“You can’t train a lion with force, so why would you do it with a dog?” I see this claim weekly on the Facebook pages of my dog training friends. It’s usually accompanied by a lovely photo or video of a lion, tiger, orca, or elephant calmly engaging in protected-contact husbandry care.
But it’s also a bit of a marketing lie. Sure, many modern zoos have embraced cooperative care and marker training. But circuses certainly trained lions with whips and intimidation. Elephant hooks and chains are regular tools of many mahouts (elephant handlers).
In fact, I’ve actually seen people make the claim that dog owners should use force-free methods because that’s how you train elephants, and then turn around and share a petition about stopping cruel training of elephants around the world. I’m not sure if they don’t make the connection themselves, or if they willfully ignore it. If we’re going to convince our clients to use the most positive and effective methods out there, our marketing arguments need to stand up to a bit more scrutiny than this claim.
Let me be clear: I applaud efforts to help owners better their relationships with their pets using the most kind and effective methods possible. I also applaud good marketing, which means selling yourself and your services. But good marketing and the mission of spreading kinder training around the world does not mean that we should resort to using deceitful marketing tactics—dare I say scare tactics—to get clients to work with us.
My goal here is not to admonish my fellow behavior consultants. We’re all doing the best we can with the same goal: to help more animals. Rather, my goal is to help us all be even better going forward. Making false claims just opens your business to criticism from duped clients and sharp-eyed competition.
As positive reinforcement–based (or LIMA-backed, or force-free, or whatever label you choose to use) trainers, we can’t just go along with these myths. False marketing claims undermine our credibility as trainers. They’re confusing to our clients and younger trainers. Worst of all, they give fodder to internet arguments about dog training methods.
Pushing nice-sounding marketing falsities out into the world opens up our training methodology to criticism from trainers who doubt that you can do excellent training without positive punishment. Even if you were once convinced by these claims, and even if they are compelling words to put on your website, it’s better to stick to claims that can withstand inspection. Let’s aim for marketing that’s strong, not shrill.
Let’s examine some commonly made claims in our industry, what’s wrong with them, and what to say instead.
#1: You can’t use force to train a (insert large, scary animal here), so don’t do it with a dog.
As illustrated in the opening paragraph of this article, this is false. While there aren’t orca-sized e-collars, there are elephant hooks and tiger whips. Horse training is full of bridles and bits that are made to give the owners increased mechanical control via pressure and release. “Laying a horse down” is not uncommon as part of the process of “breaking” a horse. So no, it’s not impossible to train large animals with force.
Instead of making this claim, emphasize what you can do with positive reinforcement. It is absolutely true that you can train an elephant or tiger with positive reinforcement—focus on that. Your marketing is more powerful when you convey the amazing things you can achieve with your service rather than “bringing down the other guy.”
#2: Dogs can’t learn what “no” means
While dogs might not understand the concept of “no” in the exact same nuanced way humans do, it can still be trained as an effective interrupter. Yes, many owners overuse “no” and expect it to fix everything. They may repeat the word ad nauseum without seeing any change in their pet’s behavior.
In a carefully controlled training scenario, you can probably avoid “no.” That’s where the beauty of errorless learning can shine. But I can’t imagine getting through real life without some sort of interrupter or “not what you’re doing right now” cue for a dog.
Making the claim that “no” is useless or mean just feeds people who want to make the “positive is permission” argument. Instead, we can teach our clients that using an interrupt-and-redirect strategy is far more effective than simply chanting “no” at our dogs until they stop behaving altogether.
#3: Science-based training means positive reinforcement only training
Let’s face it: Punishment is scientific. It’s used in science all the time. Yes, the potential fallout of punishment is also well outlined in the scientific literature. (For a great summary of much of that research, check out Coercion and Its Fallout by Murray Sidman.)
But that doesn’t mean that a science-based trainer cannot use punishment. In fact, Kiwi avoidance training using e-collars on dogs was demonstrated to be highly effective in one study: One year after shock collar conditioning, 87% of dogs continued to leave kiwi birds alone (Dale et al., 2013). Another study showed that beagles did not show a significant rise in salivary cortisol levels when shocked for touching a rabbit—but beagles shocked at random or shocked for ignoring a “here” command did show salivary cortisol increases (Schalke et al., 2007).
Do these studies mean that all science-based trainers should be using e-collars for avoidance training? Not necessarily. There’s enough research out there about the fallout of e-collars (especially in the hands of untrained owners) that there should be much more caution surrounding the use of this tool than there is (see Blackwell et al., 2012; Masson et al., 2018; and Cooper et al., 2014 to start with). But pretending that this research doesn’t exist isn’t appropriate either.
Being science-based means you’re willing to acknowledge what you don’t know and to change your opinions based on evidence. If you make the claim of being science-based, make sure that you’re spending time reading the studies that challenge your own beliefs and ethos as well as the studies that support them. Ensure you’re able to point to research and understand its nuances. Own up to it when research that you’re leaning on only has seven dogs in the study! Be honest with clients where there isn’t research to back up what you’re doing.
Has anyone actually run a study on the Engage-Disengage Game versus BAT for reactive dogs? No. Is there actual research to show what sort of socialization efforts have the largest impact on a puppy’s temperament as an adult? No! So be honest with clients when you’re basing your decisions on experience and books versus scientific literature.
#4: Force-free can elicit the exact same results as punishment
Inherently, there’s a difference between suppressing behavior through punishment and redirecting a dog to a different behavior with positive reinforcement and antecedent arrangement. In many cases, that’s great—training an incompatible behavior is often even better than just stopping an unwanted one. But sometimes our clients really just want a behavior to stop. To return to predatory aggression, for example, many people simply want a strong deterrent to keep their dog from harming their cat.
If we help our clients understand that they’ll get something different (and what the advantages of that are), we’re less likely to run into resistance when they just want a behavior to stop. That’s not to say that we can’t stop behavior when using positive reinforcement—but it’s a bit trickier. It’s so easy for people to understand that correcting a dog for unwanted behavior will stop or slow that behavior. Unless we help them understand the different goals and methods, we’ll encounter resistance when outlining our training plans.
Instead of trying to equate a replacement behavior with the results you’d get from punishment, explain to your clients the benefits of doing things with positive reinforcement. You’re being more honest, and it’s a stronger sell in many cases anyway.
#5: Punishment doesn’t work
Well … we just know this isn’t true. In fact, the definition of punishment is that it reduces a behavior—so it’s working just fine! If it’s not reducing behavior, it’s not punishment. There are many situations where owners think they’re using punishment, and they’re actually just interrupting a behavior. Perhaps this is what people are referencing when they make this claim.
Punishment works—it’s just got other problems associated with it. You’ll build more trust with your clients if you’re honest about the fact that punishment can and does work, and explain why you’re doing something else anyway.
As behavior consultants, many of us are also small business owners. Whether we like it or not, that means we’re also in charge of marketing. Strong marketing tactics do not have to be misleading. Falling into a trap of “the ends justify the means” and misleading a client so that they come to you for better training doesn’t help further the industry.
In general, your marketing is going to be most honest and most successful when you focus on yourself, your tactics, and your success. Writing or speaking endlessly about the problems with “the other guy” at best doesn’t demonstrate why you’re a better option, and at worse can look petty.
Let’s focus together on what we can do to strengthen the industry and help our clients as best we can, not on using deceptive marketing claims.
As they say in mountain biking, “Look where you want to go, not where you’re scared of going.”
Blackwell, E.J., et. al (2012) The use of electronic collars for training domestic dogs: estimated prevalence, reasons and risk factors for use, and owner perceived success as compared to other training methods. BMC Veterinary Research 8:93.
Dale, A.R. et. al, (2013) The acquisition and maintenance of dogs’ aversion responses to kiwi (Apteryx spp.) training stimuli across time and locations. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 146:1-4, pp.107-111.
Masson, S. et. al (2018) Questionnaire survey on the use of different e-collar types in France in everyday life with a view to providing recommendations for possible future regulations. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 26, pp.48-60.
Kayla Fratt owns Journey Dog Training, where she provides remote behavioral support to dog and cat owners around the world via email, text, video chat, online courses, and e-books. She also works as a freelance writer. She holds a degree in Organismal Biology and Ecology from Colorado College and is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant with the IAABC. She is currently driving from Denver to South America with her Border collie and boyfriend. She’s obsessed with conservation detection dogs and loves trick training.