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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Perfect trail etiquette
- Walks nicely on leash without pulling
- Reliable off-leash recall
- Can run with me off leash on most trails
- Reduced his leash reactivity toward other dogs
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:
- There is more than one way to train a dog, and
- 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.