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  • Writer's pictureThree Dimensional Dog

Force free fallacy and its dangerous effects on canine behavior.

Any time a dog behaviorist exits their vanilla training box and walks into someone's home, they dare to face a nearly infinite number of variables. Some of these variables can be controlled, and some cannot. To help manage these unknowns, we have a single rule -- have your dog secured in a kennel or spare room for our arrival. After 16 years in the field, I have no interest to continually experiencing a dog's misbehavior. Nor do I need to see it firsthand to understand a dog's intentions.

The front door is the most dangerous place to meet dogs with emotional disorders. As such, I am only interested in meeting dogs under controlled conditions. First, I need a thorough behavioral work-up and a detailed consultation with the dog parents before arranging that scripted meeting.

Unfortunately, there are no guarantees the rules will be followed, and below is the result.

As I entered the home, this dog was being restrained by hand. He wiggled free from his guardian's loose grip and charged across the home. He made contact with my leg and had to be kicked in the head 3 times before the attack abated. Had the jeans not taken the brunt of the assault, it would have meant a trip to the ER for reconstructive surgery.

So what is the point of this posting?

This dog grew up in an "all positive", "force-free" household. He had never experienced any consequential feedback for his actions (before today). He had no sense of personal space, no impulse control, and no feelings of empathy. For all intensive purposes, his violence had been enabled by a new "force free" social theory that claims to be science-based, but denies the very science it is based upon.

This fashionable new parenting theory stipulates that any form of punishment that involves any amount of force is ineffective, unethical, and immoral. But what could be more ineffective than doing nothing? What could have been more immoral than allowing my body to be brutalized by an attacking dog? Should I have whipped out a bag of treats and tried to redirect this dog into more passive forms of behavior while being bitten? Should I have sacrificed my body to this ideological cause? Or was my use of force warranted when protecting myself self against a violent threat?

Unfortunately, the force free theory does not stand up to scrutiny.

Parents of both dogs and children all engage in the use of force and punishment when parenting. Any parent who has ever grabbed their child to prevent them from walking into traffic is guilty of using force. Or any parent who has ever picked up a crying baby to put them into the bathtub is guilty of using force.

Similarly, any dog parent who has ever leashed their dog has engaged in the use of force. The leash itself is a several thousand year old boundary-setting tool that uses kinetic force to prevent movement in dogs. Ancient Egyptians used the leash for this very purpose, as seen in hieroglyphic carvings. It worked then, and it still works today.

The use of force and punishment is not an all-or-nothing topic. The real debate lies in what type of force should be used -- not whether or not force and punishment can be used at all.

We must discuss how to effectively apply force, when to apply force, to what extent, and for what ultimate purpose. These types of nuanced details are often lost in all-or-nothing conversations -- either due to accidental omission or through conscious manipulation fueled by ideological zealotry.

This word "punishment" itself has been demonized by many, and conflated to mean violent hitting or forced submission. Of course, there are people who improperly use punishment in this manner. Punishment exists on a spectrum from the mild social influence to full-blown criminal attack. Why should we automatically assume the later?

In fact, this dog punished me for entering into his home without his permission, and in doing so, he far exceeded appropriate constraints. The reason for the assault can be found in his inability to regulate his emotional impulses. This is a symptom of being underexposed to punishment -- a social feedback critical to proper brain development. He had no internal, mental constraints that would cause him to choose differently. After-all, the assault was a choice. It was not a behavior that was hard-wired into his mind. He planned it. He did it.

Minutes after the attack, I required the parents to employ a choke chain -- another tool often demonized for its supposed immoral imposition of force. This was done to control the dog and to help ensure my ongoing safety during the session.

After a lengthy theoretical discussion, I instructed the parents on how to use the chain, and how to give proper punishment via leash corrections. These are quick "snaps" of the leash designed to interrupt a dog's flow of thoughts -- to break fixations and redirect focus. These corrections are always moderated to suit the individual needs and tolerances of the dog.

Within minutes of receiving several mild corrections, the dog's entire attitude changed. He became placid, well-behaved, focused, and respectful of all those around him. In other words, he began to feel and choose differently because the economics of his choice-making had dramatically changed. Now that proper punishment and force were introduced in a healthy manner, he began to comply. No hitting, yelling, or forced submission was needed. And all efforts were made to minimize any use of kinetic energy. We simply engaged in the giving of feedback for his good and bad choices, thus making him responsible for his choices. The result of this social feedback was an increase in his connectivity to the family and a lowering across the board of all indications of unhealthy stress.

Yes, punishment helps to build family attachments.

For every bad choice, he received a correction. For every good choice, he received 6x as much praise. That is a 6-1 ratio of praise to punishment -- the same ratio used by many child behavior specialists.

We have yet to see the long-term outcomes of this particular case, however, I am very encouraged in his progress over a very short period of time. Perhaps one day I will be able to report we have become great friends, like the guy below.

 Maddie was formerly an aggressive dog who disliked me vehemently. You can now see the positive effects of healthy punishment with a huge dose of love and affection.

If you are interested in learning about your dog's mind, grab a copy of Three Dimensional Dog, A Unified Theory of Canine Behavior.

Aaron McDonald is a canine cognitive behaviorist, cognitive theorist, and author.  He can be reached via

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