What it means to be a Balanced Trainer

In all my experience training I have come to learn a lot of different styles of training, many of them considered golden standards in their own right. Today I just wanted to discuss the style that I have, why I have it, and why I think it is important for other handlers to train their dogs in the same ways. But… First let me discuss some of the main ways people train their dogs and why I like or dislike these things.

Aversive training or compulsive methods are also known as “Traditional Training Methods” because of the fact that it has been a standard for dog trainers all over the world for a very, very long time. When it comes to all training of canines we have to teach them that the things we want them to do or not to do comes with some sort of consequence. Aversive training focuses on the more negative consequences, focusing primarily on Negative Reinforcement and Positive Punishment. This means that there is some sort of Negative Reinforcer that makes the dog do something, such as pressure on a collar to signal to sit, and maintaining the pressure until the sit happens. With this example, the dog learns that, “If I sit, the pressure that I dislike goes away. Pressure equals sit.” Another thing this style of training really uses a lot is Positive Punishment. What this means is that you bring in a punishment to stop a behavior. An example of this would be a choke or prong collar to stop pulling. With this example, the dog learns that, “I don’t like this feeling, I should stop pulling. Stop pulling equals pressure goes away.”

The things I like about this style is that it is very effective in getting the message across to your dog. Just like when we as children burned our hands on the stove for the first, and likely only time. We learned that putting our hand on the hot stove equaled pain and discomfort for quite a long time, something that we did not want to happen again. This training style is great for correcting behaviors that we do not like, as well as getting through to some harder-to-work-with dogs such as dogs with low food drives, or very high dominance.

The thing I don’t like about this style is that you’re working your dog mainly on fear and often times pain in order to get your results. I feel that in most cases, especially in young dogs, this type of training can lead to a dog having anxieties and fears of people or things if not done correctly. Many things that are looking to be corrected can often be redirected rather than abrasively shaped into something different. There are different levels of this type of training as well, some of which are much more harsh than others and using these methods incorrectly can often lead to broken spirits or in some cases injuries!

The next type of training I want to talk about is Reward-Based Training or more commonly known as “Positive Reinforcement Training”. This gets its name for its most used form of psychological training that revolves around giving a dog what they desire when they do something you desire. This is most commonly used by the means of Food or Treats. When showing a dog how to do a command such as “Sit” or “Down”, it often starts by luring the dog with your food item (positive reinforcer) to the desired position. Then, when the dog reaches this position, you give them the treat with the command word of choice and positive association words such as “Good” or “Yes”. This teaches the dog that, “Sit equals treat! SWEET!” Dogs, just like people, are highly motivated by rewards.

The other side of this style is Negative Punishment. “What, Nick, I thought you said this was all positive?” No, not quite. Using this as part of the Reward-Based training is very important for teaching as well. This involves taking the reward away when a command isn’t followed or done correctly. An example of this would be if you’re trying to get your dog to do a “Stay”, but rather than “Stay”, the dog instead barks at you and bounces about. If you take the treat in hand away and perhaps move away from the dog, this will show that the reward they are wanting is not going to be acquired with the actions being presented. In fact, the actions are making the reward go away! This teaches the dog, “Barking does not equal treat.” And will often lead the dog, or at least allow you, to show them again the task that you wish to do.

The thing about this training style I like, a lot, is that it too is very motivational for teaching new behaviors. As I mentioned earlier, dogs are like us in the fact that they enjoy getting rewards for a job well done or the work that they have done. Isn’t this why nearly everyone goes to work every day? If the money isn’t the reward, then the actions or items spent with the money is. What keeps many of us working is the fact that at the end of the week (or two) you’re going to get a reward for the work you’ve done. That is the same of the dogs! They want to work for the things they are after, and most dogs love food, or toys, or play. Finding that thing that drives your dog forward will likely lead you to success in teaching them the things they wish to know!

The things that I don’t like about this style is that often times it is quickly turned into a game of bribery. Just like us, dogs are after something more when it comes to their rewards and training. I like pay raises, don’t you? Well your dog would certainly love to do their “2 minute down stay” for something a little more than the same cookie treat you’ve been using all this time. So what happens when you’re out in public and need to get your dogs attention, but the thing that has captured their attention such as a cat or a squirrel is greater than the treat you’re offering? This means that your training takes a back seat in your dog’s mind and the cat or squirrel takes the driver’s seat. This type of training also does not do well for correcting most behaviors. This is something to start with, but it is not easy to reverse things that are already learned behaviors. For example, you’re not going to stop a dog from growling at another dog by removing them from the situation or offering them a treat for a replacement effect. In fact, that will ENCOURAGE your dog to keep doing it. This teaches that, “If I growl, I do a sit which equals reward. Growl, Sit, Reward. Sweet!”

 

So, this leads me to the style that I use, which is a Blended or Balanced training style. This in practice is the most difficult style one can adopt, however it is by far the most effective. What this style does is take the best of all the things I just discussed and applies it to the situation at hand. I like to call this, “Applied Training” or “Toolbox Training”. Its important to be able to know all the different styles that are out there so that you can train the dog at hand. Not all dogs learn the same, just like not all people learn the same. I would be a fool if I tried to craft a table with only a hammer just as much as I would be a fool if I tried to fix a fence using only a wrench.

But what does it mean to be a balanced trainer? Well it means that I have to be open minded and willing to learn new things in the trade ALL THE TIME. Getting stuck in a routine or specific set of methods can be effective, but dangerous. It is important to try new things, work on new techniques, talk to different people, read up on different things all the time. It is easy to master Positive Reinforcement or Aversive Training only. I learn what is effective and you stick to it regardless of what might actually be best for the dog. However when a dog with low food or prey drive starts misbehaving, or a dog with a fragile spirit starts crumbling under your methods, often many trainers are left saying, “I am sorry, I can’t help your dog, they are untrainable.” This leaves the person feeling lost and often times void of hope.

Thus it is important that everyone tries their best to learn all the tricks of the trade and all the methods of madness that there is in dog training. Doing so allows you to help the most amount of people, train the most amount of dogs, and better the most amount of lives.

 

Thank you for reading this! It really means so much to me! If you have any questions or would like to share your thoughts, feel free to comment below! Or shoot me an email if you’d like!

This is Nick, Helping Your Pack, One Paw at a time.

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