What is Balanced Training, and what should I look for when hiring a reputable balanced trainer?
Updated: Sep 11, 2018
Balanced Trainers use praise and rewards (food, toys, physical affection) to teach dogs – just as “Pure Positive” trainers do. This is called Positive Reinforcement, shortened to R+. R+ is just one of the four quadrants of Operant Conditioning. But instead of using just that one quadrant, Balanced Trainers use all four. These are:
Reinforcement is anything we do to encourage a behaviour.
Positive Reinforcement (R+): A [motivating] stimulus is added to increase the frequency of a behaviour. Fido sits, and is rewarded with praise, affection and/or a treat or toy.
Negative reinforcement (R-): An [aversive] stimulus is removed to increase the frequency of a behaviour. For example, you push down on your dog’s hindquarters to encourage the Sit. When the dog sits, you remove the pressure from its hindquarters. You are removing something to encourage the dog to do something. Negative Reinforcement is not punishment. The dog works to avoid something s/he dislikes.
Punishment is anything we do to stop a behaviour.
Positive punishment (P+): a stimulus is added that will reduce the frequency of behaviour. Pet Correctors or Pet Convincers, rattle bottles, and bonkers are examples of positive punishment. Stepping on a dog’s leash so that when it jumps it receives a correction is another example. Almost any introduction of force, discomfort, or physical correction is considered positive punishment.
Negative punishment (P-): a [desirable] stimulus is removed in order to reduce the frequency of a behaviour. If a dog barks for attention, and you turn your back and leave the room when it barks in order to reduce the barking behaviour, you have employed negative punishment.
Positive and Negative in dog training have nothing to do with positivity and negativity. They merely mean adding (to reinforce) and removing (to stop).
You cannot stop a behaviour by using R+. That is a contradiction. For example, teaching a thief to cook is extremely unlikely to stop him thieving. Because thieving is a self-rewarding behaviour. So you now have a thief who can make a great beef Stroganoff when he gets home with his loot. But he’s still a thief. The only way to effectively stop him wanting to thieve is to make the consequences intolerable for him.
Punishment does not mean abuse. The Oxford English Dictionary defines punishment as, “the infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offence.” As we all know, the meaningfulness of the punishment is determined by the recipient. For example, a £100 speeding ticket for one person might cause such financial distress that they would decide never to break the speed limit again. For another person, £100 would mean nothing and they would continue to break the speed limit until penalized sufficiently heavily e.g. losing their licence when they need to drive for work. This is why it is extremely important to find a trainer who will take the time to learn about your dog, what drives it and how it responds to different stimuli.
Good trainers know how to employ the effective use of all four quadrants to train a dog. For example, I can punish a dog (P+) for pulling on the lead (dangerous behaviour) with a well-timed and appropriately-applied correction but then immediately reward it (R+) for coming back to the Heel position, with verbal praise and a treat. I can then continue to command, and reward for, the Heel position every few paces, and correct when required. It is absolutely vital that the dangerous behaviour is extinguished in a timely fashion because dangerous behaviours are what put people in hospital, and dogs at the vet’s. Or worse, PTS. And with repetition, the dog will choose to assume the Heel position naturally when walking (even off leash) because it has learned that good things happen when it is in that position. When teaching a young puppy to walk nicely to heel, I would use predominantly R+ with the pup focusing on me for praise and treats, and then gradually phase out the treats and offer verbal praise only. I willcorrect for the pup moving out of position, yes – but not in the same way or at the same level as I would for the large, behaviourally-unsound dog that has already had training in how to walk to heel but is choosing not to.
Together with the four quadrants, trainers have many other tools at our disposal:
· Vocals (how we use our voice; be clear, concise and consistent. Don’t chit-chat or use baby-talk. Don’t repeat commands)
· Silence (allows the dog to offer alternate behaviours and work out for themselves what is required of them)
· Body language (communicating the way dogs do; using spatial pressure to direct a dog without verbal commands; using hand signals for commands)
· Touch (physical touch calms dogs down i.e. putting your hand against their chest (not to be confused with petting))
· Repetition (as with an army, the more you drill, or practice, a behaviour, the better a dog becomes at it)
· Clickers (to mark (capture) the precise moment a dog offers a desired behaviour)
· Latency (the time given between the praise for a behaviour and the reward for it; invaluable in building reliability)
· Flat collars
· Training Leads
· Slip leads
· Long lines
· Check, or choke, chains
· Prong collars
· Head collars (Gentle Leader; Halti)
· E Collars / Pager Collars
· Cots / Dog Beds
A reputable, experienced, knowledgeable and compassionate trainer will be able to work with you and your dog with any, some, or all of the above, depending on your and your dog’s individual circumstances. A good trainer will have many tools in their toolbox, and an open mind. When I start with a new client, we cover many things in the initial consultation, but the most important question of all for me is: how do you live with your dog?
· Does the dog know its place in your household? (my house, my rules)
· Does the dog have structure and boundaries (go to your place/bed; no busting through doorways and boundaries, or down or up stairs in front of you)
· Does the dog have unlimited access to food?
· Does the dog have unlimited access to toys?
· Is the dog properly housebroken?
· Does the dog understand what it may and may not touch, and where it may and may not lie?
· Do you set aside time to teach your dog new things, play (tug, fetch, puzzle toys), give affection, walk, and exercise off-leash?
· What are you feeding your dog and how often?
· Has the household undergone any changes (no matter how insignificant you think they may have been), or are there due to be changes in the household?
When a trainer has as complete a picture as possible of the way you live with your dog, this will enable them to tailor a training package that is right for you. The majority of problems I see come from people simply not knowing how to live with their dog or fulfill its needs properly. When you change the way you live with your dog, you will change the way the dog behaves. Far more important than unlimited and unearned love and affection are structure, boundaries, leadership and discipline. Dogs need these in order to feel secure and safe. This is how you show your dog you love them and will advocate for them. When a dog feels secure, it will act out less. When dogs feel they need to take control of a situation, is when things go wrong. Remember: dogs are predators. This is when we see behaviours such as resource guarding, destructiveness, reactivity and, ultimately, aggression. Dogs can’t defend themselves with words or hand gestures. The only way they can communicate is by using their body language – and their teeth. Your trainer should be able to teach you to understand what your dog is telling you, how to respond appropriately, and how to communicate to your dog what you want. Your trainer should be giving you all the tools you need to train your dog yourself – and then guiding you through the process so that when you are ready, they can step back and let you take the reins. A good trainer will share every ounce of knowledge and experience he or she has probably spent years acquiring, in order to empower you to be the person – the leader – your dog needs you to be. If your trainer is unwilling or unable to do this, find another.