positive reinforcement

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Originally published in IACP Safe Hands Journal, Spring 2015.

Behavior seems to be the hot trend. From leash reactivity to separation anxiety to resource guarding and other aggression issues, trainers are confronting behavior problems right and left. But what is behavior work and behavior consulting, compared to traditional training? Who is qualified to do it, and what does it involve?

Whether one is forced to handle behavior cases by necessity, or eager to market oneself as a behavior specialist, it pays to be informed of current and emerging professional standards, and to familiarize oneself with the essential elements of a responsible approach.

Keeping up with industry jargon can be challenging, so here’s a basic behavior glossary:

behavior: anything an animal does, often in response to a situation or stimulus.

behaviorism: the theory that behavior can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to thoughts or feelings, and that disorders are best treated by altering behavior patterns.

behavior modification: the use of empirically demonstrated behavior change techniques to increase or decrease the frequency of behaviors, including positive and negative reinforcement, positive and negative punishment, and extinction.

animal behaviorist: someone with a graduate degree in a related field (like zoology, ethology, biology, or psychology) and post-graduate certification. He or she may be certified by the Animal Behavior Society as an Applied Animal Behaviorist or CAAB.

board certified veterinary behaviorist: a veterinarian who is certified in the specialty of Veterinary Behavior.  Board-certified specialists are known as diplomates or DACVBs.

behavior consultant: a professional working with animals to solve behavioral problems. Behavior consultants may or may not be degreed or certified, but should pursue extensive and ongoing education in animal behavior and training. Recognized certifications include CDBC and CBCC-KA, awarded respectively by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers.

Bottom line, if you don’t sport a PhD or a DACVB, best not call yourself a behaviorist. Nonetheless, it’s wholly advisable to pursue a broad education in canine behavior and to highlight your qualifications as a behavior consultant.

So, what should a behavior consultant bring to the table, and how do successful consultants approach real cases?

Assessing Problems

Every case should begin with some manner of assessment, the accuracy of which will depend largely on history taking and observation skills. A good history teases fact from fiction. “My dog often barks at men that approach us,” is useful data. “My dog hates men!” is unhelpful speculation. Keen observation is equally critical. If concern exists over behavior around a new baby, one should be prepared to recognize subtle signs of stress, avoidance, or predation.

The consultant should also be ready to identify if basic needs are being met. Adequate diet, exercise, and medical attention should be prerequisites to any training or behavior modification program.

A Structured Approach

The solution to every behavior problem, regardless of intensity or complexity, will involve some combination of the following three components. Their relative priority may vary from case to case, but all deserve serious consideration. A truly comprehensive solution will typically involve all three.

Environmental Management: Limiting Unwanted Behavior Through Environmental Controls.

Managing exposure to environmental triggers is often a critical first step in changing behavior. All behavior is functional on some level, including problem behavior. Whether the goal is winning attention, persuading a stranger to retreat, or defending a resource, dogs will generally do what works.

By limiting opportunities to engage in unwanted behavior through environmental management, we prevent those behaviors from being reinforced, as happens each time they work as expected. This breaks the cycle of unwanted behavior and opens the door for teaching your dog what to do instead.

Good management will immediately reduce stress and/or conflict, without being unnecessarily intrusive. The need for management should decrease over time, as alternate behaviors are consistently reinforced.

Obedience Skills: Teaching Alternate or Incompatible Behaviors

Many common behavior problems are essentially “default” behaviors, things dogs do naturally in the absence of being taught otherwise. Teaching and reinforcing incompatible behaviors is frequently key to the long-term solution of behavior problems.

This requires considering what one wants the dog to do and focusing on training those behaviors, ahead of focusing on what one wants the dog to stop doing. Practical alternative behaviors may include basic obedience skills, or any other skill the dog might fairly be expected to master under moderate to high levels of distraction. For example, a dog that lunges at other dogs on the street might be trained to heel, while a dog that jumps on visitors might be taught to sit for attention.

As with environmental management, one should generally seek methods that are minimally intrusive. Strategies focused on suppressing behavior are avoided when other effective solutions exist. Good obedience training also helps build relationship and communication, the benefits of which extend far beyond specific behavior goals.

Classical Conditioning: Counter Conditioning and Desensitization

To avoid the need for eternal management and also help the dog on a psychological level, it’s sensible to invest in conditioning a better emotional/physiological response to known triggers.

Classical conditioning, or respondent learning, involves altering reflexive emotional and physiological responses, either by repeatedly pairing relevant stimuli with something pleasant or valuable, or through careful exposure that gradually desensitizes the animal over time. An example might involve pairing proximity to children with cooked chicken or gradually acclimating a dog to children via regular exposure at a safe distance.

The result is a decrease in the perceived need to behave aggressively, fearfully, etc. This can dramatically increase the likelihood of the dog making good decisions on its own in unexpected situations, even when guidance is lacking or management breaks down.

In limited cases, one may choose to condition an avoidance response through pairing a stimulus with something aversive. Snake avoidance training would be one example, as would be pairing an aversive with attempts to ingest something dangerous like rocks or tennis balls.

LIMA Principles

Even with a sturdy framework in place (our three problem solving components), designing a humane and effective program that is both comprehensive and individualized can be daunting. Given the many options that exist, it’s useful to have some guiding principles for choosing the best strategy.

Understanding LIMA principles and their practical application is considered a basic competency within the field of behavior consulting.

LIMA requires that trainers and behavior consultants use the “least intrusive, minimally aversive technique likely to succeed in achieving a training objective with minimal risk of producing adverse side effects.” [1] In practice, this means achieving results while minimizing cost to the learner and risk to any involved.

Following LIMA guidelines has additional advantages, beyond minimizing risk. They focus the trainer on respecting his subject and maintaining learner control, promote clarity in problem solving, and prevent abuse.

To be clear, LIMA does not dictate a positive reinforcement only approach. It does challenge the trainer to think outside the box of merely suppressing unwanted behavior, and to develop the skills to address behavior problems without undue reliance on deprivation, pressure, or punishment.

Emptying the Closet

Solving serious behavior problems, especially those involving aggression, should not be left to intuition, attributed to mystical factors, or performed impromptu while narrating into a camera. Success is rarely a function of charisma or the product of daredevilry, any more than effective obedience training ever has been.

Behavior may be the new black, but rest assured, no need to to flock to the runways or pay exorbitant sums for those head-turning logos. While trend seekers gawk at outrageous collections, others are quietly organizing their closets, editing their wardrobes, and shopping strategically.

A rational and responsible approach to behavior may not draw looks on the street, but it also never goes out of style. 

1. [Steven Lindsay, Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training Vol 3]


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For decades, killer whales have been held up as poster children for the power of positive reinforcement and applied operant conditioning generally to produce reliable behavior without the use of force. Yet they suffer lives of abject deprivation, if not actual psychosis.

The maiden post to this blog was in response to the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at Sea World’s Orlando park. It was the third death associated with the bull orca Tilikum, known to tourists as Shamu.

The newly released documentary Blackfish tells Tilikum’s story, and sheds light on the atrocities behind all those uplifting and profitable Sea World performances. For the record, I have not yet seen the film, but I’d hazard a guess that the message is that the magical relationship humans have achieved with these majestic creatures only seems magical to us.

To them, it is a tour of captivity, isolation, and abuse, no matter how many buckets of fish get tossed down their throats. Click here to listen to Jean-Michel Cousteau’s statement on keeping orcas for fun and profit.

Positive reinforcement based operant conditioning has proven utility both within and without the confines of zoos and amusement parks. I don’t deny that. Neither would I suggest that positive reinforcement was itself unethical. But I deny the legitimacy of extending the analogy between dogs and killer whales to the point of suggesting the best tools for engaging the latter must also be the best choice for training the former. And in so far as the management involved in captive marine mammal training is in fact abusive, there is real danger associated with modeling dog training after their example.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2013.

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If a dog is punished for growling, he will learn to suppress such warnings and go straight for a bite.

Or so I’ve been told innumerable times, most recently in a promotional blurb distributed by Whole Dog Journal. The advertisement was for a new Ebook (just $7.95) that among other things, promises to explain

How punishing a growl will lead to biting without warning

Every trainer is familiar with this caveat. It’s promoted by experts, recited like gospel, and has become a staple argument against the use of positive punishment in dog training.

But where did it come from, and what proof exists to back it up?

The Prevailing Wisdom

An online search yields no shortage of confident exhortations, but few clues as to the origin of this claim. Here is a sampling (emphases mine):

Never Punish a Growling Dog. Many dog owners get understandably upset when a dog growls. Their first reaction is often to suppress the growling by scolding or punishing the dog. This is never a good idea. By teaching your dog that growling is not an acceptable behavior, you are taking away his ability to warn you that he may bite. Often we hear stories of dogs who bite with no warning. In many cases, this is because the owners trained the dog not to give a warning growl first. –About.com

Never punish your dog for growling. This may seem counter-intuitive and may even go against the advice of your dog trainer or dog trainers you have seen on TV. If your dog growls at your child he is sending a clear warning that he is very uncomfortable with the actions or proximity of the child. Be grateful that your dog chose to warn with a growl rather than going straight to a bite. If you punish the growling, you may inhibit the warning growl the next time and the dog may bite without growling first. Punishment or scolding will not make the dog feel better about the child, in fact he may even feel more anxious and be even more likely to bite in the future, especially if you are not there to control the situation. Dog trainer Yamei Ross says, “Punishing a dog for growling is like taking the batteries out of your smoke detector. You don’t want to hear the noise, but the danger is still there.” –doggonesafe.com

Indeed, by punishing a growling dog, owners are not only depriving a dog from a very important warning tool, but are also proving to the dog that the owner is unreliable and unpredictable, significantly increasing the level of stress in the dog. More stress does not solve the problem, and next time the dog encounters the same situation he may appear to be OK with the situation when he is not. Eventually, a bite will come and this time there will be no advance warning. It will come straight and mean to the owner’s eyes –Ask A Behaviorist

Surveying the above, one might assume science had demonstrated this conclusively. After all, how else would such an oddly specific idea have become the prevailing wisdom?

More to the point: Why, in fifteen years of training dogs professionally, have I never seen this happen?

Maybe I’m an outlier, but regardless, something doesn’t add up. Right or wrong, dogs are punished for growling routinely. I’ve done it myself. Dogs do it to each other. And pet owners do it a lot. If the typical result of such temerity were in fact a dog that bit without warning, then why is the world not overrun with such dogs?

I began asking around among seasoned trainers and behavior consultants. Where did this pearl come from, and did they think it fake or genuine?

Responses ran the gamut, but the mean seemed to lie somewhere between moderate skepticism and luke warm endorsement. Some admitted to sharing my disbelief; some defended the claim’s veracity; and several offered up competing interpretations of how aggression sometimes escalates in situations where punishment has been applied.

Among the theory’s higher profile advocates is Pamela Dennison, who not only boasts first hand experience with such a dog, but actually took the trouble to write a book about him. That dog is Shadow, an adopted human-aggressive border collie and the subject of Bringing Light To Shadow: A Dog Trainer’s Diary, published in 2005.

Here is the most salient excerpt, highlighted at the start of chapter 5:

A growl is just a warning–nothing more. It is obvious to me that Shadow had been punished for growling by his previous owner. It is important not to punish the growl out of a dog because if you do, you end up with a flash biter–a dog that bites with no warning. A growling dog doesn’t want to bite–that’s why he is growling. Punishing the growl out of the dog is like telling a police officer that he doesn’t have to say “Stop or I’ll shoot.” A growl is a wake-up call to YOU, to show you that you need to work on desensitizing your dog to whatever it is that he growled at. The important part is not to take it personally, a “How dare you growl at me!” kind of attitude.

I have to wonder what made it so obvious to Dennison that Shadow had been punished for growling, or that this specifically had generated his flash biting, apart from her understanding that such a history could explain the behavior she was witnessing. To my mind, it seems the cause of Shadow’s biting was largely inferred from the same theory his case is enlisted to support.

Many of the examples raised in defense of the theory shared this cyclical format. Relatively few included both a before and after component. Those that did mainly showed only a loose correlation between the punishment and biting, and hardly any were clearly distinguishable from cases involving more straightforward escalation from growl to bite.

As for a scientific basis, no one pointed to any beyond suggesting the claim had been extrapolated from scientific principles, probably by Ian Dunbar.

I dug a bit further and found more references to Dunbar, so I contacted him.

Dunbar’s Hypothesis

He recalled introducing the idea in the late 80′s or early 90′s, and forwarded me a number of his articles from that period. I found the below (emphasis mine) within “Provocative Behavior,” based on a behavior column from the June 1989 issue of the AKC Gazette.

The ‘Solution’ Becomes The Problem

Limiting treatment to punishing the dog for growling generally makes matters worse. The dog is growling because it feels uptight in specific situations, for example, when approached by a stranger. If the dog is punished, it now has two reasons to be uptight: 1. the initial reason – lack of confidence, and 2. the prospect of correction, or punishment, by the  owner/handler, which further destroys the dog’s confidence.

In many cases, punishment may cause the growling to increase in frequency – a paradox of learning. A vicious circle develops, whereby the more the dog is punished, the more it has reason to growl and hence, the more it is punished etc. The ‘attack’ by the handler (the dog’s only immediate ally) tends to make the dog especially  nervous and ‘spooky’. It must be extremely unsettling for the dog to have its best friend suddenly turn against him in times of need. At first the dog can establish neither rhyme nor reason for the handler’s outbursts. Soon, however, the dog learns, the handler’s uneasiness is contingent upon the specific situation, e.g., approach by a stranger. As such, the stranger’s approach now becomes a cue, which forwarns the dog, its owner is about to get upset and punish the dog. Most dogs do not like it when their owners become anxious, apprehensive, or agitated and so, the dog now has a third reason to growl – to keep the stranger at bay, in order to prevent the owner from becomming uneasy.


For cases wherein punishment successfully inhibits growling. This is disasterous. Firstly, punishment must be extremely severe to stop a worried dog from growling. Extreme punishments in stressful situations are inhumane. Secondly, although the dog still feels uptight, it no longer gives warning. The dog still does not like strangers and it wants to growl, but dare not. This is akin to a smoke alarm with no batteries, or a time-bomb that does not tick. The dog’s temperament is still extremely unstable but on the surface, all appears to be well.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the above, it’s worth noting that Dunbar’s original hypothesis is more nuanced than many subsequent iterations, including those listed at the start of this post. Dunbar draws a clean line between punishing a dog for growling and punishing the growl itself (in the operant conditioning sense), suggesting the average effort to deter growling via punishment will not be successful at suppressing the behavior over time.

Pat Miller, editor of Whole Dog Journal, is also careful to maintain this distinction, as in the introductory Ebook blurb as well as the below from a frequently cited 2005 article.

Worst of all, and most significantly, if you succeed in suppressing the warning signs, you end up with a dog who bites without warning. He has learned that it’s not safe to warn, so he doesn’t. –Pat Miller, “Understanding Why Your Dog Growls: Why you should never punish a dog for growling”, 2005 WDJ

Yet the prospect of generating a stealth biter is continually promoted as a substantive risk, despite its depending on an unlikely coincidence of technical aptitude and poor judgement, whereby the punishment is skillfully applied but the overall strategy is woefully incompetent.

I put my doubts directly to Dunbar, who offered the following (emphasis mine):

Does punishing a dog for growling create a dog that bites without warning? Well, we are talking about two things here:

1. Inhibiting the dog’s growling   2. Provoking the dog to bite

Non-verbal and especially, aversive feedback often cause a bunch of additional problems. However, by its very definition, aversive punishment would absolutely inhibit the dog’s growling; if the frequency of growling is not reduced, then the aversive stimulus cannot be classified as a punishment! The most commonly used definition of punishment is “a stimulus that causes the immediately preceding behavior to decrease in frequency and be less likely to occur in the future.” And so, if the aversive stimulus were used effectively as a punishment, the dog would be less likely to growl and IF the underlying cause for the dog’s unease has not been resolved, the dog would be just as likely to bite, i.e., the dog may bite without warning (growling beforehand). Furthermore, should the dog associate the aversive punishment with a person, the dog may be more likely to bite without growling beforehand. (This may happen when a dog associates the punishment with the punisher, or when a dog is aversively punished in the presence of children for example.)

According to Dunbar, punishing a dog for growling may result in a bite without warning under certain conditions. Those would seem to include the punishment being relatively harsh, the punishment being highly successful, and the absence of productive work (such as a program of desensitization and counterconditioning) toward building confidence, tolerance, or positive associations.

This might explain why I’ve never experienced the phenomenon first hand, despite punishing dogs for growling myself a fair number of times. I can’t imagine using punishment as an isolated strategy, without training alternate behaviors or conditioning a better emotional response to triggers.

But I suspect the more fundamental reason I’ve not witnessed a dog’s warning signals being punished out, is that this is not how aggression mainly works.

Lost in Translation

Before looking at how aggression does escalate, let me briefly address the denial of growling as aggression. I’ve noticed a trend toward framing the growl as a highly desirable behavior, to the point of assigning it a near sacred status. Within this paradigm, the growl is acknowledged as an essentially peaceful alternative to an actual bite, and as such must be left unmolested (if not honored with rounds of applause).

Personally, I take issue with the notion that all growling should be interpreted as an excruciatingly polite request made under duress (as in the excerpt below).

A bite is at the far end of a long line of behaviors a dog uses to communicate displeasure or discomfort. To stop another dog, human, or other animal from doing what he perceives to be an inappropriate or threatening behavior, the dog often starts with body tension, hard eye contact, a freeze, pulling forward of the commissure (corners of the lips). These “please stop!” behaviors may escalate to include a growl, snarl (showing teeth), offensive barking, an air-snap (not making contact), and finally, an actual bite. The dog who does any or all of these things is saying, “Please don’t make me hurt you!” -Pat Miller, ”Teaching Bite Inhibition”, June 2010 WDJ

Undoubtedly, many dogs are pleading to avoid conflict with their growl. But I suspect others are saying something closer to “Bitch, don’t even think about taking my bone!” Bottom line, there’s a difference between the headspace of a dog that growls at his owner for attempting to move him off the couch, and one that growls at his owner out of fear of a beating.

Why does that matter? Because much of the weight of Dunbar’s theory seems to rest on one’s acceptance of the internal narrative assigned the growling dog. Give the hero a different script, and the ending no longer makes sense. Is the dog that growls and lunges at every dog he sees while pulling his owner down the street in fact repeatedly imploring, “Please stop, don’t make me hurt you,” or shouting “Get off my block or I’ll go medieval on your ass!”? I can’t answer that question and neither can Dunbar. But I can recognize one dog’s communication as potentially distinct from another’s, even if they both happen to include what we humans indiscriminately call growling. And I would argue that while a growl can be a laudable expression of restraint, it can also be something very different, something more genuinely offensive.

Shutting Off the Tap

In batting around these questions with trainers who work aggression cases regularly and hands on, some common themes emerged.

First, the implication that aggressive behaviors exist within discreet modules, such that one may be extracted while the rest remain functionally intact, doesn’t sit well. These behaviors are part of a natural sequence involving rising arousal levels. They may be let to proceed, may be accelerated, or may suffer interruption, but they cannot easily be rearranged or reassembled with parts missing.

As trainer Michael Shikashio, CDBC, describes the progression from growl to bite,

My thought is that it is more of a fluid escalation, one where you can “shut the water off” before it spills over the top of the glass.

I think most trainers would agree with this characterization, and in fact acknowledge that interrupting the “flow” with a well-timed punisher has the real potential to halt aggression in its tracks. In such cases, the punishment may be very mild, yet succeed at suppressing the arousal. Another trainer referred to this as response blocking.

Whatever one calls it, it’s a phenomenon with which trainers specializing in aggression are universally familiar. Yet the prevailing wisdom suggests a world in which it’s not even a remote possibility. In this world, punishment either doesn’t work at all (and possibly adds fuel to the fire), or it acts like a perfect surgical strike, annihilating individual behaviors with laser precision while leaving the rest of the picture untouched (and opening the door to biting without warning). And of course, the implication is that one can’t reliably predict which outcome will occur.

Meanwhile, the real capacity to suppress aggression via positive punishment without disastrous fallout is rarely acknowledged in public discussions.

Why is this?

Because a threat that is both profound and unavoidable, striking often and at random, is a powerful deterrent. And that’s ultimately the point, in my estimation, far ahead of enlightening anyone about anything.

An honest discussion of punishing aggression would reflect actual knowledge and actual probabilities. The prevailing wisdom regarding punishing warning signals, based on untested hypothesis and promoted by rumor, reflects neither.

Am I saying that punishing dogs for growling is typically a good idea? Not by a long shot. I may never have witnessed this strategy result in a stealth biter, but I’ve seen plenty of other unpleasantness.

Am I saying it’s impossible to generate such a dog via this formula? Again, no. But research and experience both suggest it is the least probable or even relevant consequence of punishing for posturing, growling, etc. Far more likely to get an immediate escalation of the conflict, a redirection of aggression toward the handler, or an interruption of events accompanied by a suppression of arousal. The fact that all of the above might also happen to include less growling is almost beside the point.

In Conclusion

The claim that punishing a dog for growling may cause him to bite without warning is made so frequently, and with such authority, that it should hold up to a little scrutiny, in my opinion. Yet a casual inspection reveals little foundation and lots of loose ends.

At minimum, it’s an exaggeration of how typical this phenomenon is, and an overstatement of our understanding of how aggression works. At worst, it’s a questionable idea whose main attraction is its utility as a scare tactic.

Aggression is complex, both as a suite of behaviors and as a problem to solve. If it weren’t, every trainer with a basic understanding of theory would be prepared to deal with it swiftly. Meanwhile, our understanding of it, both as individuals and as a profession, is neither crisp nor uniform. It is dynamic and evolving, hopefully in the direction of reality and away from myth.

My thanks to the many accomplished trainers who shared their opinions with me on this topic, and to Dr. Dunbar in particular for responding to my questions.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2013.

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My daughter was invited to the circus last week by a classmate celebrating her 7th birthday. The circus comes regularly to a very nearby venue, but I’d successfully avoided it up to this point. The kids all enjoyed themselves, of course, and were especially excited to see real live elephants and tigers. I remember my own awe as a child being exposed to such creatures.

To say I felt conflicted would be an understatement, especially while watching the lions and tigers perform. It’s hard to know exactly how much of such an act is scripted versus accidental. But a number of those big cats looked genuinely pissed, and the third time one of the females balked at a cue and then ran at the trainer, it did not look choreographed.

Likely all part of the show on some level, but is that even any better?

My three-year-old son pretty much summed up the absurdity of the evening when he exclaimed quizzically, “Look, it’s tigers on stools!”

Why yes, my son. This is how men demonstrate their physical prowess and mental superiority over other living creatures–by making them sit on stools.

Or, in the case of the majestic killer whale, by housing them in fishbowls and training them to splash tourists.

The maiden post to this blog was in response to the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at Sea World’s Orlando park. It was the third death associated with the bull orca Tilikum, known to tourists as Shamu.

That post was flip in some respects, but the business of keeping killer whales for fun and profit is not. It does speak directly to my problem with gauging the humaneness of a training program purely according to which learning quadrants happen to dominate. And sadly, it speaks to the power of money to distort our judgement.

I think it’s well established that a higher percentage of clicker-trained killer whales actually kill their trainers than do dogs trained by any method. I do not mean that as an indictment of clicker-training.  I mean it as a challenge to the dual myths that A) killer whales are a model of reliable behavior compared to dogs, and B) their handling is a model of humane training.

What we do to killer whales is an atrocity without moral justification, in my opinion. They suffer lives of abject deprivation, void of any genuine opportunities to self-reward. They are prisoners of our selfish desire to engage with an intelligent species that wants little to do with us, absent our trapping and keeping them like lab rats.

Positive reinforcement based operant conditioning has proven utility both within and without the confining walls of zoos and amusement parks. I don’t deny that. I deny the legitimacy of extending the analogy between dogs and killer whales to the point of suggesting the best tools for engaging the latter must also be the best choice for training the former. And to the extent I personally find the level of management involved in captive marine mammal training to be abusive, I think there is some danger associated with modeling dog training practices after that example.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.

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[The following was written for Animal Behavior College in response to a request for an article on balanced training.]

I’m not big on labels, especially empty ones. Tags like positive or balanced don’t signify much, in my opinion, beyond the public image a trainer wishes to project. These are marketing terms, not definable training methods. Yet all of dogdom seems to have settled into the opinion that every trainer is either one or the other.

The more serious trainers I get to know from both sides of the supposed divide, the more I reject this idea. But if pressed, I do identify as balanced, and will continue to do so going forward, regardless how the scales of positive and negative or punishment and reinforcement truly fall within my programs. Balanced may not go a long way toward conveying what I do, but it’s not inaccurate, and I like to think it evokes something of what I actually mean when I use it to describe myself and my colleagues.

To my mind, balanced trainers are by and large pragmatic. We approach tools and methods sensibly, unfettered by politics or ideology. We do what works, within an ethical framework involving fair expectations, clear communication, and respect for the dog in front of us. This may mean building a foundation of understanding and enthusiasm via positive reinforcement, then layering instructional corrections overtop to enhance reliability and steadiness under distraction. It may mean choosing negative reinforcement or positive punishment first, if so doing resolves a problem safely and efficiently. In all cases, it means remaining flexible, reading the dog at every turn, and keeping all options on the table.

Balanced training is unapologetically results oriented. Results matter, both to the client rightly expecting some deliverables, and to the dog, whose quality of life may ultimately depend a great deal more on whether his owner may walk him confidently in public or take him hiking off-leash, than on which quadrants of operant conditioning happened to land the dog such opportunities. Good results also represent the most reliable indicator that a given method is sound, which is not to say ends justify means. Means, particularly highly aversive or costly ones, are justified by the knowledge and experience that they represent the optimal path toward a good result, not the mere hope of achieving one. Being results oriented is not about being a cowboy. It is about being open to both new and traditional tools and methods as long as they have practical utility, and being prepared to do some amount of internal calculus before settling on the best approach.

Photo courtesy of Lionheart K9

Balanced trainers acknowledge that the deliberate inclusion of aversives within a training program is neither inhumane nor unscientific. Our commitment to canine welfare and fostering healthy relationships between dogs and people does not inhibit us from taking ownership of those aversives we employ. We focus our energies on applying them productively and responsibly, whether via electronic collar or head halter, with maximum efficiency and minimal risk. Denying their legitimate (and largely unavoidable) role in training and behavior modification both constrains trainers unnecessarily and inhibits frank discussion of how more socially acceptable tools and protocols actually work.

There have been some major shifts in dog training culture over the past several decades. On the upside, there’s been a great surge of interest and innovation, along with a new emphasis on ethical standards and humane methods. On the downside, it has become highly politicized, and lousy with specious claims driven by competition over market share. Balanced trainers recognize their work as existing on a continuum with what dog men have been doing for centuries, not as a departure so radical as to deny their influence and contributions to our field. Even if our approach bears little outward resemblance to the training of old, we refuse to reject traditional tools based on popular trends, and balk at the arrogant dismissal of generations of skilled and accomplished trainers as backward thinking relics.

In the end, it’s a matter of devotion to craft ahead of devotion to methodology.

Does every trainer currently advertising himself as balanced conform to my private definition? No, but I think it holds true for the balanced trainers I know best and attempt to model myself after, including a number who do not identify as such.

Whether positive trainers will mainly sympathize with or feel excluded by the above, I cannot guess. But I invite them to rethink the utility of defining ourselves according to terms that are ultimately more divisive than descriptive, and to help move our industry away from empty labels and toward an honest discussion of what we really do and why.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.

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