Understanding the difference types of training methods/ Balanced versus Positive.

I have put this link on my homepage because I feel it is so important for dog owners to have this information before choosing a trainer.

I am what is called a “cross-over trainer”.  When I began training my own dogs in the late 1980’s we used force-based or correction based training.  This was a system that originated in the military for training working dogs.  Most working dogs are breeds like German shepherds, Belgian Malinois and Belgian shepherds.  They are tough, resilient guarding breeds that were usually protection trained (attack humans on cue).

Dog training classes were held in big rooms like school gymnasiums.  An instructor barked out orders like “SIT YOUR DOG”.  Handlers would say “sit” and give the dog a swift collar pop.  Dogs learned to sit in order to AVOID a painful collar pop.  This method of training works because dogs learn to respond in order to avoid something painful.  We are all hardwired to avoid unpleasant or dangerous things.  It is part of our evolutionary learning.  It is essential to survival.  Same with dogs.

But there are a couple of problems.  The biggest problem is that we can only stop or suppress behavior, we cannot make it stronger.  We cannot build it up so the dog WANTS to respond correctly, each and every time.  

Another problem is that we are building a relationship with the dog based on threat and then avoidance.  “If you don’t do it, I will hurt you”.  Not a great relationship to have with a dog.  Especially if it is a sensitive dog.  Remember, this system of training came from training tough working breeds, not Labs and Doodles.  

The next problem is that this type of training tends to be highly abused.  If one collar pop doesn’t work, what do most people do?  They make the correction harder.  At what point does a correction become abuse?

If you are a highly skilled trainer and your timing is perfect and the level of the correction is high enough, you may have to correct the dog once and…DONE.  The dog learns.  But I argue that if a trainer has that level of skill, they will not need to use correction at all.

Science finally caught up with dog training in the mid-90s.  These were techniques that had been used in marine mammal training and zoological training for years before it was brought into domestic animal.  Pioneer trainers like Karen Pryor, Bob Bailey and Ted Turner (not the CNN Ted) began educating interested dog trainers in these methods and….by the early 2000’s it was starting to enter main stream training, first starting in the dog competition world.

What is the difference?  Science tells us, and this is across species, that if you reward a behavior, that behavior will continue, it will grow stronger.  We know that. B.F. Skinner proved that with his rat boxes back in the 1950s.  Think of your own behavior?  Think about all the things you tend to happily repeat your life?  There is always a pay-off.  It is always being rewarded in some way.  It may be a financial pay-off, it might feel good intrinsically, it might taste good or feel good to touch.  Think about it!  Dogs are no different.

So today, educated trainers use Positive Reinforcement Training.  Search and Rescue, Scent Detection, Law Enforcement, Performance dogs, they are all trained this way.  Why?  Because it is hands down the most effective and lasting way to train dogs.




Enter the Dog Whisperer.  Cesar Milan did more to hurt dogs than he ever did to help them.  Folks were taken in by his use of the debunked Dominance Theory, the titillation of watching dangerous dogs be controlled by a short man doing weird stuff and the magic of TV editing.  He was finally driven off TV by the dog community because people were getting seriously hurt when their dogs turned on them after Alpha rolling the dog.  He tries to rear his ugly head now and then but it never seems to gain any traction.  This is a good thing.

But…there are a lot of trainers out there, who have not opened a book in twenty-five years, that still adhere to these methods.  They have a lovely name for it that takes the edge off…..”Balanced” Training.  It sounds nice.  “Balanced” is usually good.  But what exactly is “Balanced” training?

Balanced training is the use of both Aversive Correction (collar pops, choke collars, prong-collars and electronic shock collars) and Positive Reinforcement.

Example:  The trainer cues “sit”.  The dog sits.  The trainer rewards the dog by giving the dog a treat.

But what if the trainer cues “sit” and the doesn’t sit?  The trainer gives the dog a harsh correction.  The dog sits.  What’s the problem?

The trainer both rewarded and corrected the dog for the same cue “sit”.  Now the cue “sit” may be dangerous or it may be rewarded.  This puts the dog into conflict.  The dog is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.  The dog shuts down.  He has learned that he cannot be successful.

Balanced training is worse that purely correction based training because it puts the dog into conflict.  It can produce “poisoned” cues and create high anxiety in dogs because of the unpredictability of the corrections (from the dog’s point of view).

Internet.  The internet is full of lots of quick-fix products that stop Barking, stop Jumping, stop Pulling etc….don’t fall for this.  Good training never happens quickly.  Don’t risk damaging the relationship you have with your dog by putting a shock collar on them.  It may work in the very short term but ultimately you may end up with much more severe problems than you started with.  These collars are outlawed in Great Britain and other countries for good reasons.  The question you need to ask yourself is this:  “Why is it OK to hurt any dog”?  It isn’t.

Before hiring a trainer, look for certifications from major organizations that educate trainers.

Some of them are: Karen Pryor Academy, Certification Council for Pet Dog Trainers, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, Victoria Stillwell Academy, Jean Donaldson Academy.  These certifications are hard to get and take years of training experience and education even to sit for an exam.

Be smart.  Educate yourself.  You want the best for your dog.  Train Positively.