Go to your favorite search engine and type in “balanced dog training” and you will get pages and pages of results. It seems like everyone and their neighbour is in a hurry to offer you a “balanced” approach to working with your dog.
And why not? It’s an attractive term. If you aren’t using a balanced approach to training your dog, does that mean you are using an “unbalanced” method? Heaven forbid!
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the rapid spread of “balanced” dog training and “balanced” dog trainers has coincided with the amazing popularity of TV dog trainer Cesar Millan of The Dog Whisperer. Millan has made something of a career preaching about “balance” in relationships between humans and dogs.
It’s no surprise that other dog trainers would seek to use Millan’s terminology and popularity to promote their own services. But the term “balance” seems pretty fuzzy and undefined and, as we will see, can mean different things to different people. Even “balanced” trainers on the web define the term differently.
Perhaps we should start with Cesar Millan. What does The Dog Whisperer consider “balance” to be? In an interview with USA Today, Millan defines “balance” this way: “The one who is in control of the family is the leader, or the dominant one, or the alpha, or it’s just a matter of a word. The state of mind is the same. The rest of the pack lives in a follower state of mind”. Millan goes on to say, “In their [dogs’] world, it’s positions within the pack. So, because there is a clear understanding (that) just one that is giving direction, it’s a balanced relationship.”
So in Millan’s definition of “balance”, the human(s) establish themselves as the leaders of the “pack” and provide all the “direction” the pack needs. For the time being, let’s ignore the fact that science has proven that the dog is NOT a pack animal.
Which Balance is “Balance”?
I decided to take a random sampling of the most popular results in my favourite search engines to see how trainers who call themselves “Balanced Trainers” define term “balance”. I was pretty surprised by the results. Most of the sites have lengthy descriptions of their “balanced” training methods and some even try to invoke operant conditioning terminology and do it inaccurately.
Here’s a small sampling of what I found:
Shute Balanced Dog Training: “Jason’s methods balance positive and negative reinforcement which promotes conscious decision-making from the dog and will ensure that your dog will respond to your first command anywhere, everywhere and all the time.” NOTE: Negative reinforcement, as defined in operant conditioning, means to REMOVE something unpleasant or unwanted in order to INCREASE a desired behaviour. The website does not mention how the unpleasant stimulus is applied in their method nor how its removal improves behaviour.
K9 Balance Training: “Finding the balance is the most effective way to train. You do correct for unwanted behaviours but you always do so calmly, you are never yelling or being angry or frustrated while doing so. You do reward for the good behaviours as well preferably with praise or toy and only sometimes food – the food must only be a reward and not a lure. This is all about being the pack leader and teaching them the best way they understand – the same way they teach each other“
Precision K9: “The main elements in balanced training are negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement. Dogs live for the moment, so both reward and correction must be for the moment, too.” NOTE: Again, Negative Reinforcement is incorrectly defined as a “correction”. In operant conditioning terms, a “correction” would be positive punishment — the addition of an unpleasant stimulus to REDUCE an UNDESIRED behaviour.
Niagara Dog Training: “Niagara Dog Training uses a Balanced Training Method: Correcting Undesirable Behaviour while Praising the Positive. The system is called ‘First Command Response’: Your dog will respond to you on the First Command. If you repeat commands and let your dog get away without compliance, he/she will learn to be in control and the undesirable behaviour will continue to get worse.“
Beyond the Leash: “Your dog will learn to respond to you out of RESPECT for you as leader of his/her “pack”. You will instill this leadership role by speaking to a him/her in a language that is natural to the dog and is based on instinctual wolf pack behaviour so he/she will easily understand. Our BALANCED methods will let the dog know the difference between wanted and unwanted behaviours. We will use both positive and negative re-enforcements in a manner that will increase the bond between you and your dog and get results quickly.“
Common Themes, Big Promises
My reading of the websites above and several more not listed shows some common themes. Remarkably, one of the most common traits these sites share is a very vague description of the actual techniques and philosophies behind the training methodology used.
Many of the sites go to great lengths to demonstrate an association with Cesar Millan, TV’s Dog Whisperer. Brian Agnew of The Balanced Dog goes into detail about his training by a dog trainer who was “mentored” by Millan. Another website even bills its trainer as the Ottawa’s Dog Whisperer.
Another common theme is the suggestion that discipline or a firm hand is necessary for “balance”. There are frequent references to either “nature” or dogs in their natural environment (whatever that is…the dog is a domesticated animal) and how certain behaviours must be corrected or stopped. While the suggestion that a dog will encounter aversive situations in life is mostly accurate, these descriptions sound more like justifications for showing the dog who is “in charge” of things, as if providing the food and water wasn’t enough to demonstrate that. The implication is that “balance” is punishing as much as you reward. The pleasant and unpleasant balance each other out in some unspecified equation.
There are promises too. These training methods will apparently make both you and your dogs happier. Once everyone understands who’s boss, life becomes easier for everyone. Most of the sites talk about how they can get you to this magical blissful state and that it will be permanent. Once your dog is trained, he is trained. In fact, some sites even offer services where you can drop off the dog and they will train him for you.
Perhaps most remarkable of all is the assertion by many of these websites that their “balanced” methods will bring FAST results. This is consistent with another main theme of many of these websites: the promise to stop any of a number of undesired behaviours like soiling the house, barking, jumping, etc.
So Millan seems to have sparked a redefinition in dog training, but has anything really changed? If we take a closer look, there are some pretty clear signs that this is mostly the same stuff in a new wrapper. “Corrections” are now defined as using “Calm Assertive Energy” or “Negative Reinforcement” (an inaccurate use of the term). Being the “alpha dog” has now been replaced by “pack leader.” In many ways, “Balanced Training” has simply become the “Tough Love” for a politically-correct generation seeking socially acceptable terms for the same old correction based training.
Guilt by Implication
As a science-based trainer, I’m dismayed by the prevalence of incorrect information on many of these “balanced” dog training sites. The frequent misinterpretation of “negative reinforcement” is particularly troublesome. What balanced trainers describe as “negative reinforcement” is often “positive punishment” in the form of a correction. Almost invariably what the trainer is punishing is non-compliance with a cue or request for a behaviour. In effect, the dog gets “corrected” for not doing something he/she may or may not understand that he/she was supposed to do. So the dog is punished for making the attempt to comply if they don’t get it right.
Many balanced trainers warn dog owners not to let their dogs get away with non-compliance. Niagara Dog Training even warns that non-compliance can lead to things “getting worse”. It’s the canine equivalent of “spare the rod and spoil the child”. Balanced trainers suggest that the only way to achieve “balance” in training is to include a healthy dose of correction for non-compliance along with the rewards for doing as asked.
The implication then is that those who do not use corrections in training are unbalanced? It’s clever marketing tactic but wildly inaccurate. Teaching a dog which behaviours we prefer shouldn’t be about eliminating all of the alternatives through corrections. If you had a choice to teach your dog what is INCORRECT versus what you WANT them to do, which is the shorter list? Wouldn’t it be easier to reward the correct responses than to punish the incorrect ones? Dogs live such short lives compared to us. Does that sound “unbalanced” to you?
The Song Remains The Same
Balanced trainers may have changed the beat, but the song they sing remains the same. More than half of the sites I looked at make a point of saying their methods either do not use food or minimize its use. The dog should work for just praise or physical affection. Many of the site referred to clickers and clicker training as a “gimmick” even though that training methodology has been with us since the 1950s and has been effective on hundreds of different species of animals including dogs. Compliance with commands is mandatory and non-compliance should result in swift and effective “corrections” or undesired behaviour could get worse. That’s a song that is all too familiar in the dog training world. Didn’t we call that “Traditional Training”?
It’s an interesting time in dog training. Behavioural science is making dog training much easier and more effective. Children can be taught to use clicker training to teach dogs. Rather than Fido being the wild animal to be feared and dominated, many homes are instead enjoying a cooperative training relationship that seeks to integrate the dog into the family without conflict. But where does this leave the Traditional Dog Trainer with his choke chains and alpha dominance mystique?
Not surprisingly, the clever trainer adapts. Correction becomes Negative Reinforcement. Alpha becomes Pack Leader. Traditional Training becomes Balanced Training. As their market share gets threatened by new techniques that they do not understand, they get louder. As these new techniques produce equivalent or better results than theirs, they will try to discredit them any way they can. Traditional trainers will likely get more vocal and shrill as reinforcement based techniques continue to gain popularity.
It’s important to bear in mind an important fact when looking at corrections. Corrections reinforce the person doing the correcting. You jerk that leash and the behaviour stops — you have power. That’s a good feeling, so good that you might not notice the other things your correction is doing to your dog’s behaviour. Is it any surprise that balanced dog trainers are telling you they can get you quick results? You will probably feel successful the instant you stop what you don’t want, and in a few months, you may be happy (or maybe dismayed) that your dog doesn’t seem as lively and eager anymore.
The fact is that tens of millions of dollars are spent every year in North America by people who are just trying to train their dogs. Some of these people go from one trainer to another, one method to another, in hopes of getting the dog they had as a child or the one they saw on TV. They just want a dog to understand what they want from them. The lucky ones will find trainers who will teach them about the best ways to communicate at the dog’s level, helping the dog to understand very human concepts in a way a dog can comprehend. The rest will likely embark on a struggle with their dogs for “control” or “dominance” and while the dog may seem happy enough, the dog will be put through a series of unnecessary tests and ordeals until she figures it out.
When the time comes to spend your training dollars and teach that new puppy with the big brown eyes, I hope you will try to see past the rhetoric and misinformation. I promise you the truth about dogs is out there. There are lots of great books and websites. Many knowledgeable trainers are out there too, ready to help you develop a healthy and cooperative relationship with your dog. Chances are, your dog will spend his or her lifetime with you. That life should be as free from stress and full of fun as we can make it.
Decide how you want to live with your dog and then find the help you need to get there. All dogs can be trained using behavioural science and positive methods, regardless of their age. You can teach an old dog new tricks and have fun doing it at the same time.
“Balanced” training raised a red flag for me because:
a) its practitioners are not even consistent with each other in their definition of the term;
b) much of what I read sounded strangely familiar from things I was taught and read many years ago, so it’s not new, and;
c) I’m just not a believer in “quick fix” techniques that don’t take my dog’s motivation and happiness into account.
If that makes me “unbalanced”, so be it. I’m certain that I’m not alone. My dogs and I are very happy the way we are.
Until next time, have FUN with your dogs!
All photos are public domain from Flickr