Is Steve a Balanced Trainer?

You know, I have avoided categorising myself as a Balanced Trainer for some time, why?

Well, the answer is not straight forward but if you want to better understand what various ideologies and methods are available, then this article will be worth your time.

When asked, I have always referred to myself as a “results based” trainer, still do. I base my approach on what I believe will work best with the dog and client in front of me based on my experience.

Balanced Trainers traditionally would be described as using all 4 quadrants of the Operant Conditioning principles.

Whilst the other end of the spectrum may use or aim to use only two of the four, Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment.

They may refer to themselves as Force Free, Positive Only, Purely Positive or similar names.

The reason I have refrained from pledging my allegiance to either group is that: –

  • I don’t really care what anyone else does
  • I am not jealous of what anyone else does
  • I am not competitive with others
  • I don’t want to be part of the “us or them” mentality.

Looking at each of the above

If a trainer is doing something that I don’t do or I don’t like, I would not really know, I don’t surf their pages or stalk them. Instead, I am constantly trying to meet my clients needs and better my own business, therefore, I don’t care what others are doing.

I have no reason to be jealous, I remain positive at the results we get and the happy clients we have. If I felt I deserved more, I would look at what I could do, not what others are doing.

I can’t remember the last time I was worried about not having enough work, in fact my career has been quite the opposite where through referrals from previous clients, vets and other trainers, we have a bigger problem managing the work we have.

There are many dogs in Australia and if you are offering services to dogs within your skill set, you should always have work. So, no need to be competitive.

The “Us vs Them” mentality is only going to provide a separation in the dog training community. This can only “hurt” the welfare and future of dogs in our community and country. Here is a great article (click here)

Rather than “Us or Them” I would prefer “WE”.

When people form an affiliation to one group or another, soon after Cognitive Bias occurs.

Cognitive Bias is when a person can form their own subjective reality, one that is not driven by facts or rational judgement. So, a person can start to believe things work, when they clearly don’t.

I personally try and steer away from these thought processes that would compromise my objective thinking. I don’t want to “like” one training methodology better than another, I want to use the one that provides the best results in the case before me.

But, I have accepted that Balanced Trainers are widely thought of people that will use all four quadrants of the operant conditioning principles, and as I will, I accept that may categorise me as balanced.

Which one is better?

This is the Us vs Them mentality that would pose this question, if you asked me that question, your natural desire to be part of a group wants to know.

But the reality is, I have watched some Balanced Trainers that were absolutely terrible, I have also watched some Force Free trainers invent the most ridiculous ideas, simply to avoid doing anything the dog may not like.

So, if you want not to know who is better? It is not as simple as choosing one group or another, look for someone who can show you evidence of their work.

No matter how much jargon, scientific studies they share, how much crap they pour on other trainers, how many great ideas and clever tricks they talk about, how many alliances they support with the greatest scientists, no evidence of their work means no evidence it WILL work.

I believe focusing on how to help dogs is a better use of my time and energy than arguing an “us or them” point of view.

Another reason I may not fit into a balanced group

Whilst I use all four quadrants in behaviour modification, when training for competition obedience for example, I really work the training in drive envelope hard using the Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment quadrants to a very efficient / effective level.

If your looking for performance coaching, you will be amazed at the results I can get without any positive punishment at all.

The big deal seems to be the use of punishment…

There are two applications of applying pressure or punishment to dogs, Negative Punishment and Positive Punishment.

The names will often confuse people who feel that positive = good and negative = bad, when in fact they mean add and remove. (more info here)

So, anytime the dog experiences something they don’t like, it could be defined by fitting into either, positive or negative punishment.

Here are a couple of examples.

  1. You take your dog for a walk every day at 9am. Today you walk to the front door and tell your dog “no walk today” and leave him or her behind. As the walk is enjoyable to your dog (positive reinforcement), the removal or withdrawal of that walk is classed as negative punishment.
  2. Today you are going to walk your dog and as you open the front door, it hits your dogs’ paw and hurts a little. Your dog jumps back and yelps. This would be classed as positive punishment.

Just because you “did not mean it”, does not mean it did not happen. Although by clever use of these quadrants, one can modify a dogs behaviour. Hey, it must be true, Science says so!

Most force free trainers will happily admit that Negative punishment is something that they utilise in their training.

So drilling it down, it is the use of Positive Punishment, adding pressure to a dog when he or she is displaying a behaviour, that is the contentious issue.

To assist with behaviour extinction, (the gradual reduction of a  conditioned response), people have used Positive Punishment applied to the dog at the time of behaviour being displayed.

Depending on the energy in the behaviour, high levels of punishment may be needed to change the behaviour.

This is not the only model that Positive Punishment can be used and it is not the model that I would use primarily.

A long time ago, I found that very small amounts of pressure can be used to motivate a change of behaviour as long as the dog had not already gone over threshold.

So small leash pops, for example, can be delivered to a dog that is avoiding complying with a cue. Withholding food (negative punishment) can also work with some dogs.

It is this use of pressure I feel is highly beneficial in some dogs that have low interest in food, have serious behaviour problems such as aggression and we need to effectively get the dog following cues so we can reduce the aggression.

We need to understand that this is a time sensitive situation as the longer this behaviour is displayed, the more reinforcement occurs and the likeliness of someone or something being hurt is imminent.

Therefore, restricting myself to two out of the four quadrants will severely inhibit some dog’s progress. And may provide no progress at all.

There is a big misunderstanding that many people have when it comes to using pressure or punishment in training and or behaviour modification.

I meet people that will arrive and declare that they use no punishment, and then they will sit in front of me, clicking their finger and pointing at their dog’s face until the dog looks away.

This is positive punishment.

“Mum and Dad” are sitting on the couch, and one goes to the bathroom. The dog wants to go.

The dog is held back.

This is negative punishment. The dog is being “forced” to stay. This is not force free either.

There are also extreme examples of each in which the trainer may be trying to get a result with perhaps one or the other, but they are not the only way that pressure or punishment can be used.

Side effects…

Over use or inconsistent use of any operant conditioning principle can generate undesirable side effects. Experienced trainers can structure training to minimise the chance of side effects occurring and maximise the befits of each quadrant.

For example, all medications prescribed by Doctors have side effects, these are managed by careful application and monitoring to ensure only the benefits are gained.

One way to avoid side effects are to do nothing, but then your suffering the actual behaviour…

So…., balanced?

Sure, if that is how you wish to describe a person who wants to be able to help dogs display behaviours that ultimately make their lives better.

Being presented with dogs that have failed to make any progress with other trainers and that may be displaying very disturbing or dangerous behaviours means that to help, I need a wide range of options I am versed in.

Remember one of my primary roles is Behaviour Modification of severely aggressive dogs, these dogs are not here to enjoy fun games only in a field of rainbows and fairy floss.

This does not mean that they need to be hurt, beaten, intimidated etc. but it does mean that not every section of the program will be all rewards and cuddles, because that simply wont help.

When I feel a Prong Collar is going to help the dog and owner make progress, am I going to pretend that is not the case and give them a flat collar and handful of extra tasty treats?

No, I will not at all give people advice I know will not work simply to better my image, or a person’s opinion of me.

I am not willing to risk a dog’s life on a training program that may see the dog fail to stop a dangerous behaviour, and this see’s the owner give up on the dog or the dog hurt someone or something.

The large majority of dogs we see here, have been rehearsing a lot of these behaviours for quite some time. They are often brought by owners that are broken, after trying with no success for so long. Here is a great article that explains the Broken Handler.

We don’t stick cameras in their faces and show you how broken they are, but believe you me, they can arrive in quite a state as they are just lost and need some hope to be restored.

This is not teaching cute little dogs cute little tricks.

If I fail, dogs die, people get hurt.

I am dedicated to helping dogs and owners reach a life where they are both happy with each other.

I find the large majority of my clients watch me work with their dog and understand that I am here to help them and that means I will provide programs that help that happen.

Until a person is faced with a dog they are frightened will hurt them, a child, their other dog, another person or animal, they may struggle to understand why someone would use any type of punishment on their innocent dog, but of course we need to look at all situations, not just our own to fully understand and empathise with all dog owners.

About SteveK9Pro

Steve Courtney is a Nationally Accredited Canine Behaviour Specialist, Obedience Trainer, Law Enforcement Dog Trainer and ANKC Breeder. Steve has been training dogs all his life and in these articles he shares with you his experience...

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One comment

  1. A really informative and well written read. I couldn’t be happier with the behaviour modification programs and advice Steve has given me for two of my dogs. They are a joy to live with and take anywhere … that certainly wasn’t always the case and woukd most definitely not be today without his guidance and instruction. I often think about the number of dogs who wouldn’t be here today living their best life without Steve’s intervention. My 11.5 year old dog, Bo, is one of them. What a tragedy that would have been for both of us and everyone who loves him.

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