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What Is Balanced Training?

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

A blonde woman in a black jumper and denim skirt is looking at her dog, a german shepherd husky who has his mouth open happily

Like anything else, the dog training world has labels. Dog training methods are a lot like parenting methods in that there's lots of different ones and everyone feels incredibly passionate about it. One of the biggest ones, one that we support, is balanced training. But what actually is it? Firstly we need to look at how dogs learn.

How Dogs Learn: Classical and Operant Conditioning

Our understanding of how dogs learn starts with the scientist Ivan Pavlov, who revolutionised dog training. He discovered classical conditioning when he introduced a bell whilst feeding a dog. The dog food caused the dog to salivate and eventually the dog began to associate the bell with the food and salivated solely from the sound of the bell. Dog trainers use classical conditioning everyday, primarily with Clicker Training.

Once we had that, B.F. Skinner took it one step further and discovered operant conditioning. Operant conditioning proved that you could influence a dog's behaviour and rate of learning with either reinforcement or punishment. Whereas in classical conditioning, the dogs reactions were being changed without them making decisions, operant conditioning involved either rewarding or punishing a dog based on a decision they made. And thus, the Training Quadrant was born.

Training Quadrant: Operant Conditioning

IMPORTANT: Before we continue, we need a language checkpoint. Operant conditioning and the training quadrant use the following words: positive, negative, reinforcement, punishment. In today's language these are incredibly loaded words and punishment in particular holds a lot of negative implication. In dog training, and in the rest of this post, these words mean:

positive: to add something

negative: to remove something

reinforcement: to increase the likelihood of a behaviour

punishment: to decrease the likelihood of a behaviour

and with that, we have our Training Quadrant!

Image Description: A rectangle split into four quadrants. From top left to bottom right:

Positive Reinforcement R+ Adding something to increase the likelihood of a behaviour, Negative Reinforcement R- Removing something to increase the likelihood of a behaviour, Positive Punishment P+ Adding something to decrease the likelihood of a behaviour, Negative Punishment P- Removing something to decrease the likelihood of a behaviour.

The training quadrant is why I consider myself to be a balanced trainer. There are some people that will argue that you should exclusively train a dog via positive reinforcement but the definitions of this make that literally impossible. Every dog owner today uses all of these quadrants, whether they're aware of it or not. Take a look at the examples below:

You're walking your dog on lead and they see a cat across the road and lunge into the road. You use your lead to pull them back to you and out of the road.

Positive punishment. You add lead pressure to decrease the behaviour.

Your puppy sleeps in the crate but has woken up and is chewing their bedding, you remove the bedding so they don't ingest it.

Negative punishment. You are removing the blanket to decrease the behaviour.

You're crate training your dog and they are whining to get your attention so you ignore them.

Negative punishment. You're removing your attention to decrease the behaviour.

You're making dinner and your dog attempts to counter-surf. You say 'Off' and direct them away.

Positive punishment. You are adding a verbal cue and body language to decrease the behaviour.

We use all four quadrants every day and what is more, so do dogs themselves. If you watch two dogs interacting, specifically puppies with adult dogs, the adult dogs will step in when the puppy is being annoying. Has your dog ever been playing with another dog and then had enough and barked or growled at the other dog when they tried to continue the play? They've added a vocal cue to decrease the behaviour.

So What Is Balanced Training?

Now that we've got the quadrant out of the way and we have the basis for balanced training there's one more important thing I need to add. Balanced training should be rewards based. Positive reinforcement is the only quadrant that pro-actively teaches your dog a new thing. The others are very important and have their place, your dog needs to know what not to do as well as what to do, but if teaching something new is your goal, you need a LOT of R+. I use food to train every single dog, with the exception of dogs with low food drive, and even then I use toys and play.

I know the name is 'balanced' and that typically implies an equal split, 25% of each quadrant, but the beauty of balanced training is that you can balance it in whatever way you need for the dog and the day. Sometimes I train 95% R+ and 5% of the others. Sometimes it's 80% R+ and 20% of the others. It's always incredibly heavily weighted to positive reinforcement because that's how you teach new behaviour but it's completely customised to what the dog in front of me needs.

I love balanced training because it makes sense. It's completely science backed, doesn't rely on emotive language and it allows me to customise my training plan so that I'm doing the best I can with each dog. It's open-minded and flexible and that's exactly what you need working with dogs who change not only dog-to-dog but also day-to-day.

Happy Training!

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