Reward-based trainer

I am a reward-based trainer, which means I work hard to teach an animal what to do by using positive reinforcement. This is usually food, but will also be toys, games, activity, praise, scratches, togetherness and environmental stimuli like sniffs or things to watch. I want to reward animals for doing the right thing, so that I don’t have to correct them for getting it wrong. Animals have an amazing capacity to learn: it’s up to us to help them live their best life.


I am also a behaviourist, which means I take into consideration the animal’s environment; sleeping and resting areas; food; enrichment; friends; schedules and routines; and their relationships with everyone they have contact with. This is a holistic way of looking at problems. I recommend a vet check first for any new or worrying behaviours, especially if it involves aggression. Pain and illness need to be treated first before a behaviour problem can be worked on – and if a medical problem is resolved, often the behaviour issues will be resolved too.


I always think the best of an animal, and have a strong sense of empathy which allows me to see past the issues, and connect with them at a deeper level. I don’t believe animals have to submit to us, and I don’t believe we have to be the boss/ alpha/ dominant. It’s true that we need to be responsible for their behaviour, and teach them good behaviours and boundaries, but this doesn’t have to be strict adherence to a set of rules that give humans power over animals just because we can. I believe we can work in a partnership. I acknowledge that this takes time, commitment and communication to develop. We should accept this, and take the time it takes, without seeking faster methods which would be to the detriment of our pets. I do not use ‘quick-fixes’ as they do not address the underlying issues. I think that there is enough evidence (both scientific and anecdotal) to show that animals have complex social and emotional lives, just like us. We can help them to cope, or we can make things worse and more stressful for them. When animals are ‘naughty’ it’s usually because they are confused about what’s being asked of them; because they are not being listened to or treated fairly; because they are scared or in pain; or because a need has not been met.

Why I don't call myself a force-free trainer

I’m very aware that all training involves a certain amount of unintended or minimally aversive punishment and negative reinforcement. Taking away (or preventing access to) a reward is punishment; using a no-reward marker or a firm ‘no’, ‘off’ or ‘leave’ vocal cue is punishment; and using (even the gentlest) collars/ leads/ harnesses/ head halters can result in punishment or negative reinforcement. Because I use all these things, I do not call myself a force-free or positive-only trainer.

But I do concentrate on rewards, and on teaching an animal what to do.

I don’t rely on (or rush to use) punishment and negative reinforcement to change an animal’s behaviour. Although punishment stops a behaviour, it works by suppressing it through the use of fear, pain or discomfort. I don’t want to put an animal through that experience if I can train them using rewards.

I believe it’s important to always ask what an animal can be trained to do, rather than trying to stop bad behaviour. Prevention and management are also important, to give training chance to catch up with real life. I recommend the use barriers such as baby gates, partly as protected contact for unsafe behaviours, but also to help teach stay or settle or coping with separation anxiety, or for toilet training purposes. I prefer owners to use the ‘crate plus pen’ system, which gives puppies and dogs a larger area to be confined in. If only a crate is to be used, I believe it should be the largest possible size for the space available (bed one end, toys and puppy pads the other if necessary).

Helping horses through reward-based training

Protected contact and the reverse round pen are great ways to help begin to teach a horse a new way of interacting with people, while keeping everyone safe. Horses often show bad behaviour when being handled or being ridden because they are in pain, or are afraid, frustrated or confused. The aim is to understand why this is happening, and help them to understand what’s required without putting them under extra pressure, and to reward them for getting it right. My aim is always to teach a horse what to do using positive reinforcement. If negative reinforcement is needed, I aim for it to be at the lowest possible level. I do not recommend the use of severe bits, whips, spurs, constricting/ corrective tack, or thin rope headcollars.

Helping cats through reward-based training

Most feline behaviours can be improved with environmental changes, food rewards for calm approaches, and play therapy. Punishment and negative reinforcement are not only unnecessary, their use will add to a cat’s stress and likely increase problems rather than reduce them.

Strong foundations

Creating strong foundations allows all other training to flow from this. Teaching an animal to be confident and creative increases their learning abilities, whereas punishment often shuts this down.

Dealing with emergency situations

If I have to use punishment, perhaps in an emergency situation, or if there’s a safety concern, this will be at the lowest possible level for the shortest possible time. Once the situation has been dealt with, I will go straight back to using rewards. The aim is always to NOT use punishment and negative reinforcement.

Shaping, desensitisation and counterconditioning

If an animal behaves in a ‘bad’ way, I first want to understand why it happened, and to make sure it doesn’t happen again through careful planning, and by rewarding them for doing the right thing. I use a lot of shaping (moving ever closer to an end goal), desensitisation (helping an animal cope with a fear by careful introduction of the trigger at low levels) and counterconditioning (changing an animal’s emotions and response to a trigger, perhaps from fear to excitement).

Behaviour (whether good or bad) is communication, and I seek to understand what the animal is trying to say, and then to make changes in their life so they can be happy and comfortable.

Aversive tools

Just for clarity…

I DO NOT use shock/ spray/ electrical stimulation/ vibration/ ultrasonic e-collars; or remote/ automatic devices that use these unpleasant (and sometimes painful) sensations.

I DO NOT use prong/ pinch collars.

I DO NOT use check chains/ choke chains/ slip leads/ grot collars/ dominant-dog collars.

I DO NOT use constricting harnesses or figure-eight leads.

I sometimes use half-check collars for dogs likely to pull out of a flat collar, but only if they are well-fitting and do not tighten unnecessarily small. A half-check should only prevent a dog pulling out of the collar – it should not cause discomfort, and it should not interfere with breathing.

I sometimes use and recommend well-fitting head halters during the training process, especially if there’s a safety issue. Ideally with a double-ended lead, with the second attachment on a harness or flat collar.

I generally use a flat collar, or a well-fitting non-constricting harness, or sometimes both (with a double-ended lead).

I DO NOT use dominance theory techniques, alpha rolls, forced sit or down, or tactile corrections.

Always learning

I’m committed to continue studying animal behaviour and training, and am always open to new ideas and techniques.

But I will always strive to train in an ethical way, both in the way I run my business, and the way I treat the animals and people I work with. Our pets are with us for a short time in our lives, and it’s within our power to treat them with kindness, understanding and empathy.


Have you got a question about the training I do, or about pet training in general?

You can contact me via email or you can leave a comment on my Facebook page.


© Sarah Crockford 9/12/23