Balanced Dog Training: Best of Both Worlds

Any dog-lover who is in search of any kind of information to improve their dog's behavior, be it how to stop a dog from pulling on the leash to how to manage a dog's aggression, will likely find their head spinning after a 20 minute surfing session on the internet. Why might this exercise be so confusing? Because, in the dog training world today, there seems to be two conflicting camps that exist with regards to the fundamentals of dog training. On one side, you have “Positive Reinforcement” Trainers - on the other side you have "Traditional" Trainers. One side trains primarily with food, the other condemns the use of food. One side trains dogs primarily with physical force, the other condemns the use of force.

This great divide in dog training styles is similar to the division between Republicans and Democrats. Each side makes their stance, builds a platform and then campaigns for the hearts and minds of the public. There is also the negative campaigning where time and resources are spent criticizing the other side for how horrible and wrong they are. Politics aside, when it comes to training dogs this has never made sense to me. If both sides are getting good results then they must both have some value, right? From early in my training as a professional dog trainer I have been open to all ideas, tools and techniques. Finding benefits and pitfalls on both sides of the debate, it has been my experience that the proper integration of both styles yields the benefits of both and the pitfalls of neither. Common sense right?

“Balanced” or “Integrated” dog training reaches across the aisle and creates enthusiastic, happy dogs by training with rewards but also produces fast results and reliability by layering in the use of physical pressure. This gives the trainer a “complete toolbox” and the ability to train the widest range of clients and their dogs. Let’s face it, every dog and every dog owner is going to have a unique situation. Some clients really don’t want to use food or have dogs that don’t care much for treats. Some clients will be very apprehensive about using a training collar for fear of harming or being mean to their dog. Some clients just need their dog “fixed” right now and don’t really care how it's done as long as it happens quickly and doesn’t cost a fortune. We also need to face the facts regarding various techniques. Some techniques, while gentle and motivational, simply take too long and clients don’t have that much time, money or patience. Other techniques, while a bit harsh, work really fast but can also leave negative side effects. All of the above situations can be helped effectively by Balanced Training because it offers diversity and flexibility. Most trainers will lean more heavily one way or the other, which is fine, but a truly balanced trainer will recognize when something isn’t working and will not be bound by any philosophical pledge or business model that may hinder their ability to turn the page.

Case Study Example:

A client comes to me with a large out of control dog that she has not walked in over three weeks because he pulls, barks and lunges. She previously had five sessions with a Treat-Based trainer but with very limited success. The dog was alright when not distracted but she got pulled down a couple of times when her dog saw a squirrel and was afraid of getting hurt again. She really didn’t want to use a training collar because she felt it was mean but she also realized that something had to change so she then tried a Traditional Trainer. She did a couple sessions but felt the trainer was way too harsh and noticed her dog was terrified of him so she never went back. Luckily, after experiencing both of the dog training extremes, she did not give up and by referral of a friend contacted me.

I spent an hour consulting with her before doing any actual training with her dog and explained that I was a Balanced Dog Trainer. I told her “I will be using some physical force but I will also use food, petting and praise to teach your dog to accept leash pressure in a gentle way. We may not even need a training collar at all but I want you to be open to the idea since this dog is stronger than you.”  She asked a few questions and then agreed to move forward. I assured her that she will be observing the whole thing and she can let me know if anything I did made her uncomfortable. I reminded her, “If a training collar is needed for greater leverage I will be introducing it in a non-confrontational way coupled with Positive Reinforcement.” This combination wound up giving my client the control she needed while maintaining her peace-of-mind and not harming the dog physically or emotionally. Today this client feels empowered, her dog has a positive association with the leash and collar and they to go for enjoyable walks everyday! That’s a win-win situation in my book.

Q: Could the dog have been trained strictly with “Positive” training?

A: Sure, with enough time and/or money but this person was limited on both. Plus, I doubt he would have ever been truly distraction proof and it’s only a matter of time before a squirrel crosses her path again. The longer process would also have meant the longer he went without a decent walk creating a vicious cycle.

Q: Could this dog have been trained with strictly “Traditional” training?

A: Sure, I could have just slapped a prong collar on the dog, skipped the whole treat-based-gentle-conditioning part, and taken the dog for a walk. The dog may have been fine or he may have been emotionally damaged by it, the world will never know, but the thing I know for sure is that the owner would not have been comfortable with that abrupt of an approach. Plus, why not err on the side of caution and throw in a little extra motivation for the dog? The extra time is minimal and the payoff is huge.

In my mind there is no doubt that there is plenty of middle ground between the two debating sides of dog training. I hope I have brought some clarity to your mind as well.

My goal is to bridge the gap between Traditional Dog Training and Positive Reinforcement Dog Training and offer the Best of Both Worlds.

-Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer and Canine Behavior Consultant