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What is Balanced Dog Training?

A rescue group that we work closely with recently asked me for an article defining balanced dog training, the following is what I sent to them:

In it’s simplest form, Balanced Dog Training refers to any approach to dog training or behavior modification which involves the use of both reward based techniques, and aversive consequences. In other words, the trainer shows the dog that their choices and behaviors can result in either pleasant or unpleasant results. Although this sounds like a relatively straightforward concept, to fully grasp modern balanced dog training it is important to understand a bit of dog training history.

Decades ago, dog training was conducted far differently than it is done today. The old-time dog trainer primarily employed methods that involved the use of a fair degree of force to teach the dog how to respond to commands. In essence, the dog’s only motivation to listen was to avoid substantial discomfort and stress. What made this approach particularly problematic was that force was being applied to the dog before she knew what she was supposed to be doing. She was charged with figuring out the correct response, while undergoing significant pressure and stress. In addition to what today seem like the obvious moral and ethical issues with this approach, training conducted this way was wrought with undesirable side effects.

In the 1980’s dog training saw a major shift, dog trainers began borrowing from the fields of exotic and marine mammal training, where the use of force is simply not possible, and began training dogs through the use of reward based techniques, shaping and capturing desirable behaviors, and reinforcing them to increase their probability. Several books were published promoting these kinder techniques and denouncing the “old school” use of force. Before long a movement had begun of trainers who were determined to train dogs through the use of rewards exclusively, without any aversive tools or techniques. This excited the dog training community, after all, no one enjoys punishing dogs and the prospect of never having to use punishment again was extremely attractive. Although this was tremendously beneficial, and dog trainers as a whole are now capable of accomplishing far more with rewards than we ever thought possible, in due time, many dog owners and trainers realized that this idealized vision of dog training didn’t quite hold up in the real world, and not everything could be accomplished through the use of reward-only techniques. The biggest challenges arose when dealing with problematic behaviors, maintaining consistent responses when rewards aren’t present, and maintaining reliability outside of the classroom and in the real world where various distractions are competing for the dog’s attention.

Over the last 15 years, a more moderate approach to training evolved. Many of us trainers realized that to overcome the limitations of reward only training, some amount of aversive pressure is necessary. However, we also recognized that to avoid the unwanted side effects, and to maintain a level of respect and consideration for the dog’s emotional and psychological well being, we need to be careful and thoughtful about when and how aversive pressure is used. Many years of thought, practice and experience, along with significant advancement in the fields of behavioral science and psychology, have resulted in a modern approach to dog training that is both compassionate, and reliable.

In this modern, balanced approach to training, we begin a dog’s education through the use of rewards. Dogs learn new behaviors through goal driven learning that is both enjoyable and effective. The dog is allowed to gain an understanding of the training exercises without concern about making a mistake. If and when more reliability is needed, unpleasant consequences are introduced into the training program in a careful and thought-out manner to ensure that we avoid the problems associated with the crude techniques of the past. One of the most significant advancements in this area was the realization that before we use any tool such as a training collar to “correct” a dog for disobedience, we first need to make sure that the dog has an opportunity to learn not only about the training exercise, but also about the tool, meaning the dog must learn that what we call “pressure” is something that they can control and avoid through their actions. Most commonly we do this first with a leash and training collar. Through this process the dog learns all the various situations in which pressure may be applied, and the various behaviors that they can rely on to remove that pressure, and this is all done with a low intensity so the dog has the opportunity to learn about the tools without any stress. After many repetitions the dogs begin to view the leash pressure as simply another piece of valuable information, which allows us to help them navigate the world and earn rewards and praise. Only once this has been accomplished do we then use the tool in a more motivating way as necessary, to prompt the dog into appropriate choices, or correct them for willful disobedience. This process not only helps us reduce the need for punishment, but also help to ensure that if punishment is applied that the dog knows exactly why it happened, and what they can do to avoid it in the future.

If this sounds a bit technical, well, that’s because it is. Good dog training, really good dog training is complex. The concept of punishment should not be approached carelessly, and the oversight of a qualified professional is always recommended. Although there may be other variations of this approach, this is modern balanced dog training as we apply it at my training center K9 Connection. It is a way of approaching dog training and behavior that is both fair and compassionate, while also creating real world reliability that is achievable for the everyday dog owner.

-Tyler G. Muto

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