s the one you mention. Of course both sides would do well to embracing a willingness to learn from the other. I’m just not sure that’s going to happen until both sides are willing to accept the other

    • jerry

      I have been training dogs since 1961. Many different methods have evolved. Not every dog is the same we all know not every owner is the same. I feel that different dogs require different. Methods. I strongly believe vocabulary is the most important thing teach a dog. If the dog does not understand what is expected of them there is no way they can properly comply the dogs should have fun the dogs should enjoy working. I have trained for the local AKC club since 1990. I have recently retired. Due to the loss of my sight. I would surely recommend. Find a club. Find people who care about the dogs. Look at other people don’t just hire a trainer from the advertisement. if you disagree with the way your dog is being handled stop it do not allowed to continue with your dog you can have a wonderful fun time with this and you can have a wonderful dawg if you only teach your dog one task a month that’s 12 year one a week that’s 52 it’s all up to you don’t be in a hurry make sure they understand learn about attention work. Learn about clicker training learn about everything and then do what you think is best for your team.

    • JM

      Great blog! Many (if not most) force free trainers come from the balanced side, so they do often have perspective from personal experience. I prefer the results I receive from force free training. I also enjoy training more since crossing over and I am having more success. But, I also have a great trainer (or trainers) to guide me, not these “bad apples” you speak of. While I do know that force free trainers are accusatory of balanced trainers, I find that balanced trainers accuse force free trainers of doing things they aren’t doing or saying their methods don’t work based on assumptions about how they train, and it is really frustrating. I’ve been told that my methods don’t work as my dog is successfully performing them! I do have balanced trainer friends, but I haven’t learned much from them since I come from that world and have been there and done that. I would never train with people I felt were abusive to their dogs and being balanced does not equal abusive.

    • wendy

      I adopted a Terv puppy at 8 weeks that was full of drive. When I first got him, we started the AKC Star puppy class with a local trainer. She made me sideline my pup during playtime because all of the dogs were small dog puppies and she feared their yips were stimulating my pup too much and he would get crazy. Sidelining him during these times watching the other puppies play made him crazy. My pup loved to play. So we worked on trying to “settle,” and focus. He wouldn’t focus when the puppies were playing. He was hard headed and wanted to play. He LOVED playing!!! He was very, very social as he exhibited when we first started the class when he was still fairly small. He seemed to bring the best out of the other puppies that were shy. But in the end, the trainer told me there was a good chance my pup would be put down because he was “aggressive.” I called it drive and was hoping to find some to help me use it to the best of his ability. When I asked for a referral to someone who did, she gave me the name of an animal behaviorist. We spent the money. One of my pup’s biggest problems was his wanting to chase cars. The behaviorist’s solution to this was flipping him on his back when he reacted. Yes, it stopped for a moment. But shortly after, it would start again. So she referred us to a friend of hers – another trainer. This woman did the same thing. Flipped him on his back. Then she switched gears and tried the positive way with treats and tried to distract him. That didn’t work either and then this trainer blamed me for not doing it right. I was using his name too often, I was not using the right kind of treats, I was giving him too many. Whatever I did was wrong. Then she would yank the leash from my hand and give him a correction. And he would stop – for the moment. Finally when I asked her to help me learn to train my dog, she told me I was not cut out to train my dog and I should rehome him. I fired her. I decided to go it alone after not being able to find a trainer that knew how to train high drive dogs. Everyone was either really positive training, or didn’t know what they were doing and took my money. And I spent thousands, hoping to get the right trainer that would just click. Finally gave up and started reading everything and anything I could to train this dog. He’s not perfect but he has come a long way from where he was. He was my challenge and still is. We loved your engagement series. It was perfect for him because tug has always been the best method of working with him even though it was not allowed with most trainers because, as they put it, “gets your dog too ramped up.”

    • Chris Alexander

      You wrote an awesome posting, but unfortunately, based on the realities of the training world, I do think it is a bit idealistic. I agree that some Balanced trainers can be as closed-minded as most force free trainers and misrepresent the others sides positions and of course, the dwindling population of Compulsion focused trainers that still believe in teaching initial behaviors with compulsion probably tend to have the most animosity towards force free trainers. That said, while Balanced trainers may be open to learning and even adopting some methods from Force Free trainers (positive reinforcement/neg punishment), I do not foresee the reverse (with regards to leash pressure, corrections, etc.). Force Free trainers that limit their tools to only two of the four quadrants of operant conditioning (positive reinforcement and negative punishment) will never choose to learn tools from the other two quadrants of operant conditioning (negative reinforcement and positive punishment). That would be against their values, and very few force free trainers choose to differentiate themselves from Balanced trainers simply based on differences in training philosophy. Instead, Force Free trainers make it a moral issue and chastise and attempt to shame balanced trainers who use active collars, ecollars, and leash pressure. I do know a force free trainer (but technically this person adheres to LIMA, which many force free trainers look down upon since it is open to using aversives as a last resort) that is open to learning from Balanced trainers, but only with regards to a Balanced trainer’s use of positive reinforcement and motivational/engagement techniques). But the vast majority of Force Free trainers would immediately have a knee jerk reaction to anyone trainer who used all four quadrants of operant conditioning.

      It would be great if the Balanced training camp and the Force Free trainers could learn from each other and make peace, but I just don’t see this happening. The reality is that Balanced trainers are more likely to have open minds and adopt aspects of Force Free training, but I do not see Force Free trainers as whole adopting balanced training techniques. The reality is that there will forever be a divide in dog training as there is in politics.

      • Meagan Karnes

        Interesting perspective. Thanks for your comment. Although I believe speaking on either perspective “as a whole” is leaning on rather hefty assumptions. I believe there are force free trainers that are willing to have nonjudgmental conversations with their balanced counterparts and vice versa. As I’m highly active on both sides, I don’t believe at all that one side is less judgemental than the other. I do however believe that the folks that are willing to learn from both sides are few and far between which is the unfortunate piece of the puzzle that I hope to change…one trainer at a time if need be 🙂

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