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Why I Decided to Go with Balanced Dog Training

Why I Decided to Go with Balanced Dog Training

Laila, the dog I never wanted, the dog that I struggled to love, the dog I wanted nothing to do with, led me to learn more about dogs and dog training than I ever imagined I would. 

Her outbursts, disappearing acts in the woods, propensity to chase after large animals, and inability to train using the methods I believed were the only option, introduced me to the style of training that  I use today: balanced dog training.

Learning about Balanced Dog Training from Friends

Once I made this post on Instagram about my struggles with Laila, I decided to learn more about balanced training. I described our struggles with her recall and running together and many friends, whom I know loved their dogs more than anything, suggested that we try an e-collar.

Like many dog owners, I believed that using aversive tools like e-collars and prong collars was cruel and inhumane.

So I talked directly to these friends.

I talked to trainers.

I followed balanced trainers on Instagram.

I watched YouTube videos recommended to me by these same people.

It didn’t take long to convince me that, when used correctly, these tools correctly offered an incredibly effective method of communicating with dogs. For the activities I do with my dogs – hiking, trail running, and backpacking, balanced training was the ideal training for us.

Balanced dog training includes the use of treats.

Attempting Positive Reinforcement Only

Before learning about balanced training, I poured my time into learning about positive reinforcement. I implemented the techniques suggested by world renowned dog trainers and nothing worked consistently.

I had spent months trying to teach her to loose leash walk, walking in circles on our street and stopping anytime she pulled. 

I brought her to the cafe down the street and worked on her excitement by asking her to lie down on her bed and drop treat after treat after treat in hopes that she would ignore any passersby.

I walked her past the veterinarian back and forth dozens, if not hundreds of times to teach her that walking by didn’t always mean going inside.

I’d play recall games with her, but once we hit the woods, she would take off.

I felt that my only real success was implementing Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol. We practiced this everywhere we went. Indoors. In the car. On the trail. At restaurants. During veterinary visits. When people came over. It was constant training and I was exhausted.

Unless I was shoveling food into her mouth, she didn’t listen. I was so fed up with her, that I became instantly angry the second we went outdoors. I’d “yank and crank” on her collar, yell at her, jab her in the side. I felt awful every time I took her out and at the same time, so helpless. I didn’t know what to do.

As I learned more about balanced training, I understood that my frustration with her led to behaviors that I believed were far more cruel than a moment of discomfort from a collar pop or e-collar stim.

Unfortunately, my partner was not on board. He adhered to the archaic beliefs about “shock collars” despite my attempts to convince him otherwise.

Memories from my Childhood

During all my research, a memory came to me from my childhood. I remembered standing in a field in Vermont during a visit to my aunt and uncle. My uncle had invited me to their dog, Noogie’s training lesson. I vividly recall my uncle teaching me how to use a chain collar and explaining how the e-collar works. 

Noogie was e-collar trained.

Noogie was one of the most well-behaved dogs I have ever known. I would take him to the nearby lake with me alone and not worry about him interacting with other people or dogs. I was 10 or so years old. It wasn’t particularly remarkable to me at the time, but looking back and knowing what I now know about dogs, I don’t know that I would trust most 10 years olds alone with a dog, and vice versa.

My aunt is one of the most compassionate people I know. She adores animals and is always helping a dog or a cat that she finds in need of salvation. If she was ok with using corrective tools to train her dogs, then I knew that they had to be humane.

Removing privileges like sitting on the couch can help a dog understand that they need to behave a certain way to earn certain rights.

Dog Training Fails

My partner found a trainer through the rescue he volunteered with and while she didn’t use my method of choice, I was willing to give her a try. We switched Laila from a flat collar to a martingale collar and took away her privileges at home temporarily: no cuddles, no couch, no sleeping in our bed.

Removing privileges helped significantly and the martingale made some difference during walks, but components of her method didn’t make sense to me.

We were to ignore Laila during her reactions. What this meant was that she could throw a tantrum for a half hour if she wanted with no consequences. We would just sit there and allow it to happen, which is exactly how we spent the first 20 minutes of our first hour long training session.

To walk her, we would have her sit, make sure the collar was sitting just behind her ears and walk. On turns, we would snap the leash in a manner that made it tighten for a split second and she would respond.

This worked great when our trainer walked her and improved her walking a bit in our hands, but she began to flinch every time I raised my hand to pop her collar. This didn’t seem right to me.

We were directed not to use treats and only very limited praise while working with her.

After several weeks of lessons, including a weeklong stay with our trainer, we never seemed to move beyond how to walk her.

Unsatisfied with the lack of progression, I actively sought out a balanced trainer in Spain. By some stroke of luck, Kerry of Flash Dog Training found me a British trainer two hours away.

Finally, Balanced Training for Laila

Refusing to stop talking about the subject, my partner finally ceded and we got a taste of balanced training for Laila.

Each Sunday, we would drive the two hours for our one-hour group lesson and then turn around and drive the return two hours home. It was exhausting, but even after the first few lessons, I noticed a difference.

Before one of our first lessons, I was in tears before we even began. Laila was flipping out knowing where we were and that there were dogs down the path. If I went forward, I was rewarding her. If I picked her up, I was rewarding her. I’d stop, turn around. Stop, do nothing. The tantrum didn’t end.

I had no idea what to do and felt completely frazzled. So I just froze.

George, our trainer came over, took Laila from me and we switched her to a prong collar. There was an instant difference in my ability to manage and communicate with her. I was dumbfounded.

Back home, I went from avoiding walking her to wanting to take her out. I had full belief that this was going to be the answer.

Unfortunately, after only a few lessons, my relationship ended and thus terminated Laila’s training.

Balanced Dog Training for Sitka

Back home in the Pacific Northwest, I knew that I would work with a balanced trainer for my next dog. When I adopted Sitka, the first thing I did was get him a prong collar.

I tried walking him without one on our first walk and we didn’t make it out of the driveway. He had never learned to walk on a leash. Unable to find a prong collar in the store and without the time to order it online due to travel, my desperation to find this collar led me to the man who would later become my trainer, Ruben, of Kindred Dog PDX. He sold me a collar and like Laila, the difference was instantaneous.

When I adopted Sitka in December of 2019, he:

  • Whined and thrashed around in the car, making driving extremely dangerous
  • Couldn’t walk on a leash
  • Chased any and all small creatures
  • Had leash reactivity
  • Would resource guard me and treats

After two months of working with Ruben, most of those issues have been solved or have improved significantly. I credit this to balanced dog training.

Balanced Dog Training Explained

Balanced dog training teaches a dog desired behaviors using both reward-based techniques and aversive corrections. Tools such as prong collars and e-collars deliver corrections to the dog.

Balanced dog training incorporates all four quadrants of operant conditioning.

The technique incorporates actions taken from the four quadrants of operant conditioning:

Positive Reinforcement (R+) Adds something to increase the frequency of a behavior. Example: You reward your dog with a treat when they sit.

Negative Reinforcement (R-) Removes something to increase the frequency of a behavior. Example: The handler asks a dog to sit while applying upward pressure on a prong collar. Once the dog sits, the pressure is removed.

Positive Punishment (P+) – Adds something to decrease the frequency of a behavior. Example:  Handler administers an e-collar stimulation when the dog goes after a squirrel on the trail in order to call them off the squirrel.

Negative Punishment (R-) Removing something to decrease the frequency of a behavior. Example: If your dog jumps on you, then you remove your attention from them until they stop jumping.

The Use of Corrections in Balanced Dog Training

The intent by incorporating all four quadrants is to teach the dog that their choices can result in either discomfort or reward. Balanced training means that a dog will be introduced to corrections once it associates a behavior with a command. 

As an example, to ask for a sit, I pull up on the prong collar or slip lead and release the pressure when my dog’s butt hits the ground. Once the dog associates that pressure with the “sit” command, I can correct when he does not sit when I ask. 

The intent of the correction is not to punish the dog, but rather to change the dog’s behavior. When applied, the pressure delivers just enough information to interrupt the dog’s train of thought and bring the focus back to you, the handler.

Generally the trainer starts by using a slip lead or a prong collar. Using these tools, the dog will learn that they can control when they receive pressure and when it is released. Once the dog is fluent with this language, we introduce the e-collar.

With practice, the dog will understand that the choices they make will avoid pressure application, reducing the need for corrections. In circumstances when a correction is required, the dog understands why it happened and can learn to avoid the same situation in the future.

Pressure does not equal pain. As with horses, the rider applies pressure to get them to either stop or go faster. When they do the behavior, the pressure stops.

Practicing walking in the neighborhood using the e-collar and prong collar.

Balanced Dog Training Myths and Arguments

The dog training world is filled with very vocal voices about what singular type of dog training is the best and only way to train a dog. As you can imagine, balanced training and its use of prong and e-collars receives a lot of backlash.

Such arguments include:

  • Balanced training is not “science based”
  • The use of tools like prong and e-collars because they are “cruel,” “abusive,” “intimidating,” and “cause pain.”

These accusations typically come from dog trainers who have never attempted to try tools like prong and e-collars.

When used incorrectly, yes this is true. When used methodically, however, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

The term “positive only” is used to make people feel good and happy about dog training. These words humanize dogs and force people to think about them in ways that dogs don’t think.

Positive only is a misnomer because it simply is not possible in dog training.

  • Saying no to a dog is punishment.
  • Ignoring a dog for jumping is punishment.
  • Any time a dog pulls against their collar is negative reinforcement.

This language is simply taking the word “positive” to mean “rainbows and sunshine,” rather than “the addition of,” which is the definition as explained above.

Further, the word “aversive” is misconstrued to mean “abusive.” In aversion therapy, patients give up an undesirable habit by learning to associate it with an unpleasant effect.

Say a patient wanted to quit smoking. Aversive therapy would expose them to something unpleasant, like a bad smell, taste, or snap on the wrist from a rubber band, when they begin to engage in the habit

These twist on words and definitions wrongfully lead dog owners to believe that by using aversive tools, we are just electrocuting our dogs without cause.

Similarities Between Balanced Training and Force-Free Training

If you study both force-free and balanced training methods, you’ll see that many of the techniques overlap.

Both force-free and balanced dog trainers:

  • Encourage play
  • Use reward-based methods
  • Play recall games
  • Teach boundaries
  • May use clickers
  • Value praise
  • Incorporates marker training
  • Uses motivation and drive to create behavior

Once I run out of treats, I find I am worthless if I have no other method of communicating with my dog. 

No treats. No service. 

The most significant result from balanced training is my level of trust in my dog. I rarely panic because I know that I always have the ability to communicate with my dog. Before, I’d call their name with urgency or anger if the leash came loose or they broke a stay, begging them to come back as they sprinted toward oncoming dogs and people.

Now, with the push of a button, I can send a distant “ah uh” tap on my dog’s shoulder and have near 100% confidence that my dog will come when I ask on the first attempt.

That is the beauty of the e-collar. Sitka has more freedom than any dog I have had because I know I have control when I need it.

As a result of our training, Sitka has:

For challenging dogs with reactivity, aggression, over stimulation, and biting issues, balanced training can literally save their lives.

So Do I Think other Dog Training Methods are Bogus?

None of this means that I am against force-free dog training. Not at all. I have friends who are amazing force-free dog trainers. 

What I think is:

  1. There is more than one way to train a dog, and
  2. Different dogs require different methods

Plain and simple. You have to do the training that is right for you and your dog.

As someone who wants to be able to have control over their dog in the most distracting situations and because of the activities I enjoy with my dogs, this is the method I personally will likely always choose.

Tools I Use

Before I list the tools I use, I need to insert a very important disclaimer.

Do not use these tools without the guidance of a professional dog trainer. Ask friends for recommendations. Look up reviews. Do your homework. Do not just buy these tools and figure out the method yourself, as this puts your dog at risk for incorrect useage.

Herm Sprenger Prong Collar – They may look scary, but prong collars are designed to safely administer pressure to a dog’s neck. How so?

  • The prongs are all angled and blunt, so they don’t stab the dog as it may seem from just the appearance.
  • Distributes pressure evenly around the neck.
  • The prong collar is worn high, just behind the ears, and not low like a flat collar that can cause throat injuries
  • Prong collars work similarly to martingale collars, meaning there is a limit to the amount of tension that can be applied.

E-collar Technologies ME-300 Micro Educator Remote E-Collar – Most balanced dog trainers will likely recommend this e-collar. The Micro educator has a 1/3 mile range and a stimulation scale that ranges from 0 to 100.

To give you an idea of Sitka’s base level, he works at a 4 when there are few distractions. Around other dogs, I might have to dial it up to 12.

Have you worked with a balanced trainer before? What was your experience?

How have your thoughts about balanced dog training changed since reading this article?

Ola

Wednesday 14th of September 2022

Hi, I was wondering how or if anything has changed since you wrote this article - you mention Sitka's base level for e-collar was 4 with few distractions and 12 when there were more distractions. How are the levels as of 2022? Do you still use the same or you had to increase them?

Jen Sotolongo

Wednesday 14th of September 2022

Hey Ola, honestly, I don't pay close attention to the numbers, I pay attention to how Sitka is responding. I often don't to have to use it at all, whereas sometimes I have to dial up to 50. It all depends on his state of mind and the environment we're in.

Deb

Sunday 4th of September 2022

I love how you point out that not all methods work on all dogs and in all settings.

I have an Anatolian shepherd that has always done well with positive reinforcement, as well as soft negative reinforcement (turning my back on her when she jumps up, etc.), but would flip out when it was time to grind her nails. I'm a dog groomer, so this wasn't gonna work out, and I knew the longer I let it go on, the harder it would be to resolve. She did fine for clipping, but that leaves sharp edges that are pretty devastating when she jumps up, paws at you, or accidentally steps on a foot in sandals. I would use a grooming lead clipped to a fence to keep her in place while I did her nails, and she would pull so hard on the lead around her neck that she bent the fence.

When she was 5 or 6 months old (and over 50 pounds), I went to do her nails like usual, but put an e-collar on her (rated for <20 pound dogs), and set it to the lowest vibration setting. A vibration is painless, unlike the gouges she leaves with her clipped-but-sharp nails, and not damaging, unlike her bruising her neck trying to get out of having her nails done.

After I turned on the Dremel, she flipped out, like she had the last couple times I did her nails, I hit the button on the e-collar remote, and she froze, looking straight ahead with all 4 paws on the ground. I cautiously ground her nails, waiting for another wave, but it never came. That was over a year ago and I haven't had any trouble, or had to use the collar while doing her nails since. She comes when I call with the Dremel in hand, and takes her treats and pets when she's done.

I do wish people had to take a class and have a prong collar properly fitted by a professional before being sold prong collars and e-collars. So many prong collars I've taken off client dogs were too big, too loose, or too tight to be effective. I also think humans should have to experience any of the settings on an e-collar to which they would subject their dog. You should know exactly what you're doing to an animal before you do it.

I understand the fears that using a training tool like treats, an e-collar, or a prong collar, would result in a dog that only behaves when those tools are being used, but that just hasn't been my experience. My dog does what I say whether I have treats or not, because we use multiple types of rewards. We used a prong collar to walk one of our dogs when I was growing up, and we stopped using it after a couple months because it was no longer necessary. I assume, if he had started pulling again, we would use it again, until he once again stopped pulling, but we never needed it for the rest of his life. It's as though he learned, rather than just obeying in the moment like so many critics say. If these tools don't actually teach dogs, why does my dog stand perfectly for nails now, and take her treats when we're done? That's not the behavior of an abused or traumatized dog.

It's also important to note that "rewards" are more than just treats and "corrections" don't just come from a collar. Sometimes when people get stuck there, they think they have to be a treat trainer, or a collar trainer, rather than R+ and corrections, which create a balanced trainer when used together. A reward can be treats, belly rubs (my dog's preferred reward), a toy, a privilege, or just praise. A correction can be a martingale, a shock, a vibration, physical repositioning of the dog, stepping into the dog's space so it has to step back, firmly saying "no", immediately removing the dog from the trigger until he calms down, or a combination.

When people talk about "how dogs learn", I wonder which breed they're talking about, and what empirical data they're referencing, because humans have altered dogs' brains through selective breeding to specific tasks to the point that I just don't believe they all take to the same human training methods with the same efficacy. Training a herding breed is so different from training a livestock guardian breed, even before you account for the dog's individual personality. We need studies with massive sample sizes and a wide range of breed representation. Most studies done on contemporary, contentious dog rearing issues, like optimal training methods, whether using an elevated food bowl causes bloat, or what age is best to alter a dog, are pretty dreadfully done: small sample sizes, few breeds, and poor technique. I don't see how a study necessary to determine the best training method for a breed would be practical in the size it would have to be in order to be definitive, let alone who would fund it.

As a result, all we really have to rely on is anecdotal evidence, good old trial-and-error, and our own judgement of the experience of the dog in front of us, all the while knowing that cheerleaders and critics of specific methods don't live with your dog, don't know how happy he is with his life, and don't have to live with the consequences of ineffective training.

TL;DR You are a better judge of how your dog is doing than anybody on the internet.

Kimberly

Thursday 3rd of March 2022

Hi, there Jen. I see you put a lot of thought into your journal and I am more of a positive reinforcement dog advocator, and I agree with some balanced dog trainers too. Your article was captivating to read and I never lost interest, you wrote this very well, nice job with the story. I do have a couple questions though that I was hoping you would be able to clear up for me and help me understand as they did personally make me a little concerned, not to judge you or anything but just for 1. my own piece of mind to be honest and 2. to understand it better.

So regarding the Positive only someone in your laundry list of comments said that this is not something positive reinforcement trainers said which is true from my knowledge, that is a myth. There is no such thing as positive only which I am glad you mentioned, but as far as I am aware the positive reinforcement community is more about less aversion and more rewards. this isn't a concern just a side note

1. when you say that she, your dog Laila (which if that is her in the picture she is so beautiful, tell her that for me) has more freedom now, how do you figure that? Like does she still behave the same in terms of her energy and is excited to be with you, or is she scared and/or relaxed now? I mean no disrespect but it is a genuine concern for me, as there is a fine line to the human eye between a dog that is relaxed and well behaved and a dog that is scared of you. Please answer honestly, is she still excited and happy to be with you, because it is important that you two still have a good bond. Not saying that you have broken her spirit but it is a possibility, and I want to personally know that you didn't accidentally take it too far. I have seen quite a few balanced dog trainers ( real balanced dog trainers that use all 4 quadrants, not just the positive punishment and negative reinforcements) that have clearly still happy dogs that are just well behaved but not sad. So by freedom do you let her do things on her own too like lets say walk off leash and explore the woods or go play with other dogs or you two play together or do agility training, like something enjoyable too? this is a problem I see with positive, balanced and the ones I really don't like which seemed like your second trainer, the really strict ones that don't give rewards either and only punishments, where they constantly want our dogs controlled, and do nothing alone and have no fun, which is also not a good way to be with a dog. they need independence and fun and activities for emotional, mental and physical stimulation no matter what kind of trainer they are.

2. When you mentioned humanize the dog, can you please elaborate on that? As someone who has a background in animal cognition, it is wrong to say that dogs don't get intimidated, don't feel abused and don't have emotions, and I just want to clarify that's not what you meant by that statement. Absolutely no disrespect to you so please don't take it that way, but if you are saying dogs don't have emotions or something like that, this is actually incorrect, and can be detrimental as well. Dogs are sentient, they are not instinct creatures and nothing more, which with a mindset that says they are could lead to very dangerous and honestly outright abusive situations. There are dogs that fear humans for the rest of their lives because of abuse even after being taught to try and feel safe and loved again, they don't love every one no matter what because its drilled into their psychology to fear and worry, so to say they don't feel or are incapable of feeling the fear and sadness of an abused victim is very very dangerous and that concerns me. I am not saying this is you or what you are saying or putting words in your mouth, this is why I would like clarification on this, because in that case I am sorry to say but that is incorrect, and its not really a simple "I think this, you think that" situation because if it is put into practice then that is when there is an issue to be honest. Where you mention reactive behavior too, that is also an iffy statement because dogs are not reactive, there is no one moment where its a stimulus that makes them react unless its involuntary like the twitch of a paw in sleep when dreaming. In this way it is 100% appropriate and you should "humanize" or "anthropomorphize" ,if you could even call it that, the dog because its basic principles of psychology in dogs just like people that they do things out of desires, personalities, drives, etc as well. This is a big misnomer and potentially detrimental one of how people say dogs are very instinct driven, and have no emotional capacity. I would like to think you meant the humanization part of positive reinforcement trainers was where they say the tools are the abusive things and that's the humanizing part, but Not sure where you personally stand with this Jen but I would love to know your thoughts so do let me know what you meant with this.

3. When using the aversions methods, how exactly do you used them? I have respect for you to think that of course you are not abusing your dog, as it seems to me you love her which is very important and I am so happy for that, and you are not say dragging her around on a prong collar or something, but please explain a bit more if you don't mind a typical training session of say walking with other dogs? When on a prong collar, do you just pop her quickly when you see her going to chase a dog? do you do treat training first and say ask her to sit around other dogs and if she doesn't listen then you do the collar? Do you go straight to the collar no matter what? do you constantly have a prong collar on her on walks or have you faded them out by now where she listens even without them? Just give me a little run down on exactly how you taught her out of doing one of the bad behaviors, just so I get a better idea of how you taught her, if you have time. I think though we can both agree though that say shocking your dog with a collar to the point they whine, beating them or pulling them down the street with a prong collar dragging them or something like that is not something that should be done right? Essentially, if you again don't mind me asking but what is your threshold for when you think that it has gotten into abusive actually painful territory and that you won't do when training a dog?

Sorry if you think some of my questions are a bit invasive, I deeply apologize if that is the case. I just genuinely would like to know your thoughts and understand your side of things, as you seem like someone who is very respectable and would take into consideration your dog or anyone's dogs' well being into consideration and value the bond with your dog. Thank you so much for your time and have an amazing day.

Jen Sotolongo

Friday 4th of March 2022

Hi Kimberly, thanks for your thoughtful message and all of your questions. I'll do my best to answer below:

1. By freedom, I mean that my current dog, Sitka can join me for hikes and trail runs in the woods off-leash for hours on his e-collar. I've never had a dog I could trust do to that. He also has freedom in the home now that he has earned my trust with my belongings (i.e. he is not destructive). It's about building a two-way relationship of trust. He is not scared to see me and I am the most important being in his life. I don't allow my dog to play with random dogs, ever.

2. By humanize, I mean that more and more dog owners are treating their dogs like people instead of dogs. They attribute human emotions and attitudes on their dog. When we treat our dogs like humans (i.e. allow them on the couch, the bed, to jump up on the counter, etc without consequence) it results in anxiety, reactivity, resource guarding, and more. Humans give their dogs affection overload, when what they need is a leader, structure, and rules.

3. I train by first teaching the dogs fluency in a command using R+ and pressure/release with a prong collar. Once they understand what the command means, then I layer over the e-collar. This way, the dog learns how to turn the pressure on and off. A correction might look like a small amount of pressure upward, a leash pop, or a high e-collar stim, it depends on the situation. I look at the tools like seat belt, I hope to never get into a crash, but if I do, you're damn sure I'll be wearing my seat belt.

Christina Williams

Monday 21st of February 2022

Thank you for this post. I hope it serves to guide many of the owners confused about what balanced trainers actually aim to achieve: effective communication and humane results!

Jen Sotolongo

Tuesday 22nd of February 2022

Thank you, Christina! I hope the same!

Sam

Thursday 10th of February 2022

Wow what an incredible article explaining balanced training! I am very impressed with the way you deal with all the trolls in the comments. I agree 100% with people excessively humanizing dogs (and other animals) when talking about training and handling. Dogs are not humans. They don't communicate like humans, and they don't think like humans. Understanding this does not mean we don't love our dogs. I would argue that treating your dog like a human baby is cruel. Love your dog for what it is, and communicate with it as a dog, not a "fur baby"

Letting a dog know that a behavior is unacceptable is not cruel. Providing loving leadership to a dog is not cruel. Dogs act out when they don't have guidance. When we provide leadership to our dogs, that is not creating learned helplessness. Most dogs do not want to lead, and when we take responsibility we free them from the burden of leadership and allow them to have fun and enjoy the world.

Corrective tools are not designed to cause pain, the are designed to get our dogs attention so we can clearly communicate with them. When left to themselves, dogs correct each other all the time with nips and barks. When misused, any tool can cause pain or problems, but that does not make the tool bad.

Its sad to read some comments of people saying it takes them years to train their dogs. Five years if half your dogs life. While they are still trying to train their dogs, mine has been out enjoying the world because most of his training took a few months. He knows what he can and can't do, and he knows I will lead in all situations. He gets to sit back, relax, and be a dog!

Thanks again!

Jen Sotolongo

Saturday 12th of February 2022

I agree with everything you've said here! It's so true and I wish more people understood this, especially those who have a challenging dog.