How to Identify No-Force Trainers

(Originally posted September 23, 2015)

As I had discussed in a previous Training Thought “History of a Trainer” (November 16, 2014), my own understanding and journey as a dog trainer has evolved over the past 30+ years, and I have made my share of mistakes of registering for classes that involved force techniques. These mistakes either cost me in the relationship with my dog (and his/her well-being), or financially cost me the cost of the class that I refused to take beyond the first class.
What I would like to do here is to provide you with some information on the hazards of using choke collars (prong collars are often lumped in with choke, but as choke / check / Woodhouse / slip collars are still prominently used locally, I’m going to focus on these), and how to identify clubs/trainers who use them so you may avoid making the same financial, relational, and training mistakes I had made years ago.

**Why are choke/check/Woodhouse/slip/chain collars bad?**

The collar of many names (depending on what school of thought/country you reside) has been researched and has been linked to many behavioral, physical and wellness problems. In particular, the use of choke collars are associated with:
– Soft tissue injuries (including abrasion and bruising)
– Crushed trachea
– Damage to larynx
– Fractured vertebrae
– Eye injuries/complications: the use of the choke collar is link to a marked increase in intraocular pressure (eye pressure). This increases multiple eye-health issues (e.g., glaucoma, thinned retinal edges; e.g., Pauli, Bentley, Diehl & Miller, 2006).
– Thyroid Gland damage: the thyroid gland is located near the jaw line in the neck and has been found to be damaged by choke collars. Damaged or inflamed thyroid glands lead to the following conditions:

  • Hypothyroidism
  • Decreased energy
  • Increased weight
  • Skin problems
  • Hair loss
  • Ear infections
  • Organ failure

– Neurological damage, including:

  • Ear and eye twitching
  • Paw licking
  • Foreleg lameness

– Strangulation and death

In addition, the use of force on any collar has also been found to be associated with:
– Dislocated hyoid bone
– 91% of 400 dogs who had neck injuries were exposed to jerking on the leash by the owner, or allowed to pull hard for long periods of time (Hallgren, 1992).

As you can see the list of health problems is quite extensive. Some have argued that the dog’s neck structure is different from humans, thus the risk is different, but it isn’t. Instead the skin on the dog’s neck is actually thinner (3-4 epithelial cells deep) than the humans (~10 epithelial cells deep). The rest is the same or sufficiently the same.

Due to the empirical (and observational) data, associations like the Pet Professional Guild (PPG) and Association of Force Free Dog Training and Pet Care Professionals do NOT support the use of choke or pinch collars.

In addition to the physical ramifications of the use (note: “use,” not “misuse”) of these collars, there are behavioral ramifications of these methods. The use of corrective based training (i.e., the use of positive punishment, which includes the choke collar, prongs, and even the finer nuanced “TSHH!!!” verbal reprimand) have all been shown to increase a dog’s fear and aggression. Let me say this again, it increases – it is not correlated – it is a predictor / causal relation to fear and aggression. Thus trainers who use corrective measures to train an otherwise well-behaved dog, increases the probability that the dog will develop fear or aggression. Secondly, trainers who use corrective measures (aka positive punishment) to address behavioral problems will actually exacerbate the problems. Period.

There is plenty of research available now that highlights the effectiveness of using classical conditioning (positive pairings and functional rewards) and positive reinforcement in training and addressing behavioral issues that there is no need or room for positive punishment training. There is no need or room for the use of choke, prong, shock collars. As Bob Bailey once stated in a closed interview/discussion in a group to which I belong, the outcomes of positive punishment are unpredictable. Good trainers do not want to introduce unpredictability into their training regiments. Focusing on what you DO want, and positively rewarding progressions toward that is far more effective, efficient, and healthier for your dog (mentally and physically) and your relationship.

**So how do you identify trainers who use force techniques?**

The first and easiest thing to do is to look at their website. A quick read/glance through will highlight red flags:
1) Are there any pictures of dogs with choke/pinch/shock collars on the website? If so, do not go to them. They use force techniques and won’t be as effective as trainers for you and your dog.
2) Look at their words?
a. Do they talk about obey and creating a subservient dog (or words to that effect)? These words are usually associated with correction-based training.
b. Do they explicitly state that they disallow the use of choke/pinch/shock collars? These words and policies are compatible with no-force training.
c. Do they use vague terms like “positive training” or “motivational training”? These terms do not guarantee a no-force training approach. Technically, choke collars can be “positive training” as they are “positive punishment”. Similarly, negative reinforcement and positive punishment are also motivating techniques – they motivate the dog to avoid pain.

If no major red flags occur from the website, then ask the trainer if you may observe one of their classes. During the observation, look for (positive) reinforcement rates, and the tools the trainers use with the students. Watch for “give them a little tug/pop on the leash” techniques. Even with a flat-collar, this is a corrective measure, and can also lead to some neck injuries.

In your discussions with the trainer, if they talk about your dog being “too big,” “too stubborn,” “too willful,” or “too soft” then the likelihood is that the trainer uses corrective-based training. For no-force trainers, these characteristics are inconsequential. Dogs are dogs, and all dogs learn using positive reinforcement and classical conditioning.

Also, just because a trainer uses positive reinforcement only for the puppy / introduction courses does not mean that they don’t use positive punishment and/or negative reinforcement in the upper levels. That was something I learned with Baxter in Ontario. So for each offering, be sure to ask about the tools and techniques.

I hope this summary helps! Best of luck finding skilled and no-force trainers to support you and your dog’s relational and training journey!

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