The Opposite of Force


by Eileen Anderson

Clara's pool provides enrichment she can choose when she wants

I think I’ve figured something out.

I continue to see the concept of choice bandied about the positive reinforcement-based training world. It can be a code word for a setup that includes negative reinforcement. “I’m going to do something physically unfamiliar or unpleasant to you and you have the choice of staying here and getting a piece of food or leaving and being relieved from whatever it is I’m doing.” I’ve suggested that this is not a laudable kind of choice; as trainers we can use our skills and take our time so that the dog doesn’t want to leave in the first place.

It can also refer to human-centric preference tests, many of which are subject to extreme bias.

But here’s my new realization. I think we have grabbed hard onto the concept of choice because it seems like the opposite of force.

  • Instead of pushing the dog’s butt down into a sit, I don’t. The dog now has a choice.
  • Instead of restraining the dog for nail trims, I don’t. The dog now has a choice.
  • Instead of pulling the dog away from the fire hydrant by his leash and collar, I let him sniff, or I give a cue for another behavior that I will strongly reinforce. He has a choice.

But there is a semantic mismatch here. Force and choice are not opposites.

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