Is there such a thing as Force Free training?

For a while there was a surge in the term ‘Force Free’.  It was everywhere you looked.  Since then there has been quite an assault on the term with many jumping on the bandwagon of,  ‘there’s no such thing as force free’.  I witnessed this mainly from aversive type trainers. (Aversive trainers are those who choose to use things the dog doesn’t like;  the dog complies to escape or avoid the aversive).  Increasingly though, I see and hear highly respected, positive dog trainers and behaviourists also ditching the term and stating that there is no such thing as force free.

I say there absolutely is such a thing and we shouldn’t be too quick to ditch the term.

Aversive (or force) based trainers often passionately believe in their methods.  They believe they are right.  If they believe they are right, it stands to reason that they believe force free trainers to be wrong.  They increasingly come under attack for their methods; science and shifting ethics don’t seem to be on their side.  It should not be surprising, therefore, when many of them attempt to discredit the force free movement.  It seems quite silly that of all the arguments they could choose, the one I most often see is that force free trainers must be jerks (some are more polite, some much ruder) because there is no such thing as force free; it simply doesn’t exist, they say.   Their ‘proof’ that it doesn’t exist is that to use a lead (leash) is to use force, to shut the front door is to use force, and I even hear that to use food is in some way using force (because the dog has to train to eat).

What a load of utter BULLPOOP!  (I can think of no better word)


To be a force free trainer means that you don’t use fear, intimidation, pain or discomfort. It means that you don’t FORCE the dog to comply.

Shutting your front door is not forced training; it is management, it is health and safety, it is protecting the dog from harm and allowing them to feel safe.

Using a lead and collar is not forced training;  It is management, health and safety, and responsible dog ownership.  UK law also makes it an offence to have a dog in a public place without a collar and ID tag. They must also be on a lead whilst on (and beside) the highway.

Using food is not forced training;  It is allowing behaviour to be positively reinforced with a primary reinforcer, making the behaviour more likely to occur in the future.  Every animal on earth evolved due to their ancestors ability to work for food.  In nature, food rarely comes along and jumps in to your mouth to experience the thrill of sliding down the oesophagus.  It’s far from force; it is in fact allowing the dog to perform genetic behaviour instincts (seeking food) and gain life enrichment.

Would it be considered ‘force’ to hold a child’s hand at the roadside?  or to keep them safely indoors at night? to take them to school?  to feed them at particular times?  of course not; it is beyond ridiculous.

Are the arguments against force free training so weak that they must argue semantics and suggest that because a dog is not free to run into the road (because you are a responsible owner),  you are using force. It’s nonsensical.

We now have other descriptions rising in popularity such as LIMA (least intrusive minimally aversive).  I will not be using them because such titles are not instantly understood, they are not so user friendly. Technically, they may be a more accurate description but it’s technical jargon and alien to most pet owners.

I’m going to stick with Force Free.  I will not be pandering to those who (for their own interests) want to misappropriate the words.  They are the words I fell in love with, they are the words that mean something to me and many others.

So, is there such a thing as force free training?  Hell yes

A Dog’s Life (the stages)

There have been many different life stages identified regarding a dog’s development and ageing process.

Prenatal 0-63 days: From the moment of conception it takes just 63 days for the mother to give birth to a newborn puppy.

Neonatal 0 – 2 weeks:  The Pup’s eyes and ear canals are closed but he’s able to smell, taste and vocalise a stress response. He is highly vulnerable as he can’t yet regulate body temperature. He will sleep for around 90 percent of the time.  Gentle daily handling is thought to improve the dog’s emotional development and improve future trainability

Transitional 2-4 weeks: Eyes open, he can hear and regulate temperature.  Brain activity increases. He develops the startle response and can defecate without anogenital stimulation (licking by the mother).  He can stand and walk (although somewhat wobbly). Environmental stimulation is crucial to normal brain development.  There is a huge risk here for puppy farmed pups not getting the essential stimulation needed and this may affect their entire life.


Primary Socialisation: 4-6 weeks: Develops social awareness, explores his environment and develops bite inhibition (there may be problems developing these if he’s an only child).  Pups removed from the litter too early are prone to developing separation anxiety, aggression and fearfulness.

Secondary Socialisation 4-12 weeks: The most influential period in a dog’s life.  The perfect time for careful socialisation and habituation. If he hasn’t experienced it (without stress) in this time period it may take longer for him to be at ease with it later on.

First Fear Response 5 -12 weeks: There is a risk of the puppy becoming increasingly fearful of new experiences.  If he gets scared at this age there may be a long-lasting effect. His future ability to be at ease with the world is hugely influenced by good experiences at this age.

Seniority 12 – 16 weeks: Loses those really, really sharp baby teeth and gets his adult teeth. May gain confidence and independence.

Flight Instinct 16 weeks – 8 months: This is the period where he will likely stop sticking to you like glue, will wander further from you and may start to lose that great recall you thought you had.

Adolescence 5 – 14 months: Hits puberty and starts to scent mark or begin oestrus cycle. Gains muscle strength and skill.  The brain is fully functioning but he may lack the ability to concentrate.

Second Fear Response 5 – 14 months: Risk of regressing into fearfulness

Adulthood begins 2 – 4 years: Matures and continues social learning.  May become more socially competitive. Females generally mature earlier than males and small dogs generally earlier than large.

Geriatric, from 7 years:  Begins to slow down and show signs of ageing.  May require less exercise, gain weight and have declining hearing and eyesight.  Risk of arthritic and cognitive problems.

As the dog ages, he should not be seen as an inconvenience.  He is not only our dog when he is young. He is our dog (and friend) for life and it should be our privilege to provide a little extra care in his twilight years.

These stages are not set in stone; they are intended as a general guide. Just as children grow up with different personalities and abilities, so it is with dogs.







Turn the clock back just 40 or 50 years and life for pet dogs looked very different.  They often came and went as they pleased, wandering the neighbourhood and meeting up with other local dogs.  Thinking back to my own childhood, I don’t remember anybody in my street who used to take their dog for a walk. The dogs took themselves for a walk and they were far more streetwise for the experience.  They didn’t have a meltdown at the sight of another dog, they understood canine body language and behaviour problems were virtually unheard of.


Times have changed.  Now dogs are kept safely indoors and the lucky ones might get to go for a walk with their human each day.  But what do they do for the rest of their time? How do they fill the activity void? Where do they get their mental stimulation?  Look at the work ethic of some of the working breeds such as the Border Collie or Springer Spaniel.  Is it really likely that our pet dogs are so far removed from the working lines that they are happy to do absolutely nothing with their life.


Modern zoos are expected to offer enrichment activities for their captive animals. This goes some way toward improving their lives and replacing activities they might do in the wild, such as foraging for food.  Its purpose is to maintain physical and mental health.  It helps prevent boredom and behavioural problems which often stem from a lack of mental stimulation.   This is of course the very least we can do for animals kept in captivity.

But, don’t our pet dogs deserve the same?  Don’t they deserve to use their brain? Don’t we owe it to them to fulfil their needs? Dogs were born to sniff, they absolutely love it,  they want it, they crave it, they need it.  Yet what do people do when their dog stops to sniff? they pull them away.  This is virtually denying them their right to be a dog. It is denying them their needs.

Every animal on the planet evolved to work for their food.  You could almost say that it’s the very meaning of life. Obtain enough food to stay alive, without it, little else matters (because you will die).  Now, of course, dogs are unique in this world in that they have evolved to be totally dependent on us to provide for them.  But dogs are not rugs; they still have the most amazingly complex brains which like all brains, requires stimulation to make it work properly.  But owners often just plonk the food down in a bowl. 30 seconds of something to do and then… nothing.

Instead of feeding from a bowl, use that food to get their mind working. You can hide it and play find, you can wrap it in a towel, you can use it for training, you can take it on your walk, you can use any one of hundreds of interactive food toys and puzzles, you can scatter it across the floor, you can make a food trail, stuff it in a Kong and let them eat when you eat or put it in your empty food boxes and let the dog rip it open. For a million and one other enrichment ideas visit my Facebook group, Canine Enrichment

K9 with sig

On walks, stop and let them sniff, enjoy letting them sniff, you can almost see their brain cogs turning.  Break the habit of just walking around the local field; take them to the woods, the rivers and through the mud.  Meet up with other friendly dogs, let them run and play and be dogs.

So, why do dogs need enrichment? Because they don’t just deserve a life, they deserve a life worth living.

Find It – A Beautifully Enriching Scent Game to Play with Dogs

I can think of no better way of getting our dogs using their brain and body in perfect harmony than to employ what dogs love, need and crave; scent.

This is a quite simple yet highly enriching game.

You need some catnip (you don’t actually as there are all sorts of things you could use instead but I’m using catnip as it has a nice strong smell). It’s a natural product and mine came from the Amazon (they do next day delivery).


Next you need a mouse (or something that’s not a mouse)


This is a little cat-toy which was already scented with catnip but its best to have your own supply to keep it smelling strongly.

Take some catnip, place it in a container and cover with kitchen roll, place the mouse (or not a mouse) on top and shut the lid.  The following day the mouse will have a nice strong smell of catnip.  You can keep the mouse in the container from now on and each time you want to play ‘Find It’ everything will be ready.

Step 1: Using the mouse, play fetch with your dog, throwing the mouse just a short distance (I am assuming your dog can already ‘fetch’, if not you will need to work on this beforehand).  If the dog is reliably fetching the item back, you can tell him to ‘Find It’ whenever you throw the mouse.  This will become the dogs signal to go and look for the item later in the process.

Step 2: Place the mouse instead of throwing it, and encourage Fido to ‘Find It’  (it helps if you have a good wait behaviour but it’s not crucial). Give a great reward for fetching it (this could be a favourite piece of food or it could be a game).

Step 3: Start putting the mouse just out of sight but allow him to see where you put it (maybe in a box).

Step 4: Place it in easy to find places but without him seeing where you put it

Step 5: Increase the difficulty by placing the item in more challenging places around the house or garden and telling him to ‘Find it’  If he has seen you get the mouse container he will certainly know that the game is on so will not be too dependent on the ‘Find It’ signal. It is nice to have the signal (cue) if you advance to hiding the mouse without his knowledge.S0067601S0057600This 1

this 2

If you are concerned that your dog might swallow a small item such as the mouse than a bigger item should be used.  You could also start with a larger item to make it easier in the beginning stages and then switch to a smaller item later (if you wish).

An alternative might be a small teddy bear. This is a Kong bear. It has rope inside rather than stuffing so is reasonably hardy


You must ensure that the dog can reliably complete each step before moving to the next. If he is not then you should go back a step. You shouldn’t rush through the steps, take your time and enjoy.

Watch the videos for how the game should look

Using a larger item

Finding the mouse

Advancing it a little

Now go and play ‘Find It’ with your dog. Have fun.