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Is your dog trainer "balanced"?

How important is it that your dog trainer is balanced?


We advocate for moderation and balance in many areas of our lives, from what we eat, to how we spend our time. At first glance, balanced training sounds like something we should all get behind, a perfect combination of training techniques, but when we look closer it isn’t quite that simple.

Balanced training seems to imply the use of all tools and methods in equal proportions. In reality, I don’t know any successful trainers who actually use a perfect balance of all tools and training methods because it really isn’t all that functional to use all methods and tools equally for every dog. Dogs are individuals and the tools and methods need to be selected carefully to reflect that.

From my experience, trainers that call themselves “balanced”, can refer to everything from those who:

  • Lead with positive punishment and follow with rewards

  • Primarily use positive reinforcement and follow with aversives

  • Use treats, toys, prongs and e-collars to train

  • Claim to use no tools or treats at all

  • Adhere to almost magical training techniques

The only thing that I have found in common with all balanced trainers is that they all use positive punishment (described below) to some extent in their training. The main difference among these trainers is the degree to which they use positive punishment and the situations in which they choose to use it.

We might not be able to nail down a single definition of what balanced training is but maybe a discussion of the goals and objectives of balanced training will shed some light. Most trainers will claim that they are attempting to “balance” the dog, but there is no agreement here either on what a “balanced” dog looks like. Some trainers call a happy, outgoing dog balanced, while others are looking for a very calm, quiet demeanor.

In my opinion, what we should all be striving for is to bring out the best in the dog in front of us. It is an amazing thing to see a dog who is free from fear, anxiety, reactivity and stress, and who responds happily and willingly to your obedience cues. I might call that dog balanced but my preference would be to be a little more descriptive and call that dog high functioning and obedient.

Using this definition of balanced, how do you get a dog to that point? I would argue that training in the absence of positive reinforcement is unethical and ineffective so I always start with a positive reinforcement foundation to build drive to work, and a solid relationship with the trainer.

Positive reinforcement is used to increase desired behaviours by providing desired consequences, and to indirectly decrease the behaviours you don’t like by replacing them with ones you do. The problem with stopping here is that you can end up with a dog who can do a lot of things you like, plus a lot things you don’t. Positive reinforcement only, will not give you the high functioning, or balanced dog we described above. There are many other concepts in training and behaviour modification needed to create the big picture.

Positive punishment on the other hand is used to decrease behaviour directly. When the dog does something you don’t like, you apply an aversive stimulus in the hopes that the dog will avoid that behaviour in the future in order to avoid that negative experience. Sounds like a simple concept to use to round out your balanced training plan, but there are a couple down sides to positive punishment including physical and emotional harm to your dog. Some dogs will learn associations you didn’t intend them to learn. For example; if you collar correct your dog for barking at another dog, they may decide that the correction was caused by the presence of the other dog, not a result of barking at the other dog. You could end up with a dog that doesn’t like other dogs, and still barks.

Despite our best intentions, it isn’t up to the trainer to decide what associations the dog makes. I would like to note that this doesn’t mean that you should never use positive punishment. There are times when you might be willing to risk it, but there are also things you could try before you go that route.

Alternatives to Positive Punishment

The following are some alternatives to positive punishment when you want to eliminate problematic behaviour:

  1. Control antecedents: Remove the cause of the bad behaviour. I was once asked by a client how to get the dog to stop growling when they blow in his face (the antecedent). I told them to stop blowing in his face. Sometimes it’s really that simple. Another client was frustrated by their dog barking at everyone who passes by the house so I recommended window frosting to make it more difficult for the dog to see the people (antecedent) to bark at.

  1. Classical conditioning: If you change the dog’s emotional response to the situation, a change in behavioural response will follow. Reactivity and aggression is often a response to stress, fear, and anxiety. If we can change the way a dog responds to things that cause them stress, fear and anxiety, they no longer have a reason to react negatively.

  1. Train an incompatible behaviour: Your dog can’t do a down stay in the living room and jump on your guests at the front door at the same time.

  1. Control consequences/extinction: Take away the reinforcers that maintain the behaviour you don’t like. Stop petting your dog every time they bug you, and stop leaving food on the counter for them to steal. If the behaviour doesn’t pay off, they won’t continue to do it.

  1. Negative punishment: If the dog misbehaves you can take away toys, treats, or freedom. Time outs when used correctly are a great way to teach your dog that their actions have consequences.

Do You Really Need Positive Punishment?

If you try all of the options above before you reach for positive punishment, you will find that you are using positive punishment less and less. As your use of positive punishment diminishes, you may feel that your training plan is becoming more unbalanced by traditional definitions. In reality we just shifted the balance point in favour of positive reinforcement and the other alternatives. Positive punishment is not a requirement in any training plan if we get creative about solving our problems, but may be a legitimate choice when other less invasive options have failed, or are not feasible given the situation.

My professional opinion is that the conversation should not be whether you will use positive punishment in training, but rather how you get to that point. Some trainers will use slip leads, chokes, prongs and e-collars as a first line of defense, while other trainers prefer to use less aversive methods while keeping those options open for the cases that justify those tools.

My preference is the second type of trainer who has a commitment to using positive reinforcement over positive punishment but is able to logically work through all options until a solution is reached. This type of trainer will often identify themselves as adhering to Human Hierarchy or LIMA (Least Intrusive Minimally Aversive), which both reflect that there is a hierarchy and progression of training methods that insure that all animals are trained in the kindest and most effective way possible for the situation.

This type of trainer could be marketing themselves as “Balanced”, “Positive Reinforcement”, “Force Free”, or many other catch phrases. Like in other industries, there are many vague terms out there that are more about marketing and less about providing clarity to the consumer/customer.

The best way to determine a trainer’s actual methodology is to ask them to explain what they use and how they decide which methods are best for a particular dog. If the trainer has really thought out their training plans they should have an ethical hierarchy of techniques and tools and good reasoning behind their choices. I once talked to a “Force Free/Positive Reinforcement” trainer who appeared to use only leash pressure with a slip lead and praise to train, and disapproved of using treats and toys in training. In my mind, this is the very definition of a force based training plan and I wouldn’t have known this unless I asked questions. I am very suspicious of any trainer using popular labels until they explain what that label means to them.

So How Do You Find the Right Trainer for You?

My advice to dog owners who are looking for trainers, and trying to understand all the terms and labels out there, is to ask questions to get a better idea of what methodologies your trainer uses. All balanced trainers are not created equal. The wide range of definitions associated with the term balanced means that one balanced trainer could be an exceptionally gifted and ethical trainer while the next is abusing dogs in the name of training. The same is true for any type of label used by dog trainers. Always, judge a trainer by what they do, not how they label themselves.

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