Why I Decided to Go with Balanced Dog Training

Laila, the dog I never intended to have, the dog I struggled to develop affection for, the dog I initially wanted nothing to do with, brought me into the world of dogs and dog training more deeply than I could have ever anticipated. Her unpredictable behavior, tendency to chase after larger animals, and inability to respond to the training methods I believed in, led me to discover a style of training that has become my preference: balanced dog training.

Exploring Balanced Dog Training with the Help of Friends

After sharing my struggles with Laila on Instagram, I decided to delve into the world of balanced training. Many friends, who I knew adored their dogs, recommended trying an e-collar. As a dog owner, I had always believed that using tools like e-collars and prong collars was inhumane. However, I decided to have direct conversations with these friends, spoke with trainers, followed balanced trainers on Instagram, and watched videos they recommended. It didn’t take long for me to realize that when used correctly, these tools could be incredibly effective for communication with dogs. Considering the activities I enjoyed doing with my dogs such as hiking and trail running, balanced training proved to be the ideal method for us.

Attempting Positive Reinforcement Only and Facing Challenges

Before discovering balanced training, I dedicated a significant amount of time to learning about positive reinforcement. I tried various techniques recommended by renowned dog trainers, but none of them consistently worked. I spent months trying to teach Laila to walk on a loose leash, working on her excitement by rewarding her with treats for lying down, and repeatedly walking past the veterinarian’s office to familiarize her with the experience. I even practiced recall games with her, which were successful indoors but fell apart when we were in the woods. The only real accomplishment was implementing Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol in various settings. However, unless I constantly fed her, Laila wouldn’t pay attention. I grew frustrated and began resorting to forceful methods like collar tugs, yelling, and jabs. I felt guilty every time I took her out, but I didn’t know what else to do.

Memories from Childhood and Discovering Balanced Training’s Validity

During my research, I recalled a memory from my childhood. I remembered being in Vermont with my aunt and uncle, watching my uncle train their dog, Noogie. Noogie was trained using an e-collar, and he was one of the most well-behaved dogs I had ever encountered. Reflecting on this memory and knowing my aunt’s compassion for animals, I became convinced that using corrective tools for training could be humane.

Frustrations with Traditional Training and Seeking Professional Help

My partner found a trainer through the rescue organization he volunteered with, and although her methods differed from mine, I was open to trying them. We switched Laila’s collar and imposed temporary restrictions on her privileges at home. While this approach helped to some extent, certain aspects of the trainer’s methods didn’t resonate with me. We were instructed to ignore Laila during her outbursts, which meant enduring minutes of tantrums without consequences. Additionally, the way we were instructed to walk her, involving leash tugs, made her flinch every time I raised my hand. Treats were discouraged, and our progress seemed limited to leash-walking skills.

Unsatisfied with our lack of advancement, I actively sought out a balanced trainer in Spain and luckily found one two hours away. Although my partner wasn’t initially supportive, he eventually agreed to give balanced training a try.

Finally, Balanced Training Brings Results

We attended weekly group lessons with our new trainer, even if it meant driving four hours in total. It was tiring, but even after a few lessons, we noticed a difference. Before one of our early sessions, I was in tears, completely overwhelmed by Laila’s agitation and anticipation of encountering other dogs. I didn’t know how to handle the situation and felt helpless. However, with the help of our trainer, who introduced a prong collar, I gained the ability to manage and communicate effectively with Laila. When we returned home, my perspective shifted from avoiding walks to looking forward to them, as I believed balanced training was the answer we needed.

Unfortunately, our training came to an end with the termination of my relationship, affecting Laila’s progress. However, when I adopted Sitka, my next dog, I was determined to work with a balanced trainer.

Balanced Training for Sitka’s Success

Upon adopting Sitka, my first step was to get him a prong collar. Attempting to walk him without it proved futile; he hadn’t been taught to walk on a leash. Desperate to find a prong collar, I stumbled upon Ruben, a trainer who sold me a collar and introduced me to balanced training. Just like with Laila, the difference was immediate.

When I adopted Sitka in December 2019, he exhibited problematic behaviors such as whining and thrashing in the car, inability to walk on a leash, chasing small creatures, leash reactivity, and resource guarding. However, after two months of training with Ruben, most of these issues improved significantly or disappeared. I attribute this success to balanced dog training.

Understanding Balanced Training

Balanced dog training combines reward-based techniques with aversive corrections to teach desired behaviors. Tools like prong collars and e-collars are used to deliver corrections when necessary. The training method incorporates all four quadrants of operant conditioning: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment.

The Use of Corrections in Balanced Training

The purpose of employing these four quadrants is to teach dogs that their choices can result in either reward or discomfort. Balanced training introduces corrections once a behavior is associated with a command. For example, to ask for a sit, pressure is applied on the prong collar or slip lead, and the pressure is released when the dog sits. This way, the dog learns to associate pressure with the “sit” command and understands that not following the command may result in a correction. It is important to note that corrections are not meant to punish the dog, but rather to modify their behavior. The pressure applied interrupts the dog’s train of thought and redirects their focus back to the handler. A slip lead or prong collar is typically used at first, allowing the dog to understand that they have control over when pressure is applied and released. Eventually, the e-collar is introduced. With practice, the dog learns to make choices that avoid pressure application, which reduces the need for corrections. When corrections are necessary, the dog understands why they occur and can learn to avoid repeating the behavior.

Dispelling Myths and Arguments against Balanced Training

Balanced training receives considerable criticism in the dog training community. Arguments against it include claims that it is not “science-based” and that tools like prong and e-collars are cruel, abusive, and painful. However, these accusations often come from trainers who have never attempted to use such tools. While it is true that incorrect usage of these tools can lead to harm, when used methodically and correctly, they are far from abusive. The term “positive only” is misleading because positive reinforcement alone is not enough in dog training. Saying “no” to a dog, ignoring them for jumping, or even when a dog pulls against their collar involves negative punishment or negative reinforcement. These terms are often misunderstood, leading dog owners to believe that aversive tools cause harm without cause.

Similarities between Balanced Training and Force-Free Training

When comparing force-free and balanced training methods, it becomes clear that they share numerous techniques. Both methods encourage play, use reward-based methods, incorporate recall games, teach boundaries, and may utilize clickers. They value praise, utilize marker training, and rely on motivation and drive to shape behavior. However, balanced training provides an additional layer of assurance and control in challenging situations, which is particularly beneficial for highly distractible dogs or those engaging in demanding activities.

Trust, Control, and Freedom through Balanced Training

The most significant result of balanced training for me is the level of trust I have in my dog. I no longer panic in distracting situations because I know I can effectively communicate with my dog. Previously, I had resorted to urgently calling their name or expressing anger if the leash slipped or they broke a stay, desperately trying to regain control as they sprinted toward other dogs or people. Now, with a push of a button, I can send a mild tap on my dog’s shoulder and have nearly 100% confidence in their immediate response.

As a result of our balanced training, Sitka has developed perfect trail etiquette, walks calmly on a leash without pulling, reliably comes when called off-leash, can run off-leash on most trails, and his leash reactivity towards other dogs has diminished.

Choosing the Right Training Method

I would like to emphasize that my preference for balanced training does not mean I am against force-free dog training. I have friends who are incredible force-free dog trainers. I believe that there is more than one way to train a dog, and different dogs require different methods. It is crucial to choose the training method that feels right for you and your dog.

Tools I Use

Important Note: Do not use these tools without proper guidance from a professional dog trainer. Seek recommendations and do thorough research before using these tools, as incorrect usage can harm your dog.

  • Herm Sprenger Prong Collar: Although it may appear intimidating, a prong collar is designed to apply pressure safely to a dog’s neck. The prongs are angled and blunt, distributing pressure evenly and preventing any stabbing. The collar is worn high behind the ears, reducing the risk of throat injuries. The prong collar operates similarly to a martingale collar, limiting the amount of tension that can be applied.

  • E-collar Technologies ME-300 Micro Educator Remote E-Collar: This e-collar is often recommended by balanced dog trainers. It offers a range of 1/3 mile and adjustable stimulation levels from 0 to 100. The level of stimulation depends on the dog’s sensitivity and the distraction level of the environment.

Share Your Experience and Thoughts

Have you worked with a balanced trainer before? What was your experience? How has your perception of balanced dog training changed after reading this article?

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