What even is "Balanced Training"?

Updated: Jun 1, 2020

Anyone who's ever looked for a dog trainer or behaviourist may have come across a few terms being thrown about, things like force free, positive only or a quick google may have thrown up articles with headlines stating "dog trainer abuses dogs" and this is where things get a little confusing.

To understand what exactly they're referring too, we first must understand the 4 quadrants of operant conditioning (B. F. Skinner). The term operant conditioning simply means learning or training, and the 4 quadrants define how this learning is reinforced. Skinners work wasn't just for dogs, his experiments started with mice and is relevant to all living things, including us! Outlined below are the 4 quadrants.

Positive Reinforcement - behaviour causes something positive to happen

Perhaps the most commonly used technique, a lot of the time without even realising it. It is the most simplest to understand, it rewards the dog for performing the task.

Dog does good = reward. 

This reinforces that when you do x, you get y. Happy, happy dog and owner. If only life was that simple right?

Negative Reinforcement - behaviour causes an unpleasant thing to stop

Simply put, negative reinforcement is the term used to describe when something unpleasant stops as a result of the dog performing the task. A simple example of this can be putting pressure on the dogs behind to guide them into a sit. The reinforcement part is the hand being removed from the dogs bum.

Dog does good = unpleasant thing stops

A more complex example would be using lead pressure to ask for commands such as sit or walk to heel. Dog pulls forward, pressure is applied to the collar/neck and released when dog stops pulling, reinforcing no pulling means no pressure.

Positive punishment - behaviour causes something unpleasant to happen

This is where things start to get a little confusing and you'll start to see positive only or force free trainers use words like "bad", "stressed" and "fear" to describe something unpleasant happening to the dog. An example of this commonly used daily by dog owners is yelling at a dog for doing something the owner deems "naughty" like stealing food. Positive punishment is also what is happening when a lead correction is being given to a dog that is pulling.

Dog does bad = unpleasant thing starts

This type of reinforcement is often very difficult to get right and timing is everything when delivering positive punishment. A study done by Richard Solomon on punishing a dog found a very interesting correlation between timing of the unpleasant thing starting in how effective it is as a reinforcer. In short, the experiment involved allowing dogs access to a room with 2 bowls of food in, 1 with dry kibble and 1 with fresh meat. When the dogs approached the bowl with the fresh meat in, they were smacked on the nose with a newspaper (please do not try this at home!). Three different groups of dogs were smacked across the nose at different times, group 1 immediately as their nose reached the bowl, the second group 5 seconds after and the third group 15 seconds after they started eating the fresh meat. The study found that when group 3 were given free access to the meat bowl, they waited only 30 seconds before tucking into the meat, where as group 1 waited 2 whole weeks! This proves an incredibly important point when attempting to use this reinforcer and highlights really clearly why shouting at your dog for jumping up, isn't effective. This can be for a couple of reasons - the positive the dog gets from performing the action (jumping up for example, being able to be close to you) has already happened by the time you've punished him. This also perfectly explains why telling a dog off for chewing the carpet when you get home from work has absolutely no affect on his behaviour and will only affect the relationship you and your dog have.

Are you still with me? Both Positive Punishment and Negative Reinforcement are avoided (or outright dismissed and criticised) by force free trainers. Positive punishment techniques absolutely rely heavily on the skill of the trainer and this is where the issue lies, not in the reinforcement technique itself.

Negative Punishment - behaviour causes a positive thing to stop

This may also cause a lot of confusion because of the words used to describe it, but unlike Positive Punishment and Negative Reinforcement, nothing physically unpleasant happens to the dog. However to reinforce what you want from the dog by negative punishment, you must remove something the dog wants. For example, a "time out" when a dog is becoming too boisterous or nipping. By removing the social reward, your presence, you reinforce the notion that if dog wants to be around you, he must behave in a certain way.

Dog does bad = positive thing stops 

As owners, we often end up using a range of techniques that fall into all the above categories without even realising it. When we understand how a dog learns and the affects of different techniques can have on our dogs behaviour and their relationship to us we can make informed decisions on which techniques to use in which scenarios. I wouldn't introduce any techniques from the Positive Punishment or Negative reinforcement bracket before the age of at least 9 months for pet dogs and the individual differences of each dog must be taken into consideration. A Malinois that will be used a personal protection dog cannot be trained using positive only methods in the same way that a rescue westie won't respond well to negative reinforcement. Every dog and goal must be taken at their own merit and training adapted for that scenario.

This is why I don't agree with the positive only/force free brigade on their outright slate of the operant conditioning quadrants. In order to teach our dogs we need to teach them the whole picture. You can't learn a new skill without being told where you're going wrong too. What I will agree with is that issues arise when the quadrants are used incorrectly, the phrase train the handler, not the dog, comes to mind. For this reason, I believe in using all 4 quadrants when training dogs, which makes me what you may have been called a "balanced trainer". I'm sure someone will coin a new phrase for it at some point, so if you asked me, id tell you I train dogs using all 4 operant conditioning quadrants.

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