The True Meaning of Force-free

Force-free methods have their basis in science and compassion and do NOT involve any force, fear, pain, intimidation or discomfort nor do they have anything to do with dominance theory or being the ‘pack leader’ or ‘Alpha’.

As an Animal Behaviourist who is passionate about promoting force-free animal training and behaviour modification, my focus is to educate people about how to strengthen their bond with their animals and communicate with them kindly and effectively.

The term ‘force-free’ is often misunderstood. There will always be an element of force in our relationship with our companion animals because we need to keep them safe. Putting a lead on a dog could be considered force or taking a cat to the vet's but these are essential for animal welfare reasons. The true meaning of force-free is to not use force in our methods when we are teaching animals something new or trying to resolve a behaviour problem.

Instead of offering a quick-fix that only suppresses an unwanted behaviour temporarily or only in a particular set of circumstances, a force-free professional will carry out a holistic assessment and begin with the root cause or causes of a problem, starting with the animal’s background, living environment, relationship with people in the household and the particular needs of the animal in relation to its species and as an individual.

They will then offer you support and guidance, show you force-free techniques to resolve the issue and provide you with a written plan that is easy to understand. There are no guarantees when working with animals so if someone promises you they can fix the behaviour problem in one session, a little caution may be required. A true professional will always be honest and open about the results which are likely to be achieved.

Choosing a Trainer or Behaviourist

When choosing a trainer or behaviourist for our cats and dogs, we need to be very careful. 

The animal behaviour and training industry is unregulated in the UK and although there are organisations working towards changing this, change is all too slow.

There are many people out there who offer their services as a trainer or behaviourist who are unqualified and often use methods that are ‘dominance based’ or ‘balanced’. 

A ‘balanced’ trainer means that they are prepared to use all kinds of methods, including punishment and aversive techniques, such as a choke chain on a dog or giving it ‘corrections’ but they might also use positive reinforcement. 

Some so-called trainers and behaviourists are not upfront about the way in which they treat animals so thorough research is required on the part of a potential client. It is your right to know exactly who you are entrusting with your animal’s well-being and safety.

The following questions should be asked:

• What are your qualifications?

• Are you insured to carry out training/behaviour work with animals?

• Which organisations are you a member of?

• If they are not a member of an organisation, why not?

• Do you carry out Continuing Professional Development (CPD) to keep up to date with the latest modern methods?

• Ask them for paperwork and certificates to prove the above;

• Which training and behaviour modification methods do you use?

• Would you ever punish an animal for doing something ‘wrong’?

• Do you use force, fear, pain, discomfort or intimidation with animals?

• Which training tools do you use? If they say anything of these, do not hire them - choke chains, prong/pinch collars, slip leads, electric shock collars, face harnesses, restrictive body harnesses, rattle cans, spray bottles, air horns, giving dogs ‘corrections’ on the lead, scruffing cats, shouting at animals, being ‘firm’, jabbing, poking, tapping or glaring, using bodily force, pinning a dog or cat down, ‘flooding’ techniques that involve over-exposure to what they are afraid of or aggressive towards or anything else that sounds unpleasant or harsh;

• If any of the answers to the above three questions are ‘Yes’ then you should move on and not engage the services of that person and NEVER leave your animal alone with them;

• Also avoid anyone who wants to take your animal away and train them for you. They will probably come back as a nervous wreck;

• The answers you ARE looking for are that the person is ‘force-free’, ‘reward-based’ and uses ‘positive reinforcement’;

• ‘Negative punishment’ may be mentioned but this kind of punishment means that something is taken away that the animal wants until it displays the desired behaviour, such as attention being taken away from a dog when it jumps up. Redirection and teaching an alternative behaviour is better but negative punishment is not necessarily ‘bad’;

• I would recommend visiting one of their classes and meeting them in advance to get a feel for their energy and personality before hiring them. You can also ask them any further questions during this time. If they bamboozle you with training-speak or tell you things like 'your dogs pull on the lead because they perceive you as being weak', you really don’t want to get involved with them!

Members of the following organisations are a good place to start but a thorough check should be carried out on each individual to find out which methods they use:

• International Companion Animal Network (ICAN)

• The Pet Professional Guild (British Isles)

• The Association of INTO Dogs

• The Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC) (scroll down to Register of Practitioners on the right and search under each heading)

• UK Association of Pet Dog Trainers (also see their ‘Choosing a Trainer’ page)

Please also see the following links about force-free methods:

I offer force-free cat behaviour consultations within 20 miles of Swadlincote and remotely for less complex cases. 

I can also help people to find a force-free dog behaviour professional in their local area and have access to a wealth of force-free canine resources.

I also provide cat sitting services in the Swadlincote area and animal communication and Reiki in-person and remotely.

Please also see my Facebook page for educational and entertainment purposes and my books, which may provide you with a few of the answers and guidance you are looking for.

The more people who learn about the force-free way, the better! Thank you for visiting this page. I wish you and your animals all the best.