I have been working with dogs for almost a year now, and have had the opportunity to learn about all the different types of training methods. My experience has quickly taught me that balanced training is the best method for your dog. Due to misconceptions and misinformation coming from social media and other outlets, the concept of balanced training commonly receives a bad rap. Many people lack a full understanding of what balanced training consists of. Working as a balanced dog trainer, I use a science based approach that includes operant conditioning and classical conditioning. In this article, I intend to dispel some of the myths surrounding balanced training methods, and provide a breakdown of the methodology used.
When I say I am a balanced trainer, this means I use all four quadrants of operant conditioning which are: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment. A common misunderstanding in the dog training world is that the word “positive” is used in the same way you would use “uplifting”, or “good”. The same can be said for the word “negative”, being mistaken for “destructive” or “bad”. When referring to a positive or negative concept, these words only mean to add or take away. The four quadrants look something like this:
Positive reinforcement means we are adding something the dog likes to ensure the behavior happens again. Positive reinforcement happens when you are giving the dog a reward. When you reward a dog, they want to continue the same behaviors for additional rewards. These rewards could be praise, treats, love, or toys.
Negative reinforcement means you are removing something aversive to ensure the desired behavior will happen again.When using negative reinforcement, you can use leash pressure (something the dog doesn’t like) to show the dog what you are asking of them and then immediately release the pressure when they do it.
Positive punishment means we are adding something the dog doesn’t like to decrease the behavior. When using positive punishment I use prong collars and eCollars paired with a verbal marker such as “no”, to give a correction. Corrections are used to communicate to our dogs that we don’t like something they are doing.
Negative punishment means we are taking away or withholding something the dog wants in order to decrease unwanted behavior. This could mean we take away a ball when they behave poorly. For example, if a dog is asked to sit and doesn’t, I will withhold a treat or reward until they do.
As you can see, there are many different ways to communicate with your pup. The goal of balanced training is to find the best way to communicate. Balanced training allows for multiple approaches, ensuring your dog is receiving the best training possible.
Now that we have a better idea of how these quadrants are defined, we can better understand how they work together, or are balanced. Balanced training allows us to adapt our training methods to fit each individual dog. I always say to “work the dog in front of you”. Every dog is different. The exact training methods that work for one dog may not work for the next. I’ve trained dogs that thrive on positive reinforcement. Some dogs may respond more to negative punishment. Having multiple ways of encouraging or correcting behavior allows us to have well-rounded, responsive dogs.
Other training methods that don’t have a balanced approach fail to address different scenarios that could arise with your dog. Many people feel that dogs can be trained through positive reinforcement alone. If your dog is trained to only work for food, there is a risk that they won’t listen to you if you don’t have anything of value to give them. Distractions the dog face could be far more interesting than the rewards in your hand. Imagine you are out on a walk and your dog sees a squirrel and isn’t taking treats from you. How are you going to get their attention? What about the doorbell at home? You won’t be able to shove a treat in your dog’s face fast enough before they run over to the door and start barking. That’s where corrections come in. We are letting the dog know there are consequences for not listening to their handler.
When dealing with a reactive or aggressive dog, you need to use more than just treats or praise to modify behavior. If I have a dog that is trying to nip at me or bite me, the proper response is not, “please don’t bite my leg, here’s a treat”. Rather, I’m going to give a verbal and physical correction to let the dog know there are going to be consequences for trying to bite me or anyone else . If you have a dog that resource guards food, and you back away every time the dog barks or growls at you, you will start to reinforce this behavior. You are removing spacial pressure, giving them what they want. A balanced mixture of corrections, rewards, and consequences are crucial for our dogs. An unbalanced approach will teach that their bad behaviors get them what they want. At the end of the day, I want to ensure all of the dogs I work with go home happy and love to train.
Balanced Training Tools
Communication is the key component in balanced training; prong collars and eCollars are some of the communication tools I use. Prong collars may look like scary torture devices, but as long as they are being used correctly, they are an amazing training and communication tool. A prong collar simulates a dog correcting another dog. When dogs correct each other they will nip each other’s necks to communicate that they didn’t like something. A prong collar has small prongs that tighten around the dog’s neck to give a correction. We are recreating the same response with the prong collar. I also use prong collars to hold dogs accountable to the commands they know.
ECollars are designed to help you communicate with your dog without a leash, and can create a reliable, off-leash dog when used appropriately. An eCollar delivers a mild electric stimulus to prevent the dog from engaging in unwanted behavior. The sensations that these collars deliver are typically seen as positive punishment, and many people incorrectly assume that this translates as harm to the dog. Instead, eCollars can be thought of as a tap on the shoulder for redirection.
Both of these tools can be extremely beneficial for you and your dog when used appropriately or by a professional. When you are able to clearly communicate what you are wanting from them and create a structured system the dog can understand, it will strengthen your relationship and build up their confidence tremendously.
Compulsive Training & Common Myths
A lot of people think balanced trainers use tools to force the dogs into commands and hurt them for not doing it. Balanced trainers always want to send the dog home happy and excited to come back and train with us. Compulsive training, however, involves physically putting dogs into commands using corrections. This could make the dog fearful of the command and of training altogether. If the dog doesnt know a command, it shouldn’t be forced into it . When training dogs, I always want to make sure I am being fair. Shocking a dog at insanely high levels to go into a command they don’t know isn’t fair. If the dog knows the command and refuses to listen, then I will give a correction. Compulsive training methods can make a dog regress tremendously in training, and can negatively affect your dog’s overall attitude towards training.
Compulsive trainers have the “alpha dog” mentality. Their methodology is based on the idea that your dog is in a constant struggle with you to become the “top dog”. As a result they train the dog to submit. Surprisingly, this method of training is based on a myth. The idea of the “alpha dog” arose around 1947 after Rudolph Schenkel wrote a paper titled “Expression Studies on Wolves.” Schenkel observed wolves in the wild and mistook a mama wolf leading her cubs as the “alpha.”
This paper was incredibly popular, and gave rise to the now outmoded notion of the “alpha wolf.” Time and time again, the alpha theory has been disproven by real world evidence. Unfortunately, trainers and owners have latched on to these dangerously outdated concepts and have applied them towards their training methods with dogs. Improper training may result in a trained dog, but it will be a dog that is fearful of corrections or fearful of you for being too forceful. Compulsive training and improper communication can severely diminish your relationship with your dog.
I know all of us only want what is best for our dogs, and using all four quadrants of operant conditioning will help find the best approach in training your dog. That is why balanced training methods will always be the best option for any problems you may be having with your pups. Happy training everyone!