A Few Bad Apples: Assumptions about the "Punishment of Positive-Only" | The Collared Scholar


June 13, 2016Meagan Karnes11 CommentsGeneral Training

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. 

THIS 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.

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

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.

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.

Chelsey Montgomery