I use force free methods for a number of reasons. Listed below you’ll find several quotes from prominent organizations as well as studies that have been done to assess training methodology. In addition to these sources I have a few specific reasons why I personally don’t use aversive methods with dogs.
First, when you use aversive tools or methods you may create unintended associations that are even harder to deal with than the original behavior. I’ll give an example. An owner is out walking their adolescent German Shepherd and when he pulls, they give the dog a collar pop or shock. Unbeknownst to them when they gave the correction the dog was also looking at a child. The dog now associate kids with corrections and builds a negative association. Instead of a dog who just pulls they now have a dog who begins to show signs of reactivity and/or fear towards kids.
Second, some people use punishment to deal with things like barking, lunging, or growling. The problem with this is you are punishing the warning signs. This can lead to a dog who stops giving a warning and goes straight to biting. For obvious reasons this is extremely dangerous for the family, the general public, and me as the trainer.
Third, aversive tools and methods are simply unnecessary. There’s no indication that using aversive training methods results in better outcomes, faster learning, more predictable and consistent results, or improved response latency. Interestingly however, positive training methods are associated with all of those things.
Now for direct quotes and research findings:
No one wants to think about a potential emergency but it’s so important to have a plan, not just for yourself but also for your pets. Here are some things you can do to make sure you are able to keep your family safe in the event of a disaster.
Think about where you could stay if you had to leave your home. Keep in mind that many emergency shelters only allow service animals. The following are some good resources for boarding animals or finding pet friendly places to stay:
In addition to a human first aid kit it’s helpful to keep a pet first aid kit on hand for emergencies. Here are a few kits you can purchase along with a list of what to put in one if you decide to make your own:
Depending on your pets coat and grooming needs these supplies may or may not be necessary but it’s something to take into consideration especially if you own a breed like a poodle.
Pet owners have a difficult task when trying to find a reputable dog trainer. In a totally unregulated industry, where anyone can decide to go out and say they’re a “dog trainer”, it’s important for owners to be vigilant when trying to find a pet professional. This article will help you know what to look for when you start looking into dog trainers.
A note about service dogs: It can be difficult to find dog professionals who works with owner trainers and their service dogs or service dogs in training. Finding a credentialed force free trainer, even if they don’t have service dog experience, is still a great place to start for basic obedience and structured socialization!
For a quick overview of a few things to look for in a trainer, watch this great video from Fear Free Happy Homes!
When you start looking for a qualified trainer in your area, the first thing I’d recommend doing is looking at their websites and social media platforms. Here’s what I’d specifically watch for:
Once you’ve found a trainer whose website and credentials look ok the next step is calling or emailing them with any questions you may still have. Remember, you’re interviewing them! They should be happy and willing to answer your questions. Here are the questions I’d ask:
Trainers should never blame owners for behavior problems. As stated above, behavior is a product of multiple factors. If you hear a trainer saying things like “it’s all in how you train them” or “there are no bad dogs just bad owners” it’s likely a sign that they do not have a full understanding of how complex dog behavior can be.
When talking with a trainer and looking through their social media, watch for scare tactics. Things like, “If you don’t use an e-collar your dog could run into traffic and get hit by a car” or “I’d rather make a dog uncomfortable but keep them from being put down”. These are false dichotomies that prey on some of the biggest fears dog owners have. The truth is that positive training methods are just as effective as aversive training methods and they are actually associated with fewer risks, including things like animals being surrendered for behavior.
Another thing to watch for when considering a trainer is the use of certain code phrases and words. All of the following can indicate a trainer uses aversive methods and/or believes in outdated training approaches based on dominance theory.
For more information on dominance theory and the alpha myth click here!
Trainers should be supportive of people who adopt dogs as well as those who decide to purchase a dog through a reputable breeder. If they are overtly disparaging of either option, it may not be a good fit. Different homes and individuals need different things and just because adopting is the best option for one person doesn’t mean purchasing from a breeder isn’t the right choice for someone else.
A good place to search for trainers is through the directories of trusted professional organizations. The following entities provide membership, accreditation and certification to dog trainers and pet care professionals:
Fear Free Happy Homes put together an excellent video on what to do if you notice behavior changes in your dog and who is most qualified to help you!
Are you a business owner or manager that feels unsure about how to handle service dogs? If so this article and video should help answer your questions! The law that protects service animals in public spaces is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
It’s important to know that as a business you can ask two questions of individuals who come in with a service dog:
Businesses are not allowed to request any form of documentation. They cannot require that the dog perform a task in order to gain entry into the establishment. They also cannot ask about the nature of the person’s disability.
Businesses can ask for the dog to be removed if it urinates or defecates, if it’s not under the control of it’s handler, if the dog is growling or barking, if the dog is behaving aggressively or if it has a history of behaving aggressively.
Businesses can deny entry if a service dog would alter the nature of the business. What does it mean to alter the nature of a business? The ADA has a section that goes over frequently asked questions about service animals and it gives this example, “At a zoo, service animals can be restricted from areas where the animals on display are the natural prey or natural predators of dogs, where the presence of a dog would be disruptive, causing the displayed animals to behave aggressively or become agitated. They cannot be restricted from other areas of the zoo.”
Employees of a business are not covered by the ADA. If an employee wants to bring a service dog to work then they must first apply for a reasonable accommodation. If you have questions about that process, the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) is an excellent resource!
The ADA only protects service dogs. It does not give public access rights to therapy dogs, emotional support animals or service dogs in training. However, some states have laws that grant public access rights to service dogs in training. For more information about the laws in Kansas click here.
Watch this video for a great overview on the rights of both businesses and service animal users!
I want to preface this post by saying I know that what I’m going to say regarding dominance theory will likely upset some people and may be seen as blunt. I’m ok with that because the reality is that dominance theory has done more damage to dog training than any other theory I can think of off the top of my head.
In 1934 Rudolph Schenkel, a Swiss animal behaviorist, began a study of captive wolves living in the Basel (spelled Basle in the study) Zoological Garden in Basel Switzerland. Based on his observations he theorized that wolves in packs fight to gain dominance and the winner becomes the alpha wolf. The concept was then extrapolated and applied to both wild wolf packs and domestic dogs. You don’t need to be a scientist to see the problem with applying that theory to animals in the wild or to a completely different species.
The idea really took off when wildlife research biologist David Mech wrote about it. Here is what he has to say about it now:
“The concept of the alpha wolf is well ingrained in the popular wolf literature, at least partly because of my book “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,” written in 1968, published in 1970, republished in paperback in 1981, and currently still in print, despite my numerous pleas to the publisher to stop publishing it. Although most of the book’s info is still accurate, much is outdated. We have learned more about wolves in the last 40 years than in all of previous history.
One of the outdated pieces of information is the concept of the alpha wolf. ‘Alpha’ implies competing with others and becoming top dog by winning a contest or battle. However, most wolves who lead packs achieved their position simply by mating and producing pups, which then became their pack. In other words they are merely breeders, or parents, and that’s all we call them today, the ‘breeding male,’ ‘breeding female,’ or ‘male parent,’ ‘female parent,’ or the ‘adult male’ or ‘adult female.'”
Here’s a clip where Mech talks about the misconceptions surrounding the term Alpha and how it’s typically only a term that would be appropriate to apply to wolves in captivity or in the rare case where there are multiple breeding females in a wild pack.
In recent years we’ve seen the idea of being an “alpha” with your dog or maintaining “dominance” pushed by popular trainers like Ceasar Milan. It’s also something you’ll probably see or hear referenced, in some form, in almost every movie or tv show that has a dog in it. Here’s a couple classic examples from the movie “Snow Dogs”
There are lots of key words, concepts, and phrases commonly used by trainers who prescribe to this style of training. I’ll list some below:
Some concepts that aren’t bad on their own have also been co-opted. Particularly things like “structure” and “relationship based training”.
Providing your dog with a regular routine is a good thing and dogs who are anxious will certainly benefit from knowing what to expect. The problem with the term structure comes in when it’s used to force a dog to remain in a position while stressed. For example making a dog sit or stay on “place” while their trigger gets closer and closer. Choice is a critical part of helping dogs through reactivity and demanding that they maintain a certain physical position can exacerbate their level of distress. It can also make it harder to identify discomfort.
While “relationship based” seems like a good thing it can be used by people who believe that the human dog relationship is inherently rooted in being an “alpha”. It’s a shame because it’s a term I would have loved to use to describe my own training style but it can be a red flag that indicates a trainer uses outdated methods.
The reality is that dogs do what works for them. If a behavior is rewarded by humans, the environment, or if it’s inherently rewarding a dog is likely to continue performing it. If a behavior is not rewarding the dog is likely to stop performing it. We over complicate things when we assign ideas like respect to dogs. Their minds work on a strictly cause and effect equation system.
At this point many people have questions about behavior that they’ve seen in dogs that they believe proves that a dog is trying to be “dominant” or the “alpha”.
The first thing that people often talk about is a dog who takes other dogs toys, resource guards, pushes other dogs around, etc… They believe that dog is an “alpha” when in reality the dog is just being a bully. Again they are working on a cause and effect system, what they’re doing gets them what they want so they keep doing it. In these situations it’s the owners responsibility to intervene so that a pattern of behavior doesn’t develop.
Another example is a couple who owns a dog with behavior challenges. The dog does much better for the the husband but frequently “acts up” with the wife. The husband says it’s because the dog senses the wife isn’t a “pack leader” or “dominant” enough.
The reality is there can be lots of reasons a dog acts differently with different people. It could be the husband works with the dog more and there’s more of a reward history (play, treats, attention, walks, etc). It could be that the wife has had bad interactions with the dog and is now nervous when they’re around each other. ***This creates a feedback loop of anxiety between the owner and dog which makes their behavior worse.*** The dog might have been adopted and before coming into the home it had bad experiences with women. None of those things have anything to do with being the “alpha”.
***Note: An owners anxiety is not to blame for a dogs behavior challenges. The reality is that if they had a breed not prone to feeding off handler emotion that was temperamentally sound it likely wouldn’t be an issue. There are many factors to consider when looking at things like reactivity or aggression. A mix of individual temperament, genetics, early life experiences, family dynamics, other animals in the home, medical conditions, medications, and more typically combines to create the behaviors we see.***
When we use “dominance” based training methods it automatically puts us in conflict with the dog. This increases the risk of escalating aggression, it can result in learned helplessness or a dog who stops giving stress signals and then “bites out of nowhere”. It’s also unnecessarily stressful for both dogs and humans.
Instead of assigning lots of emotion and intent to a dogs behavior it’s far more productive to look at it from the standpoint of reinforcing vs not reinforcing. Analyzing that is how you can come up with a strategic plan to shape the behavior you want to see more of and eliminate or channel the behavior you want to see decrease.
This is a quick overview of what I take into consideration when meeting with a client who’s dog is struggling with aggression or reactivity.
An apartment is inherently riskier than a house with a securely fenced yard. In an apartment owners have to consider blind corners, elevators, narrow hallways and the need to walk your dog where there are variables outside your control. A home with a yard makes it so you have much more control over when your dog comes in contact with it’s triggers.
None of this is to say that living in an apartment with a reactive or aggressive dog is hopeless but it’s an added risk that the owner should take into consideration.
This is particularly concerning if the dog resource guards or has shown aggression towards people he lives with. Management is made much more complicated if there are children in the equation. Even if the dog hasn’t shown aggression towards members of it’s family a child could still leave a door open or allow someone in before the dog is safely secured.
If a dog has a few very specific triggers that are highly predictable management will be much more feasible. If a dog has lots of triggers that seem to change often or are inconsistent this raises the risk level because it makes management much more complicated.
Discussing bite history is very important when I consider the risk a dog presents. The situation in which the bite occurred, the number of times a bite has occurred and the level of severity are all things to carefully consider.
When talking with a family about a bite history I reference Dr. Sophia Yin’s “Canine Bite Levels” infographic to determine how severe the bite was. I also make sure to ask if the dog has been deemed dangerous by a court.
One of the first things I discuss with clients is if their reactive or aggressive dog has been muzzle trained. I believe all dogs should be muzzle trained, even the dogs who’ve never had any problem with reactivity or aggression. Using a muzzle is often seen as a last resort, the problem with that is then the muzzle is typically first used in a stressful situation like an emergency trip to the vet. The last thing you want to do is increase your dogs level of anxiety by putting a muzzle on him without any prior conditioning.
Muzzle training allows owners to have another management tool in their toolbox which makes it safer to live with the dog.
Much like muzzle training crate training can be an important part of creating a management protocol. If a dog can be safely and calmly crated it makes it so you can secure the dog if you know people are going to be coming over. It can also be a helpful part of managing a multi-dog home where not all dogs get along or where some dogs resource guard.
If a dog isn’t crate trained and is stressed by the crate another option is using a room to secure them away from people or dogs. This can be an especially good option for potty trained adult dogs.
If the dog isn’t comfortable with either a room or crate that is a much harder situation to manage and it’s likely there may be some form of separation anxiety also going on.
If I am working with a large powerful dog and an older frail owner it’s much higher risk than a small dog with an athletic and strong owner. These are sometimes the most difficult cases because if safety protocols fail the back up of physically stoping the dog is often not possible.
Along with assessing the risk of aggression it’s important to look for causes and take a wholistic approach when working with a dog who has challenging behaviors.
One of the first things I do is I make sure that owners have ruled out medical issues. In particular I ask about things that can cause pain like arthritis, chronic ear infections or UTI’s. I also get a full list of any medications the dog is on to make sure none of them have behavioral side affects. During this time I’ll also ask if the dog has ever been on anti-anxiety medication or if that’s something they’ve ever discussed with their vet. Anxiety medication isn’t appropriate for all cases but it is something clients should consider discussing with their vet if the dogs overall anxiety is a concern.
We also talk about if the dogs mental and physical needs are being met. Frustrated dogs who don’t have an outlet are often more reactive than dogs who are getting the appropriate amount of exercise and mental stimulation. Providing a dog with enrichment won’t magically fix reactivity but it can help training be more successful and it can assist in lowering the dogs overall stress level.
The document below is what I take with me to initial consults. Anytime a dog has a bite history I require a consult with no dog present. During that session we go over the questions on this assessment. This helps me create a safety plan with the owners so that we can insure the dog is set up for success and we minimize the risk of a bite occurring.
In addition to federal laws there are state laws that protect service dogs and sometimes service dogs in training depending on where you live. I’ll be discussing Kansas laws, as that’s where I live, but there will be a link for all state laws at the bottom of this article.
K.S.A 39-1109: “Any professional trainer, from a recognized training center, of an assistance dog, while engaged in the training of such dog, shall have the right to be accompanied by such dog in or upon any of the places listed in K.S.A. 39- 1101, and amendments thereto, without being required to pay an extra charge for such dog. Such trainer shall be liable for any damage done to the premises of facilities by such dog.“
Unfortunately, based on my interpretation of how this is written, Kansas does not grant service dogs in training public access rights if they are being owner trained. This definitely makes training more challenging and it makes for a harder transition from in training to full service dog.
When working with my own dog or a client’s dog I’ve found two things helpful when trying to work on public access training.
First, there are several places that are pet friendly but do a good job providing an environment that feels like a non-pet friendly store. Academy Sports, Orscheln Farm and Home, and Sutherlands are all good options. Make sure to double check if individual locations are pet friendly. For example, not all Joann Fabric stores are pet friendly, neither are all Home Depots.
Second, if a store isn’t pet friendly, sometimes I’ll talk with a store manager to see if it’s ok to bring a service dog in training into the store to practice public access work. I’ve had good luck doing this especially at stores that are sometimes pet friendly like Home Depot.
K.S.A 21-6416: “(a) Inflicting harm, disability or death to a police dog, arson dog, assistance dog, game warden dog or search and rescue dog is knowingly, and without lawful cause or justification poisoning, inflicting great bodily harm, permanent disability or death, upon a police dog, arson dog, assistance dog, game warden dog or search and rescue dog.
(b) Inflicting harm, disability or death to a police dog, arson dog, assistance dog, game warden dog or search and rescue dog is a nonperson felony. Upon conviction of this subsection, a person shall be sentenced to not less than 30 days or more than one year’s imprisonment and be fined not less than $500 nor more than $5,000. The person convicted shall not be eligible for release on probation, suspension or reduction of sentence or parole until the person has served the minimum mandatory sentence as provided herein. During the mandatory 30 days imprisonment, such offender shall have a psychological evaluation prepared for the court to assist the court in determining conditions of probation. Such conditions shall include, but not be limited to, the completion of an anger management program.”
To simplify this means that if someone harms your service dog, they have committed a nonperson felony. If convicted they shall be sentenced to no less than 30 days and no more than one year of imprisonment and be fined no less than $500 and no more than $5,000.
A legal battle is costly and draining. It’s best to avoid conflict whenever possible. I do not recommend confronting people or escalating situations because “the law is on your side”. It’s just not worth it. In the event of an attack make sure to contact authorities immediately. Try to get information from anyone who saw the incident happen and if you are inside an establishment try to find out if they might have security footage that the police can review.
K.S.A 39-1112: It is a class A nonperson misdemeanor for any person to
(a) Represent that such person has the right to be accompanied by an assistance dog in or upon any place listed in K.S.A. 39-1101, and amendments thereto, or that such person has a right to be accompanied by a professional therapy dog in or upon any place listed in K.S.A. 39-1110, and amendments thereto, unless such person has the right to be accompanied in or upon such place by such dog pursuant to this act; or
(b) represent that such person has a disability for the purpose of acquiring an assistance dog unless such person has such disability.
This means that misrepresenting your dog as a service dog, if in fact they are not one, is a nonperson misdemeanor. While I do not advocate trying to spot “fake” service dogs, it is important to understand that if you are not disabled, and your dog is not trained to mitigate that disability, they are not a service dog and misrepresenting them as one is a crime.
It’s also important to remember that ESAs and therapy dogs do not have public access rights. If you have questions about what the differences between ESAs, therapy dogs, and service dogs are check out this article for some clarification.
When considering getting a service dog one of the first things you need to decide is if you want to owner train or go with a program. Here’s an outline of the benefits and drawbacks of both options.
Deciding whether or not to owner train is a very individual decision. What works for one person may not work at all for another. For me personally I knew that owner training was 100% the route I wanted to go. I recommend honestly examining your life, your abilities, and your disabilities to determine what the right path is for you.
If a person decides to owner train a service dog they can either go through a breeder or a rescue. There are benefits and drawbacks to both options. I’ll outline what those are below.
Going with a breeder definitely stacks the odds in your favor. If you are inexperienced with dogs or this is your first service dog I would strongly recommend going with a breeder. However, if you have worked in a rescue, have experience training dogs, or you foster dogs, a rescue may work for you. It’s important to remember that selecting a service dog is not an emotional decision, you need to look at it as a job interview.
There are four major federal laws that impact disabled Americans and service dogs. Those four laws are the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), The Rehabilitation Act (Rehab Act), the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), and the Fair Housing Act (FHA). Each law provides different protections and clarifications on the rights of businesses and disabled individuals. If you have a service dog, or you are considering getting one, it’s critical that you are familiar with these laws.
Congress enacted the FHA in 1968 with the main goal being to prevent discrimination in housing based on race. It also prohibited discrimination based on sex or religion. In 1988 an amendment to the FHA was passed and protection was extended to prohibit discrimination based on disability or familial status.
The FHA protects people not just once they are renting but throughout the whole process of obtaining housing. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) explains that, “The act protects people from discrimination when they are renting or buying a home, getting a mortgage, seeking housing assistance, or engaging in other housing related activities.”
One of the most important things to understand is what types of housing are and are not covered by the FHA. While most housing is covered there are some exceptions. HUD outlines that the act “…exempts owner-occupied buildings with no more than four units, single-family houses sold or rented by the owner without the use of an agent, and housing operated by religious organizations and private clubs that limit occupancy to members.” If you have more questions about what types of dwellings may or may not be covered I recommend looking at Psychiatric Service Dog Partners (PSDP) extremely helpful flowchart.
Note: Dorms and on campus housing are not exempt. A couple of court cases have ruled that on campus housing meets the definition of a “dwelling” as outlined by the FHA.
In order to have a legitimate service dog or emotional support animal the handler must be disabled. This means they are automatically protected by the FHA. Both service dogs and ESAs are covered under the FHA. However, service dogs in training are not covered. In order for the dog to be covered while it’s in training the easiest option is to classify it as an ESA until their training is complete. It’s important to remember that in order to qualify for an ESA a person must be disabled.
If you are moving into non-pet friendly housing with a service dog you do not need supporting documentation. In 2020 HUD released a helpful guidance document that instructs landlords they should only ask the two ADA questions if it’s not readily apparent that the dog is trained to help with a disability. Examples of it being readily apparent would be things like a guide dog leading a blind person or a dog pulling a wheelchair.
Despite the fact that you don’t need supporting documentation you should still request a reasonable accommodation. I would recommend doing this by typing up a document explaining you have a service dog that is trained in work or tasks that mitigate your disability. Make sure that you clearly articulate what your dog does to assist you. I would sign and date it and then have your landlord sign and date it. You should each keep a copy for your records. This helps prevent miscommunications and it gives you a legal paper trail should that ever become necessary.
If you have a service dog in training that you are classifying as an ESA, or if you just have an ESA, you may still need supporting documentation. Most often this would be in the form of a doctor’s note. If you aren’t sure what the letter should include or look like I recommend checking out Psychiatric Service Dog Partners letter templates.
While a landlord is not allowed to charge any kind of pet fee or deposit for an assistance animal they can require that a tenant cover the cost of any damage done by an assistance animal to a dwelling or common area. Cleaning up behind your animal and generally making an effort to be respectful of those living around you can go a long way towards preventing issues with other tenants or your landlord. It’s important to remember that your actions may influence how future individuals with assistance animals are treated.
The FHA does not require that an accommodation be made for an assistance animal that poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others. This would include things like a dog that had been deemed dangerous by a court. This determination cannot be based on size or breed and court cases have found that even in areas that have breed restrictions the FHA supersedes those types of local ordinances. Landlords also do not have to allow nuisance behavior like excessive barking, aggression towards people or other animals in the building, etc…