When people hear the term “force free”, or “fear free” or “positive reinforcement” or “cooperative” in relation to training, certain ideas usually come to mind. For many who do not fully understand the concept of this type of training, they may think that the idea of using any kind of “pressure” is taboo for us force free trainers. But the truth is there are different kinds of pressures that living, social beings experience and we can use these to our advantage, even while holding true to a more humane/less aversive training philosophy. Using non-verbal interactions can be very useful to our relationships with our furry family.
Reducing Social Pressure
If we are working with a dog who is fearful, we can use protocols that work to reduce the dog’s experience of social pressure to help them feel safer and more confident. For example, if I’m working with a dog who is afraid of people, I may use Suzanne Clothier’s excellent protocol: Treat-&-Retreat. I will sit or stand in one location so that I remain predictable. I’ll wait for the dog to engage with me in any way, even if it’s just glancing at me from across the room. When she does, I’ll toss a tasty treat across the room a little beyond the dog, so that in order to retrieve the treat, the dog must move further away from me.
That small act, the dog moving further from me, works to reduce the social pressure of my presence. Then I wait for the dog to decide to engage with me again. And I again throw the tasty bite such that the dog moves further away from me (or stays away if the dog has reached the maximum distance available). The dog is entirely in control of this interaction, which is extremely empowering for the dog. Every time they look at me, ear twitch toward me, move in my direction, something great appears in a place that allows them to breathe easier because I’m not forcing myself into their personal space.
Often within a handful of repetitions, or just a few sessions, the dog will feel safe enough to approach. Once they are comfortable coming to me, I will drop a treat to the floor between us, and then toss the next treat behind the dog so that she again reduces the social pressure. Then she can decide if she wants to approach me again. We build on this, with me continuing to give her permission to move away whenever she wants. It’s wonderfully successful in making friends with fearful dogs.
An alternative to this is to toss a treat to the dog and then the person moves away. Same concept. Dog chooses to engage, food appears and social pressure is reduced. Whichever method you use, you will likely find the dog gets more comfortable over time and eventaully will even solicit physical contact.
Grisha Stewart’s Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) is another method that works by giving the dog the option to reduce social pressure. In the BAT protocol, the dog can choose to approach politely, stay where they are or move further away. They can choose to engage (watch, sniff, follow), or they can choose to disengage (explore their own space, ignoring the thing that scares them). No matter what the dog is choosing in this process, they are in control of just how much social pressure they’re experiencing.
These are just two examples of how a force free trainer can utilize social pressure to help a dog overcome fears.
Teaching Skills and Manners
On the flip side, when working with a more confident or self-assured dog we may sometimes use added pressure or reduced pressure to help the dog make the right behavior choices. For example, if I ask the dog to Sit and he just stands there, I may increase the social pressure by taking a baby-step into the dog’s personal space. This usually results in the dog sitting down to reduce that slightly increased pressure and bring us back to a cooperative space where neither of us is looking for confrontation.
We may also use added social pressure if we’re working on a Leave It skill and then step in front of (or cover with our hand) the “forbidden” item. Conversely, if we’re working on Down and the dog doesn’t lie down, we may take a small step away or to the side, reducing social pressure and making more physical space so the dog can comfortably take the position we’ve asked for.
You can take the use of social pressure too far, so you will want to be thoughtful when using it. Dogs are very aware of our proximity and focus. If you’re teaching a dog to Stay, for example, by standing and looming over them while holding direct eye contact, many dogs (even some very confident and self assured dogs) would find this intimidating and aversive. We also want to be aware of very sharp, fast motions close to their head or body. If it’s making the dog flinch, then they are finding it aversive and so I would shift to a less pressure-y approach.
Now that you know how you can use both added and reduced social pressure to improve a dog’s confidence and skills, get out there and start using some of your non-verbal interactions to build that relationship with your dog. Just pay attention to your dog’s response and make sure you’re not using too much pressure.
Author - Jody Epstein
Jody Epstein is a certified behavior consultant, certified professional dog trainer, and holds a master’s degree in animal behavior from Tufts University. She has been training professionally for more than 12 years and is pleased to be part of the Academy of Pet Careers team, teaching the next generation of trainers. Look out for her blogs on all things dog training and animal behavior.