Force-Free Training – What it really means

There’s often some confusion in the gundog community about what force-free training really means. At Scurries, both Jay and Emily teach force-free training methods, so we wanted to explore what exactly we mean when we say this.

Reinforcement vs. punishment

When training any type of animal (or even people), behaviours are either reinforced or punished. When they are reinforced, they are encouraged to happen again and again, whereas if they are punished, they are discouraged from happening again.

This reinforcement or punishment can come from many different places, and the handler is just one of them. For example, chase behaviour can be reinforced by a crafty duck flying low in front of a dog, causing excitement and adrenaline, which the dog wants to feel again. On the other hand, hunting in thick cover, such as brambles, can be punished by the dog feeling pain from the thorns. Neither of these things had anything to do with the handler or trainer, yet both behaviours are being affected.

So we need to understand this and make sure we are careful in our training to avoid anything that we don’t want being reinforced, or anything we do want being punished.

When we train our dogs, we want to be the ones delivering the reinforcement or punishment in a training session. Reinforcement might come in the form of a treat or toy, access to the environment, or an exciting activity that reinforces a behaviour we really want.

Punishment is also important. We cannot control everything at all times, and sometimes a situation will arise where the dog exhibits behaviour that we don’t want. We need to ‘punish’ this in order to stop it from being practiced.

Dealing with unwanted behaviour

It is within this ‘punishment’ that the term ‘force-free’ becomes relevant. We know we will have to punish some behaviours, so we choose to use punishments that are not forceful.

For example, we might take the dog away from something they want by putting them on a lead or into a car, or prevent them from getting what they want with a line. There are lots of ways to do this, and essentially as force-free trainers, we avoid punitive punishment methods such as checking, choke chains, shock collars, scruffing or pushing.

Lots of research has been done by many trainers, behaviourists and scientists over the last decade and it has shown that training with punitive methods is not as effective long term and risks ‘fall out’ where the dog feels stressed and develops different unwanted behaviour to avoid the punishment. This unwanted behaviour might include anything from reduction in drive to avoidance to biting or redirecting fear.

Using positive reinforcement

We also have to balance out our training with lots of reinforcement. A lot of this can come from simply allowing a dog to retrieve something if it stays steady, or allowing them to hunt on if they listen to a stop cue.

However, in order for us to use this ‘environmental reinforcement’ we need the dog to fully understand our cues. This is where we need to use a lot of reinforcement such as treats and toys and praise and fuss to make sure the dog understands us.

If we don’t get these foundations right then they are so much more likely to do something unwanted or not listen when in more tricky situations. If we can avoid this with solid foundations then our need to punish anything should be minimal and force-free methods completely effective.

Force-free training in a nutshell

So, in a nutshell, force-free trainers focus primarily on two things:

1) Teaching solid foundations and ensuring that dogs fully understand a cue

2) Managing a dog’s environment and only gradually building in distractions once we are confident that the dog’s cue is ‘solid’ enough