There is a wealth of information about dog training tactics and tools on the internet. However there is this thick dark film over what “balanced training” entails, when done with the best interest of a dog’s cognitive development and training health at the forefront. So, what, is balanced training, in comparison to pro-positive training?
Many of us have had that terrible day where you just can’t make yourself feel better, or achieve what you need to. The day where you knew that you had done everything you could to try and lift yourself up- you have eaten healthy snacks, stretched, gone for a walk, put on music etc etc. Nothing works, you are exhausted. Then that friend pops up on your facebook and asks “Have you tried yoga?” Immediately, your exhausted mind leaps to attack mode. “Of course I fucking have. I’ve tried every remedy, every tincture, every positive thought app, Susan.” It is so common for those of us who experience chronic illnesses, mental health concerns, and maybe even those of us who are just on the realist side of the positivity spectrum to experience these interactions. You find yourself snapping at people whose intentions are good, but who just don’t understand the complexity of your condition- whatever that may be.
This is one manifestation of “toxic positivity” (for further information check out this link) and how it impacts our relationships between each other, as human beings. But is our tendency to always “look on the sunny side” also impacting our relationships with our dogs?
I believe the answer is yes, and I further believe that balanced training is the answer. There are helpful life tips that come with appropriate and positive suggestions. As someone who lives with chronic health challenges that require a service dog- I definitely also do much better when I get enough sleep, eat well, and think happy thoughts. But if you take away my medication, my service dog, and the other medical interventions I have sought- it’s not enough for me to just do those things. I’m not everyone- but I am the best judge (with a team of experts) to figure out a comprehensive health plan.
The same is true for dogs. Many dogs are naturally food motivated, eager to please, relatively confident and friendly. All dogs do better with proper food, exercise, routine, and fun training opportunities. But not all (most) dogs do best just on this protocol. Balanced training acknowledges this, and seeks to find biologically appropriately provide additional resources to resolve behavior issues and complete training that will not be resolved using positive methods alone.
There is a huge push in the public dog training media to set positive only training as the standard for “the best” in dog care. This ideology eaves out so many dogs, and could easily lead to dogs being euthanized because their behavior concerns are so severe. I wish that every dog that we come into contact with could just be told “yes”, reinforced with food, and automatically assume “no” just as enthusiastically. But frankly- that’s a tall order than even most humans can not comprehend, and it is an unfair ask to most dogs. It is just as important to compassionately tell a dog “no” in a language they understand, so as not to lead to frustration and overall training stall.
It is not just “hard” dogs that can be negatively impacted by positive-only training methods. One phrase that keeps me focused when training dogs is “The problem with rose colored glasses is that you don’t see any red flags.” Much like I slowly lose trust in friends and family who promote “toxic positivity”, dogs can also lose trust in us when we do not communicate within their specific limitations- or acknowledge that they have bigger issues than just needing a food reward to mark wanted behavior.
Balanced training, when done the BFTD way, encourages a dog to think through their actions, teaches focus and trust to their handler first, and teaches basic pattern response. Dogs are ultimately pattern thinkers. Fido thinks “If I do this, then this happens” which is why food reinforcement is so effective. “If I sit when the human lifts their hand, I get food”. But it is also why behavior challenges are so complicated to correct. “If I bark at the strange dog, the dog goes away” is a great example of dog pattern thinking. This pattern is exceptionally hard to redirect using “If I bark at a strange dog, but stop and then maybe look in their direction, I could earn food”. Most dogs need a direct, clear action that corresponds with their own. Once that has happened- usually a correction which could be any combination of verbal, leash or spatial pressure- then you can ask for the alternative behavior and reward that action with food. But we strongly believe that asking a dog to perform the alternative behavior without making the link between their first action, and our desired action is unfair and stressful for dogs.
Balanced training acknowledges the reality of nature- mother dogs are not always sweet and soft- but they are always caring. Care for individuals in humans looks drastically differently for each person, and we rely on each other to communicate needs. When that doesn’t happen- conflict explodes. Our relationship with dogs is not dissimilar. If we don’t first start with how a dog primarily communicates, through body language- we are asking a very high burden of those dogs. The tools that we use are balanced trainers are demonized as cruel, and painful. But it is never about the tools. It is about whose hands are on the tools, any tool can be cruel or misused. Dogs who are crated for 14 hours straight without a break are not receiving appropriate crate training. The crate is being used not as a boundary and safe space- but as storage. The same can be true with a harness- putting intense and constant pressure on a harness is not beneficial for training, and can cause substantial injury (including escape) to any sized dog. Dog owners when properly trained, will use vastly less force and pressure using a properly fitted prong collar then whipping around a dog on tool that isn’t meant for offering direction- such as a flat collar or a harness.
The foundation of all of our training at BFTD is understanding the big picture. We look at the needs of the family, the needs of the dog, and our collective goals together to find a complete approach. We take the physical strength of the handler, and the capability of the dog, everyone’s learning style, and the dog’s full behavior history into our consideration. Nothing that we suggest is based on harming a dog, rather we use the tools that will allow our families to offer their dogs a wider window of opportunity. Too often, I have heard that balanced training somehow “breaks the trust” between handlers and their pets. But what actually breaks trust- is not meeting a dog’s needs- which are vastly different from our needs as people, and keeping that in the forefront would benefit any dog trainer or owner. We see dog training as a highly skilled trade- and thus certain tools are required for certain tasks or skills, depending on the dogs we work with. My high drive Australian shepherd is like a buzz saw in the wrong hands, but works as my service dog daily and is the standard for perfect behavior when she is in harness. It is not “in spite” of the tools I have used to train her, which includes both a prong and an e-collar- but because I understand how and when to use these tools that she has been successfully rehabilitated, and has a full time job. This is balanced training, and I’m proud to be a part of it.
Boston for the Dogs