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I Debate Claire Staines, an ‘All Positive/Force-Free’ UK based Dog Trainer

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I Debate Claire Staines, an 'All Positive/Force-Free' UK based Dog Trainer

I posted on my Facebook page this short video as an encouragement to read a column I had written all positive and harnesses and received a comment from an ‘All Positive/Force-Free’ trainer named Claire Staines. I invited her to debate.

The link to the article referred to is here:

Below is as much of the debate as I could salvage (most of it). The reason that is incomplete is that Claire not only a member of the Pet Professional Guild British Isles but is also on the steering committee, abandoned our discussion when she apparently accidentally revealed that is not force-free and that she believes that force has its place in dog training. I assume, fearing that were her peers to discover this she would lose her standing. To her credit she later said, “Feel free to post the screen shots.”

Ironically in the charter of the Pet Professional Guild it say with regard to interacting with those outside the guild, “Use lots of reinforcement and maintain positive dialogue so we can continue to spread our message to audiences that are receptive to listening. Be what we all aspire to bring about.  And always be ‘force-free’ in your own behavior and communication.”

You will have to judge for yourself whether I moved outside of reasonable dialogue and warranted her fleeing and as which of us more closely exemplified the portion of the charter copy and pasted above.

This was Claire’s opening:

Claire Staines: All positive
I use a harness…..or a collar.
Still side splitting at all positive

John Wade: I think there is a point trying to be made but it’s eluding me. You’ll have to elaborate.

Claire Staines: Made perfectly
John Wade: Claire Staines Don’t be frightened to engage in a healthy debate. In spite of your less than encouraging beginning, I will be respectful. I am truly interested to learn more about your perspective and to have someone with that perspective willing to take some time to ask some questions that I have. In part to see where we might have common ground and in addition, to be sure that I clearly understand the outlook that you embrace. Would you be willing to do that?

Claire Staines: All positive? What exactly is that?

Claire Staines: And I’m not frightened
Simply amused

John Wade: Claire Staines I’m glad you’re not frightened. You initial elusiveness mislead me so, I apologize.

What exactly is all positive? That’s an excellent starting question. Let’s see if we can start on the same page.

The definition does seem to vary with between dog trainers that promote themselves as such and sometimes even in the manner in which they actually train dogs (practice vs preach if you will). For the purposes of this discussion would you be willing to use as its definition the model used to train orcas and dolphins in large aquarium settings? Would you refer to that as all positive and if not what would you refer to it as and would say it’s similar enough to what you believe in do that I could propose a question to you?

Claire Staines Orcas & dolphins aren’t dogs. They don’t require collars.

Is it all positive. Which positive? Punishment or reinforcement?

John Wade That is very true. Dolphins and Orcas are not dogs. However, Dolphins are not Orcas and yet the same methodology applies to those different species. True? In fact it can and has been applied to many species dogs, wolves, apes, human beings etc. in countless training scenarios, for dogs including things like trick training, scent detection training for examples. Would you not agree?
Maybe it would be faster if you would be willing to elaborate as to how what you embrace in your work is uniquely dog appropriate.
Perhaps assume I share the same level of ignorance as a prospective client and you are going to explain your approach and maybe elaborate a bit more than you otherwise might as to why it might be applicable to a companion dog more so than any other higher order social species? Would that help us move forward?

John Wade Note: For anyone following this sub thread. I want to respect Claire Staines and her willingness to carry on this discussion with me. I’m sure there is only so much of Claire left over at the end of the day and I appreciate her investment of time. As a result, I would ask that if you have input you include it in a separate post in this thread. If time allows, of course, if she wishes she may reply at her convenience. I think much can be learned here for all participants but I have seen people, myself included, inundated from far too many cooks in the kitchen and discouraged from continuing a discussion. I hope that makes sense to everyone.

Note: here’s where it gets spotty as a result of her deleting the thread she participated in on my page.

Claire Staines: Reply deleted. But I think you can get the gist from my response.

John Wade There are two areas of your reply that caught my interest. The first is, “My point though is using “all positive” That statement is wrong.” The second was where you say, “In my opinion, so long as you aren’t using harsh punishers (physically or emotionally) then you have to do what you have to do.“

I believe I understand and if I do, I agree where you refer to “refraining from using harsh punishers. (physically or emotionally)” However, the bit about “In my opinion, so long as you aren’t using harsh punishers (physically or emotionally) then you have to do what you have to do.“ may require clarification. Would I be correct  in interpreting that as an indication that at some points in your approach to training there are some elements of acceptable force (assuming it is not harsh). For example, if for no other reason than simply physically controlling a dog for its owner’s or the dog’s safety or restraining it when distracted by the sorts of normal eventualities that occur in a companion dog setting? Furthermore accurate to say your preference that the force in these contexts be exerted below the shoulders as opposed to above?

The reason I ask is tied into “My point though is using “all positive” That statement is wrong.” Firstly, I agree it is wrong however perhaps not for all the same reasons. It is a term just like, ‘Balanced’ and leaves too much open for interpretation. For example, I have found that many dog trainers that believe they are ‘Balanced’ are in my view ‘Might Is Right’ trainers.

However it can’t be argued that it hasn’t been used historically and isn’t currently being used by a great number of trainers as a means to infer that they train more humanely and scientifically than trainers that embrace a ‘Might Is Right’ or ‘Balanced’  approach. The more recent trend has been a move from using the term ‘All Positive’ and instead to use terms like, “Force Free” as a means to distinguish themselves from ‘Might Is Right’ or Balanced trainers.

In the portion of your reply where you respond to my request to “how what you embrace in your work is uniquely dog appropriate”and using the assumption that, “you are going to explain your approach and maybe elaborate a bit more than you otherwise might as to why it might be applicable to a companion dog more so than any other higher order social species?”, you answer, “I’ve stopped using labels. Clients don’t much care to be honest, they just want a well behaved dog.”

I have some doubts as to the veracity of those statements. First, in my experience given all the facts, I have found that clients very much do care about the approach a trainer takes. I personally, spend a considerable amount of time with each client going over the pros and cons of ‘Might Is Right’, ‘All Positive/Force Free’ and ‘Balanced’ as they typically manifest in actual usage.

Secondly, I suspected were I to have a look at your website I might find that I might find a label or two as a means to describe what you do with dogs. What I found (if it is your website and correct me if I’m wrong on your front page it does indeed give a brief overview.
The portion that caught my eye says, “Lothlorien prides itself in using science based & force free training.”

I would have to say that based on what you’ve shared so far, “In my opinion, so long as you aren’t using harsh punishers (physically or emotionally) then you have to do what you have to do.“ I might justifiably turn the tables now and where you say, “My point though is using “all positive” That statement is wrong.” I might very well say, “My point though, is using “force free” That statement is wrong.”

If on one hand you believe that outside of harshnesses sometimes you have to ”do what you have to do” implying some element of force is permissible and on the other write that you subscribe to, “science based & force free training” either one or the other statement is disingenuous.

The dichotomy mightily suggests you may very well believe that if prospective clients do not actually care they can at the very least be influenced and you chose terms that don’t necessarily reflect the reality of your dog training but market to a certain aspect human and consumer nature.

Combining the words “science based” with “force free” is also oxymoronic and could easily also fall under the umbrella of your words, “That statement is wrong”. I’m unaware of any science outside of the methods utilized in the aquarium level type of control – as opposed to the companion dog owner’s environment – that has ever suggested that ‘All Positive/Force Free’  is in use or has ever been in use as the sole way of teaching, training, etc. for any social species in a real world setting. Even Skinner starved his rats to 75% of their body weights for the experiment leading to the 4 quadrants. The aberrations in behaviour in confined highly trained Orcas alone, at the very least suggest that all is not what it seems in that manifestation of ‘All Positive/Force Free’ training.

This is in part one of my greatest objections to both what I have been calling ‘All positive’ and you call ‘Force Free’. I don’t think it’s semantics. I think it is either an unintentional in some and purposeful in others deception that cherry picks actual scientific research as a means to give an undeserved sense of superiority for its utilizers and the unsuspecting public. I also believe any time there is purposeful deception, particularly when actual science is bastardized for personal gain it is bad. In this case bad for companion dogs and companion dog owners. You may have come around to understanding that some element of force is required in the training of dogs but there are many that actually believe that ignoring bad behaviour and rewarding good behaviour has a place in companion dog training. Worse still they often go to great efforts to malign any trainer that does not adhere to their sophist ideas. I actually don’t object to their objection to ‘Might Is Right’ training but their across the board condemnation of balanced trainers which if I am to take your earlier comment, “In my opinion, so long as you aren’t using harsh punishers (physically or emotionally) then you have to do what you have to do.“ at face value would include you is despicable behaviour and not an example of ‘All Positive/Force Free’ at all.

If you doubt my concerns I would challenge you to post on some of the ‘All Positive/Force Free’ groups your statement “In my opinion, so long as you aren’t using harsh punishers (physically or emotionally) then you have to do what you have to do.“ with an elaboration of what type of force and when it might be applied and watch the results.

For what it’s worth, ironically enough, you’re not alone in the use of the word force free. I know many e-collar trainers that sell their services as force-free. However, I think they too are playing with words to sell rather then to truly represent the realities of their approach to companion dog owners.

Whether it is a human changing their infant’s diaper, or a companion dog owner coping with the household distractions intrinsic to companion dog ownership, (let alone the distractions outside the home), to the manner in which the parental and other authority figures of every social species known, teach survival life lessons to their youngsters, some force exists. It is the model that evolution has determined leads to the greatest likelihood of survival. The better the teacher/trainer the less force required. Not a parent of any species has raised a youngster without some serious version of harshnesses emotional or physical. “I’m not asking you, I’m telling you.” It is this missing element of the force free trainers that is it’s failure in real world settings. Even in the controlled aquarium the show comes to an end when the pelican lands.

To suggest otherwise is intellectually dishonest. To suggest it is “science based” is a mockery of scientific method and integrity.

Claire Staines: – deleted reply (again her doing, not mine) In part she expressed that she felt that she was insulted if I was suggesting that what she does in her class room is a dishonest representation of what she advertises as `Science-Based, Force-Free’ on her website. There was more but I think my reply below which attempted to provide clarity is what motivated her to abandon the principles of her guild.

John Wade: – Claire Staines I think you have hit the nail on the head as to my objection to what your are selling when you say, “when I’m teaching behaviour I can control the environment.” You use a method designed solely for a controlled setting on dogs that will be going home to a real life setting.

While I am sorry you think that is insulting, I do think that is dishonest. How is a companion dog owner in a real world setting with a lifestyle that cannot revolve around their dog going to make out during the other 167 hours of the week that their dog is not in your controlled setting of your class, if in your class you do not include in your teaching the science that supports their actual environment?

At the very least, this sets the companion dog and the companion dog owner up for failure and discouragement. More importantly without the skill set to simply keep a leash loose, stay when told and to recall reliably it puts too many dogs either still straining against their leashes/collars/harnesses around distractions and lifestyle wise, under the equivalent of comparative house arrest due to not an inability for themselves or their owners to achieve these skills but because the method you offer was never intended for the context of their relationship and environment.

That doesn’t seem honest to me. To be clear, I’m not saying you are a dishonest person. I am saying that this aspect of your belief system is dishonest in the sense it is scientifically unsupported for the companion dog world. Agility, fine, tracking, fine, scenting fine, trick training fine. Life skills – no model amongst any species anywhere, at any time in real world life skill learning settings.

As a result the likelihood that a companion dog owner will achieve the bang on recall you have achieved using positive reinforcement methods alone is demonstrably extremely low.

It was never intended for real world settings. So why not simply use balanced in the classroom? That to me would be honest.

Claires deleted reply which I had copied and pasted so I could form a response without having to switch back to Facebook:

Claire Staines: “You can ignore some behaviour, some you can’t.
Do I use force? No I use my brain and move to prevent the undesirable behaviour occurring. Standing around ignoring unwanted behaviour is a lot of missed opportunities.
I can assure you I completely grasp the concept.
I believe “force free” is a slogan to differentiate a way of training. A collar is force, a leash, a harness…lets not kid ourselves here.
I suppose it’s like the term “whisperer” they don’t whisper so why call it that.
I am fortunate I don’t need to explain to clients what I do, most already know that’s why they come to me, I’m very transparent about it.
What I don’t agree with is the use of unnecessary punishment because the skills of the handler is lacking, I don’t believe that handler needs hung drawn and quartered though, they need help.
I like how Drayton describes it “kind consequences” but again I’ll reiterate, if a dog is about to come to harm or cause harm we are no longer teaching we are preserving either that dog, another animal or person from harm. Personally I aim not to be in those situations but life happens, I accept that.

John Wade: As to the second part of your reply. You’ll have to explain how you use your brain as opposed to forcing to keep one dog in your class from making unwanted contact with another.

While you may grasp the concept, you seem unwilling to say to the general world and companion dog owners you serve, the actual honest words. “I sometimes use force. You will sometimes have to use force.”

You said earlier that you don’t use labels and yet it seems you are now trying to take the literal meaning of force-free (Training (also often referred to as Positive Reinforcement Training) could be simply defined as “rewarding good behaviour” – reinforcing desirable behaviour with something the animal wants, something they find reinforcing.” and rebrand it into a “slogan” (label). That to me masks the perspective you’ve indicated here. You believe in balance but use a phrase in opposition of balance – “science-based, force-free” because in spite of misrepresentation it is sexier and easier to sell. Just as “dog whisperer” is sexier than “dog shouter”. Appropriate if it’s an approximation, but in either case, it is not. It is spinning one reality into quite a different reality.
What we’re primarily talking about here is the difference between talking a talk and walking a walk. I very much appreciate your participation in this dialogue. However, let’s not forget that in your charter of the Pet Professional Guild British Isles, for which you are on the steering committee it says with regard to interacting with those outside the guild, “Use lots of reinforcement and maintain positive dialogue so we can continue to spread our message to audiences that are receptive to listening. Be what we all aspire to bring about.  And always be ‘force-free’ in your own behavior and communication.”

I LOVE that. (I was not being sarcastic. I truly love that approach.)

However, about walk vs talk, we must acknowledge that is not how you began our dialogue. You started by being derisive of my post and/or myself. Also, rather than a willingness to enter a positive exchange so you could spread your message to someone receptive to listening, you had to be somewhat dragged into the conversation. I would not complain were this the exception, but in my experience, it has been the rule. In fact, your initial response was minor compared to what I and other balanced trainers typically shoulder. I will acknowledge right now that balanced trainers and might is right trainers have blame of their own. However, in my experience, nowhere to the same degree.

I have found and still find that representatives of the world that you attach yourself knowingly and sometimes in an organised effort misrepresent my balanced approach to the advertisers on my radio show, my nationally syndicated newspaper column, the local veterinarian and rescue committee as a ‘Might Is Right’ trainer. Here is an actual quotation from the intake coordinator of a major local rescue when someone on a local Facebook group populated by approximately 3,500 local dog owners recommended my services, “Please don’t go to John Wade. He uses force based methods (completely untrue) and physical punishment (completely untrue) based on out of date techniques that have been scoffed at by the scientific, veterinary and dog training community for years. (Opposite is true) He is dangerous and your dog will either become aggressive or “behave” by shutting down in fear.” This person holds a master’s degree in a discipline founded in the scientific method.

The irony is not only that they attack someone that is for the most part on the same page as it seems you are, but they try and are sometimes successful in silencing a voice that has succeeded using far-reaching mediums to influence many companion dog owners and has used that platform to promote most of their agenda and speaks out on ‘Might Is Right’ training.

I’m delighted that – I, an upfront balanced trainer that agrees wholeheartedly with the aspect above of your guild’s message and also, very much with what you have had to say in this thread – has had this opportunity to walk the talk outlined in the quotation. And, once again I’m delighted that you have agreed to the dialogue as it turns out as I suspected, we agree considerably, and where we do not and how we do not, I am clearer.

Claire had apparently sent two more missives and then deleted it all before I read either.

I posted this for those that were following along:

John Wade: Claire Staines has apparently fled. I have two notifications of replies but when I clicked on them nothing pops up and her entire thread was deleted. Does anyone have any screen shots of the two bits I missed. I have screen shots of the balance and I will repost it in its entirety.

She did reply:

Claire Staines: Not fled John

Just more productive things to do with my time. I shouldn’t have bothered commenting in the first place. I left my reply long enough I thought for you to see. I removed my comment as I can’t be bothered getting notifications and being questioned in the frankly insulting manner you were, I’m sure you’ll see it differently of course. Makes no odds to me really.

Feel free to post the screen shots if that makes you happy.


John Wade: Claire Staines Would you be willing to provide the missing bits so as to fairly represent your views?

Claire StainesI’m good thanks.

John Wade: Claire Staines I feel compelled to point out that I think once again you are being disingenuous. This time when you say you “removed my comment as I can’t be bothered getting notifications and being questioned in the frankly insulting manner you were.”

You simply turn off notifications.

I think it more likely that you deleted your comments because you were getting an intellectual shellacking. (Which is not the end of the world for self confident people) You may have believed as you said early in the thread “I’m not frightened. Simply amused.” However, I don’t think notifications were the problem as much as your learning very quickly into our exchange that perhaps you should have entered the debate with if not a little fear, at least some respect and far less arrogance.

I could have been insulted by any and all of that but chose to engage using critical thinking as honestly as I could because I believe far more in your charter than it seems you do. That wasn’t always the case for me. There was a time I conducted myself far less civilly than you did. So, perhaps with time you will also change for the better.

In conclusion, in my view you have played fast and loose with regard to what constitutes science and force so, deleting your input and subsequently altering the reality inside your head as to why you have done so is in keeping.

It was however, very unfair to me and to anyone following along. Not in keeping at all with your charter.

Other than her making a cheap parting shot that pretty much ended it.

I feel bad that I could not include her complete replies and would give her the opportunity to include them unedited in a heart beat if she kept copies before her flee response. If you wish to reach out to Claire (respectfully) she can be found on Facebook Her website is, and the association mentioned in the debate that she is on the steering committee for which I don’t think she particularly well represented can be found here –

So what do you think? Was she not treated respectfully?

Is someone that says,“In my opinion, so long as you aren’t using harsh punishers (physically or emotionally) then you have to do what you have to do.“ truly force-free?
Does ‘All Positive/Force-Free’ have any scientific support outside of the highly controlled environment and in real world settings?


Please note, if you enjoyed and supported this exchange and you would like to support the pawdcast I am about to launch to help pay the bills and counter the harassment I receive as described above you can do so for as little as $1.00 an episode. It’s one way to support getting the message out regarding real balanced vs ‘All Positive/Force-Free’ and ‘Might Is Right’ training.

Visit: to learn how you can support spreading the balanced dog training message.

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