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!

The Ultimate Guide to Planning a Dog Friendly Vacation

I recently had the chance to collaborate on a blog with Liz from High Tail Hikes and we took the opportunity to put together a guide for dog-friendly vacation and travel!

If you are planning a day trip or a multi-day adventure with your pup we have lots of tips and info for you. We cover preparing for your tip (including a packing list), how to find dog-friendly lodging, what pre-travel training might come in handy, and a variety of tips and tricks for enjoying a fun and stress-free vacation with your dog. You can check out the guide over on the High Tail Hikes blog here!

Liz and I also did a fun and informative Instagram Live together where we chatted about all things travel with dogs, which you can watch here.

And did you know that there is a lot we can do during training to prepare for a dog friendly vacation! Whether it’s building your pup’s confidence in new places, getting them comfortable in a pet carrier, or preparing for hotel or camping stays, Rover Rehab can help you feel ready for vacay. Book your consultation today or send us a message to see how we can best prepare you and your pup for adventures together!

Four Tips for Easier Vet Visits

Did you know that dogs experiencing stress during vet visits is one of the most common behavior issues we see? Dogs who are nervous, anxious, or overly excited at the vet is something I see frequently, so if this is your dog then you aren’t alone.

Vet visits can be stressful for our dogs and for us – but it doesn’t have to be that way! Here are four of my favorite tips for easier vet visits:

1 – Always bring treats. Bring lots of small, soft, and stinky treats to give throughout the entire appointment. Don’t wait for your dog to look nervous to offer them treats. Instead, give treats throughout the visit to help build positive associations. Offer treats when you arrive at the clinic, as you pass by people or other dogs, while you talk to veterinary staff, and throughout your dog’s exam.

2 – Communication is key. Let your vet know if your dog is nervous, shy, or excitable, and how they prefer to be greeted. Sharing this information ahead of your appointment means your vet can better prepare for safe and comfortable interactions with your dog. I like to bring written notes or call ahead with information so that my vet and I are on the same page about my dog’s needs.

3 – Happy visits! Schedule a few non-exam visits where your dog can explore the clinic, eat treats, and get comfortable. Happy Visits are short (5-15 minutes) and are a great chance for our dogs to get acclimated to the clinic without the pressure of an exam or procedures. Ask your vet about scheduling a time when the clinic is less busy so that your dog can sniff out treats near the scale, practice some of their favorite tricks or just see the exam room without needing to interact with vet staff if they aren’t ready.

4 – Advocate for your dog! Learn your dog’s needs and stress signals and communicate those to vet staff. Be your dog’s voice! The more we can advocate for our dogs, the more we can help them feel comfortable in settings like the vet clinic.

These are a few tips to get started, but there is a lot more that can go into creating lower-stress vet visits. That’s why I created the Practical Skills for Vet Visits course – to give you practical, actionable skills and knowledge that you can start implementing right away to reduce stress at the vet! You’ll learn about how to recognize signs and stress and what to do when you see them, tips for preparing for vet visits and communicating with your veterinarian, and how to teach your dog to feel more comfortable in the veterinary setting. Plus you get the added bonus of live support during weekly Office Hours with me, a Fear-Free Certified Trainer.

And if you aren’t sure if you’re ready for the Practical Skills course you can begin with the Lower Stress Vet Visits Mini Course. This mini course gives you an introduction to dog emotions and body language, tips for preparing for vet visits, and management and safety techniques to get you started.

Vet visits don’t need to be stressful – training can help!

“Spring Cleaning” Your Dog Training

Spring is here and for many of us that signals the start of fun spring and summer activities. More time outside in the yard or on walks, more time going on adventures with our dogs, more picnics and backyard hangouts with friends and family and our dogs. More of these activities often results in adding more training items to our to-do list. Maybe you realize you want to spend some time working on leash walking skills or helping your dog relax on your patio. Or perhaps you encounter a behavior issue that requires attention. But how do we decide what to tackle first when there are multiple things we could be working on?

Here is how I like to think about “spring cleaning” my training to-do list to prioritize what is most valuable:

1 – Safety and Welfare Come First

Safety and welfare must always come first. If there are training and management tasks that increase safety or promote welfare then those will always take the top spot on our priorities list. This means safety not only for our own dogs but for other pets and for people too. We want our dogs and others to remain safe as well as feel safe as often as possible – emotional safety matters too!

Prioritizing safety could look like setting your dog up in a quiet room with a special chew when you have company over. It can look like finding quiet spaces to walk away from others where your dog can sniff to their heart’s content. It could also mean acclimating your dog to a basket muzzle or other equipment that helps keep them and others safe. Safety always come first!

2 – Impact on Daily Life

What items on your list most impact your daily life? What items could reduce stress for you and your dog if you tackled them sooner rather than later? These will be different for everyone! Look at the items on your training to-do list and pull out the ones that you think will have the most impact on your day-to-day life and stress levels. This could be housetraining for a new puppy, centering enrichment and decompression for a nervous or anxious dog, or focusing on leash walking skills if you don’t have access to a fenced yard. What you choose will depend on you, your dog, and your life together!

3 – Include Fun Stuff Too!

Okay, so real talk – training can be hard, especially when we’re working through emotionally taxing behavior issues or doing a lot of troubleshooting or new learning. So make sure to include some fun training tasks too! Teach your dog a fun new trick, incorporate small moments of training into a play session, or just spend time being silly with your dog. Adding some fun helps make big training tasks feel less daunting.

Remember, you don’t need to train all the things all the time. If your spring training list is feeling overwhelming don’t be afraid to take a step back and prioritize just a few items. What are the things you need to focus on right now? What can you put on your “for later” or “manage for now” list? Choose a few things to focus on – the rest can come later.

New Year, New Training Goals

The start of a new year is often a time where we are making resolutions – to change our eating habits, organize an area of our home, learn a new skill, read more books – there are so many options! So how does this relate to dog training goals?

At the beginning of January, I had a short list of training-related goals for the start of the year:

  • Start work on a new trick title with Molly since she’s had fun with that in the past
  • Work on cooperative care with Buck, focusing on paw handling and nail trims
  • Record demo videos with Molly for an upcoming on-demand course
  • Find more quiet hiking spots and get out for adventures with the dogs at least once a week

And then some things happened…

… Molly tore her CCL and her mobility is limited for the time being. Then Buck had a touch of pneumonia followed by needing minor surgery to remove some lumps and bumps. We also found out that we’re moving in a few months, which prompted needing some work done on our house. And changes in work and school schedules plus pet needs meant a lot of our household schedules and routines were significantly altered. There were a lot of changes, SO, I had to pivot!

It can be stressful to need to change our goals, especially when the change comes about unexpectedly or is due to factors outside of our control. This is true for any training and life situation with our dogs. Perhaps we wanted to up our loose leash walking practice around distractions and then bad weather means that our walking spots are limited. Maybe you wanted to get out for adventures with your dog but changes in health (either yours or your dog’s) take that off the agenda for a while. Or perhaps you move to a new place, or normal life routines are disrupted, or an injury derails training – it’s tough!

When I was thinking about how I needed to change my own goals, it was a bit hard to let go of the original ideas I had. There might be some grief associated with changing goals, and that’s normal. So I tried to think about how I could make adjustments that worked within current limitations while still considering overall long-term goals. After pivoting my planning this is what I came up with:

  • Instead of trick training with Molly, we’re working on activities that don’t require a lot of full-body movement. We’ll be proofing old cues and teaching a few new ones that are fairly stationary, like chin rests, holding items on cue, and comfort with handling different body parts. I’m also focusing on enrichment options that don’t involve much walking or running (snuffle mats, food puzzles, simple training games).
  • I’ll still be working on cooperative care with Buck but am also dedicating “steam room” time in our guest bathroom to help loosen any residual phlegm in his chest and adding some simple fitness exercises to keep him as healthy as possible as he ages.
  • Since Molly can’t physically do all of the demos I had planned, I’m tagging in Buck and a few other helper dogs for my demo videos. Molly loves engaging in training time so I was a bit sad to put her on the sidelines for this, but I think that using multiple dogs for demos will actually be more helpful in the long run (silver lining?).
  • Buck needs to build up his fitness and Molly needs to recover from her injury, so hiking plans will be put on hold for the moment. And that’s okay! The new goal is to find hiking spots after we get through our move, which will also give time for fitness and healing.

Although the new goals are a bit different than the original ones I had planned I think they still manage to accomplish similar things. Pivoting also allowed me to better focus on the emotional and physical wellness of my dogs, getting creative with making educational goals happen, and giving myself permission to put some things on hold until a better time.

So, what goals do you have for your training this year? Are there any that you need to pivot on? If you need support while developing or changing your goals I’d love to hear about what you’re going through!