We use a truly balanced method when it comes to training dogs. A very simple explanation of “balance methods” would be that we use both reward based techniques and corrections when necessary. In other words, the trainer will teach them that their choices and behaviors can result in either something pleasant or unpleasant. This seems pretty basic and straightforward, but we need to understand the basics of dog training history.
Decades ago, dog training was done very differently than it is done today. Dog training used to be pretty forceful and compulsion based. Realistically, this provided only one motivator for the dog to listen, avoiding lots of discomfort and stress. The biggest issue is that this force was being applied to the dog before they knew what to do. They had to figure it out while they got a significant amount of pressure and stress. Looking back, we can obviously see how ethically and morally wrong this was, but it also created lots of undesirable side effects in the dogs.
In the 80’s, dog training pretty much did a complete 180. Trainers started using techniques from the exotic and marine mammal fields. In these areas, people are unable to use force, so they use reward based training. Keep the animal hungry, Get them to behave, do a command or trick, and reward them with a small piece of food. Tons of books have since come out promoting these methods and talking about how horrible “old school” use of force is. This started a trend of trainers only using reward based training without any sort of corrections. Of course no one likes to punish dogs with those old school techniques, and the idea of never having to do it again was extremely attractive to dog owners. This reward based approach has become extremely beneficial, and we can now accomplish far more than we used to, but in time, many dog owners and trainers realized that this “one way street” of training didn’t quite hold up in public. When it comes to problematic behaviors, maintaining a consistent response when rewards aren’t present, and where animal instincts to chase something, reward only training starts to fall apart.
Over the last 15 years, a more balanced approach to training has evolved. A balance between shaping and rewarding correct behaviors, and correcting behaviors we do not want. Now, this does not mean we go all the way back 50, 60 years and bring back those methods. We still need to understand that these are living, breathing animals. Not some robot program. We have to be thoughtful and careful about when and how much pressure we use.
With all of that said, we begin a dog's education through the use of rewards. Dogs learn new behaviors through goal driven learning that is both enjoyable and effective. The dog is allowed to gain an understanding of the training exercises without concern about making a mistake. As we progress through the training and more reliability is needed, we can introduce corrections carefully and at very low levels to ensure we avoid the problems associated with the crude techniques of the past. Before using any tools to “correct” a dog for disobedience, we must start with teaching the dog that they can control this pressure. They have the ability to turn it off with their actions. After many repetitions, the dog starts to understand these tools as just another way of communication which allows us to help them navigate the world and earn more rewards and praise.
This may seem a bit technical. That’s because it is. Good dog training is complex. The concept of correction should not be approached carelessly. To say it as simply as possible, we teach the dog what to do in all sorts of situations, then hold them accountable to the standards we set. Although there may be other variations of this approach, this is modern balanced dog training that we use at St. Louis Dog School. It is a way of approaching dog training and behavior that is both fair and compassionate, while also creating real world reliability that is achievable for the everyday dog owner.