Is force-free training a misnomer?

Nicole S. Silvers

An astute reader of my recent blog article, Beyond the Click, noted that I alluded to the idea that all training incorporates an element of force.  I'm not sure every learning interaction does, but many do.

What is force?

Force is the denial of access.  Force is the opposite of persuasion, free choice.  Confining, restraining, even insisting that the animal work for its daily ration of food are all acts of force.  Intentional breedings could even be considered forceful, since the animal is typically denied free choice of alternative pairings.  The leash, the muzzle, even the collar, the crate, the fence are all force tools.  For some people, physical guiding is an unacceptable level of compulsion.  

Will owners who recognize how much force they are actually using to elicit correct responses have an easier time transitioning to less force, and ultimately to off-leash cooperation?

Could the term "force-free" to mean using reward-only or primarily-reward training be misleading owners into mistakes that are then mistakenly blamed on the use of reward?  Owners seem to have a tendency to give too much free choice too soon.  Is this because they do not realize how much force they are using? 

What must be forced?

For me, protecting the dog and others in situations of legitimate danger is a no-brainer.  I will not "wait out" an off-leash dog's dash into the street or attack on another dog.  I will use a leash or muzzle to prevent it, and if I have to intervene, I will shamelessly grab whatever I have to. 

What cannot be forced?

Social interaction can only be forced so far.  Play is a skill that, wonderfully, cannot be forced from either side.  Good luck trying!  "Liking" (people, other dogs, experiences) cannot be forced, but, interestingly, avoidance and aggression can be.

Do you think it is coincidental that social issues pose some of the biggest challenges to owners?

Where is the line?

What do you think is the line between acceptable and unacceptable use of force?  What do you recognize as the difference between compulsion and violence? What forceful training practices are you using now, and how are you transitioning to greater free choice?