Sally's Blog

My thoughts on animal behaviour, communication and healing

We're Only Human, After All - Force-free Training and the Word 'No'

17 Jan 2019

As a force-free animal behaviourist who is against using positive punishment and aversives, there is something that I have to admit that I still can’t help but do – I still find myself using the word ‘No’. It just slips out when I need to ask animals not to do certain things, as if they understand. Strangely enough, this seems to work within certain contexts, even though such methods would be considered disciplinary by some.


I’m not talking about scolding animals here. The way that I say ‘No’ is cordial and pleasant but still has a firm undertone and in many cases, does not work unless I know the animal very well and we have a good, trusting relationship. Is a simple ‘No’ between friends such a bad thing if it’s for all the right reasons? This is a compelling question as it leads to a more complex one; how do we discern what is truly force-free? Can the word ‘No’ be construed as the equivalent of ‘sit’, ‘stay’ or ‘high five’ if an animal is willing to act upon it accordingly?


For example, one of the dogs I give Reiki to has a small sore on one of her front legs that is almost healed. Occasionally, during our Reiki sessions, she will sometimes start to lick at the sore. I gently place my fingers between her tongue and the sore spot and quietly say ‘No, don’t lick it’. She then usually stops licking it and puts her head back down to rest on her paws.


In another example, our cat, Monty still has moments when he lies down with his claws in the bottom step of the stairs, as if he is going to scratch it. He used to do this all the time when we had our old carpet but as soon as we got new carpet, we bought him a horizontal scratcher, which he loves, which saved our new carpet from being shredded. He chooses the scratcher over the carpet 99.9% of the time.


On the occasions that he has a mad, crazy-eyed moment and dashes over to the bottom step with claws prepared for a full-on carpet attack, he looks up at me just before he intends to commence his assault and pauses. With our gazes locked, I say to him ‘No, we don’t do that anymore, do we?’ Disappointed, he releases the carpet from his grasp and can be tempted away with a toy or will voluntarily move on to ‘attack’ his cardboard scratcher, which results in a ‘Good boy!’ from me.


Another of our mutual understandings is a ‘No, it’s not dinner time yet’ when he is in the kitchen begging for food just because he can. After saying this line, I no longer glance in his direction and continue with whatever I’m doing. After a couple more minutes, Monty will go and find something less boring to do. I can’t see anything aversive going on here and, hopefully neither can Monty.


What concerns me here is that what I preach to others and what I do naturally myself makes me a hypocrite. Here’s me telling people not to use the word ‘No’ or physically intervene because the animal will learn that their behaviour gets their human’s attention, whether good or bad, yet I still do these things myself, albeit in a calm and ‘non-punishing’ way.


The point I am trying to make is that as force-free trainers and behaviourists and, of course, people who share our lives with our animals, where do we draw the force-free line? When does our communication with animals begin to blur into the realms of being considered being distinctly un-force-free?


The ethics behind force-free are no fear, no pain, no force. Most of this is obvious to caring animal lovers but for those working within this industry, closely examining our own behaviour and relationship with animals is something that will help us to understand the behaviour of our human clients. Their natural inclinations when communicating with animals may mean that their force-free line is drawn somewhere far further along the continuum than our own. They may not see anything wrong with shouting at their animal companions, tapping them on the nose or putting them in another room for a ‘time out’. These may seem reasonable actions to them, but to me, they make my blood boil!


All too often I see comments and posts on social media and television shows that advocate old fashioned training methods rooted in incorrect and misguided information based in ‘dominance’ and ‘alpha’ theory. As disheartening and infuriating as this is, I have to remember that not everyone thinks and feels about animals the way that I do. When I would like Monty to do something, I ‘ask’ him in a way that he seems to understand. This results in a combination of body language, eye contact, facial expressions, words and actions, all designed to make what I am asking him to do as ‘force-free’ as possible. I make an effort to be consciously aware of how my behaviour could be affecting him; and, yes, on the odd occasion, there might even be a ‘No’, meant with the best of intentions.


So where does this leave me and my prospective clients and receivers of my advice? It leaves me in the position of realising that I am only human, just like everyone else. When I began my studies into animal behaviour and doing things the ‘right’ force-free way, I would get on my high horse and dish out disapproval to those who would dare to disagree with what I was saying. This is all part of life’s learning curve and realising that none of us are perfect and also that, when it comes to our animals and us, each and every human-animal relationship is unique.


Does Monty cower in fear when I ask him not to scratch the bottom step of the stairs? No. He just gets on with his day, albeit with an unsatiated desire to tear into the carpet with his claws. Does my canine Reiki client feel threatened when I subtly prevent access to her sore spot with the digits of my hand? No. She stops what she is doing and relaxes again. We have a mutual understanding that my actions are for the greater good and mean no harm. We trust one another.


There are more instances in which I say ‘No’ to the animals that I look after, especially when the dogs in my care try to eat nasty things off the street. It is a reflex action that simply happens when we know that there is something that we would like to prevent. There isn’t much thought involved. If a gentle and straightforward ‘No’ works every time, why wouldn’t we use it? Sometimes, communicating with animals just flows and we understand each other fully.


If a quick look and a ‘No’ stops a dog eating a piece of abandoned chocolate then sooner that than a sick dog. It all depends on the context and what the animal already understands. As a carer for other people’s animals, it’s often difficult to know the best method for preventing them doing certain things as they may have not received training for the ‘leave it’ command, for example. I need to find the kindest ways to keep them safe.


It is all a matter of degree and how the energy flows between us and our animals. I wouldn’t recommend ‘No’ as a training tool and I certainly wouldn’t recommend that we say it in a harsh or raised voice. A ‘No’ can often be futile or could make a situation worse if it gives an animal the attention they desire to keep repeating the unwanted behaviour. If saying ‘No’ gets you ‘No-where’ then better methods are required. If the situation is more serious than a cat’s misplaced claws or a casual lick at a wound, saying ‘No’ is like trying to catch the breeze in a jar – it is pointless and is only helping the human in the equation to feel like they are ‘doing something’ to remedy the situation, no matter how many times they have to say it.


In situations such as a cat toileting outside the litter box, a dog constantly pulling on a lead, jumping up or an animal playing too aggressively, a ‘No’ just won’t cut it. Ramping up the ‘No’ to a shout, reaching for the spray bottle or giving the lead a good tug will not help either and could make matters worse. This is where the force-free training and behaviour modification can be the most successful option.


Us humans need to train ourselves to be consciously aware of our behaviour around animals and the relationship that we share. They are intelligent, attentive and often one step ahead. When our relationship is so good that we reach a point where our communication is so effective and reliable, as much as a quick facial expression or slight change in body language can be effective in asking an animal to do or not do something, providing they haven’t learned this through fear.


This is another reason why I work holistically, examining every detail of every case from the physical to the intuitive. I do not train animals, I train humans how to better relate to their animals. I also cut them some slack when they are getting things ‘wrong’ or have been following bad advice. It hasn’t been so long since I used to watch television shows that promoted less than desirable, outdated methods and it didn’t even cross my mind that they were unpleasant or scary for the animals involved at that time.


I am at the point in my learning curve where I am working out how I can change human behaviour, thought patterns and beliefs for the betterment of non-human animals. The word ‘No’ is a rare thing to slip out from my lips when I spend time with animals but it does happen. The force-free way is the best way for everyone but admonishing those who don’t always relate to animals in this way will only be met with resistance. Teaching and informing others who are willing to listen without confrontation is essential, as is backing this up with firm evidence and not presenting an empty argument which could fall on deaf ears. Learning to bite my tongue and not be triggered by those looking for an argument has become an acquired skill.


Until I remember that I’m human too, nobody is going to learn anything. I’ll try to encourage myself and others to turn more of those ‘No’s into a ‘Yes’ in future but I’m afraid that Monty still won’t be getting his dinner two hours early just because we both happen to be in the kitchen!


By Sally Chamberlain,

IAABC Associate Certified Cat Behaviour Consultant

ICAN Certified Animal Behaviourist

Reiki Master Teacher


Author of:

‘Power Of The Purr’

‘Weird Is Wonderful’ and

‘Being Kind To Dogs’