What “Force-Free” Training Means to Me (as a crossover trainer)

I recently had the chance to chat with fellow trainer Holly Boyes on the Make It Click – for Dog Guardians podcast, and we spent our time together talking about our journeys as crossover trainers and how that has influenced the way that we train now. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about my own definition of “force-free” training and why choosing to train that way is informed by my previous experiences as a balanced trainer, so I want to talk about it!

First off, let’s start with a definition. For myself, this is how I would briefly define the term “crossover trainer”:

Crossover Trainer: someone who transitioned from being a balanced trainer (or a trainer that intentionally uses punishment/corrections as part of training) to working within a positive reinforcement or force-free framework without corrections, punishment, force, or fear.

Molly in 2016, when I was still using balanced training. Now I can see signs of stress in this photo but I didn’t know enough then to recognize it!

When I first got started in the dog training world back in 2016, I was introduced to training through “balanced training” methods. This meant that I was taught to use both corrections and rewards during training – for example, a leash tug or “pop” when a dog did something I didn’t like followed by treats and praise when they did the behavior I wanted. This also meant I was using tools like prong collars and shock collars to exert control over what my dogs could and couldn’t do, and relying pretty heavily on “no” and “stop” as ways of addressing behaviors I didn’t like. Even thought I was also offering treats and praise, the correction piece never felt great for me. And I wasn’t seeing the training progress I had hoped for!

When I first started learning about positive reinforcement, and then force-free training, I started to see things in a whole new light. And I felt differently – I was much more comfortable and confident using methods that felt good for me as a human as well as good for the dogs!

But crossing over wasn’t as simple as just ditching aversives and punishment and replacing them with something else. It meant expanding and altering my view of what dog guardianship could look like. It meant expanding my knowledge in lots of different areas of training and behavior, some that resulted in some uncomfortable reckonings with things I thought I “knew” before. It meant taking a more holistic approach to examining why our dogs behave the way that they do and what ethical approaches to changing that behavior might look like. It meant learning a heck of a lot more about the value of management, enrichment, physical wellness, and how all of those are entwined in good training plans.

This is part of the reason why I am so passionate about positive reinforcement and force-free training now – I have literally been on the other side and I know how much my world opened up after making this shift! I now have so many more skills and techniques to choose from during training and I continue to gain more knowledge every day. I’m comfortable not only using the methods I use but sharing them and talking about them with others. And the cherry on top is that I not only get training that feels good, but it’s incredibly effective too!

Molly on a hike last year, after I had fully transitioned to using positive reinforcement and force-free methods.

Transitioning to positive reinforcement meant I was able to give myself permission to think differently about the relationship I have with my dogs and to be more aware of and compassionate about their needs and wants. But because I came from the balanced training world, I also experience compassion and empathy for dog guardians who are doing their best with the knowledge they have. So with all that in mind, this is what force-free training means to me:

  • Meeting our learners with compassion and curiosity instead of judgement or frustration. This applies to both dogs and humans!
  • Never intentionally using pain, discomfort, fear, or force to influence a dog’s behavior. Dogs will experience plenty of aversive things as they go through life (often outside of our control), but there is no need to add to that through our training approach.
  • Relying on management, enrichment, medical intervention (when appropriate), and positive reinforcement to change behavior. This requires lots of curiosity and often some creativity!
  • Understanding that not every behavior needs to be changed! As one of my trainer colleagues Liza says , “if it’s not a problem, it’s not a problem”.
  • Always considering every dog as an individual, with a unique history and their own individual needs, wants, preferences, comfort levels.
  • Empowering dogs with the ability to make safe choices and to control the outcomes of situations where it is safe and appropriate to do so.
  • Empowering humans with knowledge and skills to help them feel comfortable and confident with their dog, not just during training practice but throughout life.

I’d love to hear what thoughts this topic brings up! What does force-free mean for you? Are you interested in learning more about how force-free training can help your dog? Contact me to set up your customized consultation!

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