Balanced dog training. A phrase that seems so obviously desirable, that it is hard for the average dog owner to understand why there is so much fuss about it between dog trainers. Unfortunately, the philosophy of “balanced” training has been under attack heavily in our industry – so much so that a huge split has occurred in the field. Instead of working together for the bigger picture, many dog trainers internationally spend hours online spreading propaganda and even harassing other professionals who do not use the same methods they do.
Let’s stop right here. Before you get a headache and exit the screen at the thought of another article slamming the +R/Force Free dog training movement, know that this one will be different.
So – what IS balanced training? Why does it ruffle so many feathers? The term separates us from the “old school”/”traditional” dog trainers and the force free/positive reinforcement only trainers, finding a happy balance somewhere in between. The idea is not to say that we use 50% treats and 50% corrections, nor is it a way to sneak a fast one by the industry or our clients. It is simply describing our work as harmonious, in the sense that we will use various tools and methods to create a happy, behaved dog. We are not in the industry to create fearful, shut down dogs. We want to help, and we do it in the way we find most successful for us.
Is there one right way to train a dog? Of course not. Saying there can only be one correct philosophy is like saying there is only one acceptable sport or type of music. Like human beings, dogs are individual creatures with different personalities, drives, and confidence levels. Some like food, some like a good game of tug, and some can’t be bothered with either. My German Shepherd, as sweet as she is on her own terms, mocks me when I try to reward her with a pat on the head. “Really, lady? A head pat? Throw the damn ball!”, I imagine her saying as she glares at me with those big brown eyes. I must oblige.
If dogs are individuals, then it makes sense to assume that each dog requires a different variation of training in order to succeed. Or, if not a custom training style, perhaps a particular teacher will get through to them. This is what many trainers from both sides don’t seem to understand. Not only are dogs unique, but so are our abilities as dog trainers. Just as a hip hop dancer might struggle to teach a ballet class, a talented force free trainer has a different developed skill than an equally talented balanced trainer. This doesn’t mean either one is wrong – just that each has developed different skills through their own experience and education. The ability to know which style of training a dog will excel under is a necessary skill for a successful dog trainer. In my own career, I never stick to one path when training. I assess each dog and each situation every second of every lesson, adjusting my style based on the feedback from the dog. Those who claim they have solved every dogs issues using one style only is either incredibly lucky to have such a biddable pool of dogs in their care, abnormally talented, or completely dishonest with themselves and our dog training community.
The problem with labels, of course, is that we set ourselves up for attacks from our peers and on social media. See, the other common misconception is that using corrections has to be harsh, inhumane, and unfair to the dog, while positive methods are permissive and destined to fail. These are not true. While there are certainly trainers (as was commonly the case in the past before many of us knew better) out there who jump straight to unfair corrections, the majority of balanced trainers work hard to ensure that dogs are set up for success using a heavy foundation of reward based training before ever correcting the dog (aside from behaviors that are outright dangerous for any party involved). On the other side, most force free trainers are dedicated to the upkeep required to keep the dog successful in distracting situations. See – our industry, while divided, has the same goal. We want the dog to succeed long-term.
Unfortunately, many balanced trainers are contacted by owners who have been through the ringer with other inexperienced trainers in the past and have reached the end of their rope, or have experienced a recent trauma involving their dog that has caused them to give up hope completely. You will see many force free trainers call prong collars and electric collars “lazy” dog training because the results come faster than counter-conditioning and desensitizing. . . because at some point, fast results became a bad thing in this industry to everyone except the dog owner and the dog. Fast results does not equal laziness or lack of trying from either dog trainer or dog owner; rather, they mean more time to enjoy life with the dog and move forward from the bad behaviors that have caused so much stress and distress to both human and dog.
With this, the tools many balanced trainers use have been under heavy attack for years. Prong collars and electronic collars (e-collars) in particular have been the driving force for the anti-correction movement. Misunderstanding and misuse of the proper techniques these tools are used with have caused most of the issue. When mentioning an e-collar, for example, many have the vision of a dog being shocked at a very high level at the first sign of disobedience, causing the dog pain and fear based compliance. While this was true when they first came out with these devices, times have changed and so have the methods. They have become multidimensional tools with often over 100 levels of stimulation, most dogs working at under a quarter of that. When I introduce an e-collar to a new dog, I ask that the dog owner feels the level I am introducing to their dog; after placing the collar against their wrist, I am most commonly asked if the collar is even on. It is not pain or fear that trains the dog – it is the technique used by the trainer, in addition to the unique sensation of the tools, paired with motivation (be it food, toys, love, or otherwise) and consistent communication that creates results.
What is the solution? I wish any of us knew the answer. My goal is to have a harmonious relationship with other dog lovers in this industry, and to constantly attempt to better myself. Not only so I can continue to grow as a dog trainer, but also so that I can continue to help even the toughest cases. Dog training is evolving every day, and new information is constantly being put out. It is our job as dog trainers, whether force free, balanced, or something else, to look objectively at the information out there and determine what works best for our needs and the needs of our clients. If we could stop all of the bickering and shaming, maybe, just maybe, we could learn a lot from one another.