Balanced Dog Training: There’s Nothing “Balanced” About It

Photo by Patrick Danforth |

Photo by Patrick Danforth |

Every time I hear someone talk about "balanced" dog training, I can't help but shake my head. This term has quickly become a euphemism for training that uses both positive reinforcement along with physical punishment and/or physical corrections. The term itself is indicative of the key phrase those of us in the so-called "purely positive" camp hear so often:

"There isn't just one right way to train a dog."

True. Some dogs respond well to clicker training, while lure-reward or catching behavior works better for others. Canine Assistants founder Jennifer Arnold recently introduced a training concept called Bond-Based Choice Teaching®, a concept that is founded on a more cognitive approach where the emphasis is on establishing the bond and feeding the need of dogs rather than focusing on teaching cues and having dogs work for human approval.  I like to do both - focus on the bond as well as teaching cues without pressure - guiding dogs to learn and have fun while doing so. But these methods aren't just useful for teaching basic cues and behaviors. They are also highly effective for working with aggressive dogs of all breeds and sizes. Anyone can strap on a prong collar and effectively bully their way into suppressing that dog's behavior, but it takes a true understanding of canine cognition and behavior to be able to change the way the dog thinks, feels, and reacts.

So yes, one could argue that there are many different ways to humanely and effectively change canine behavior and teach necessary cues, but none of those methods requires you to physically intimidate, frighten, or inflict pain upon your dog.

Science has consistently shown that punitive techniques are no more effective than reward-based techniques, and that dogs trained using punishment-based techniques experience much more stress and anxiety during training. One study tested the effects of shock collars on dogs, and found that even when following training guidelines published by collar manufacturers, the collars still caused dogs significant distress and caused repeated stress signals from the dogs. The dogs also became less engaged with the handler and the training environment. So if you have the choice between teaching your dog with or without causing them extreme stress and discomfort, why not choose the more humane route?

The biggest misconception about positive training is that there's no discipline. You just shove treats down a dog's throat and tell him 'good boy,' right?


Humane discipline is a key part of positive training. But that discipline involves teaching a dog to make the right choices by giving them alternatives, not constantly 'correcting' them. We have to give these highly intelligent, emotional animals the opportunity to think and learn. They aren't robots that we can program with a "balanced" system of physical correction and reward. Your leash jerks, choke and prong collar corrections, and use of electric shock might stop the behavior in the moment, but what are you really teaching the dog that is going to be at all productive? You might feel good yourself because you managed to suppress behavior for that moment and yes, maybe have some longer term success. But at what cost to your dog and ultimately to you? There's nothing "balanced" about a dog that's in a state of learned helplessness after being constantly corrected and "put in his place". Nothing good about having a dog that responds out of fear of what you might do next.

Police K9 trainer and behavior expert, Steve White, states that, "Punishment is like a nuclear bomb. If the blast doesn't get you - the fall out certainly will." Trainers like me are regularly called in to see clients whose dogs have been damaged by the punitive techniques used by previous trainers. We then work hard to undo the harm that has been done, which can take a while depending on how severe the damage.

If I had to think of an example of a dog that was truly "balanced," it would be a dog that -  regardless of age, breed or drive - was confident, had been guided into making the right choices, and was allowed to think and learn without constantly being corrected. So yes, there's more than one way to train a dog. But so-called "balanced training" isn't one of them.

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Positively Expert: Victoria Stilwell

Victoria Stilwell is a world-renowned dog trainer best known as the star of the internationally acclaimed TV series, It’s Me or the Dog. A bestselling author, Stilwell frequently appears in the media as a pet expert and is widely recognized and respected as a leader in the field of animal behavior.


10 thoughts on “Balanced Dog Training: There’s Nothing “Balanced” About It

  1. Lise

    Hi, My dog is 6 months old and soo excited that we can't even consider trying to teach him anything as he so hyper, jumpy, pulling. Just can't get him to stop to even begging teaching. Would like to teach him to walk on leach but need to learn how to calm him first. How do I start the calming process.

  2. ANorthAmerican

    I love this article, it's so obvious if you understand dog training.
    People really can't call themselves "positive" trainers if any harsh punishment or correction is used anyway. I mean, once they've introduced the harsh punishment, they cease to be a positive trainer. Yet people who call themselves balanced believe that they can combine the two - and you can't.

  3. Gary Biddington

    Victoria, "he who shall not be named" is living in your head rent free. Just because you don't specifically mention another professional in the field doesn't mean we don't know who you are talking about. I've read you latest book and have been reading your weblog for more than a year so I'm familiar with what to teach and believe. I get it. I also know the the pet industry is on the north side of 50 billion dollars and knocking your competitor is not a help to you professionally. The old saying if can't say anything nice about someone you probably shouldn't say it at all holds true. By the way, the author of book Citizen Canine, David Grimm, explains that dogs are wolves genetically but have developed into a sub species through self domestication and selective breeding. Any study comparing wolves to dogs makes a "straw dog" argument (pun intended). Observing dogs in the 3rd world reveals "pack behavior" in wild or stray dogs. I thought it was interesting that one of your experts was going to travel to Belize to study dogs in that country as dogs there behave differently. " As I like to say, in Mexico, dogs are skinny but happy. In other places, they are fat and neurotic", a quote from "he who shall not be named". I will continue to follow the many sides of the current debate. Personally my dog received both puppy and intermediate training using rewards based training so I'm not opposed to dog training. But I'm not drinking anybody's cool aid just because they mention the word "science" in a presentation.

  4. houndhelper

    I think once a bond is established with a dog it makes training a whole lot easier, And I don't see how anyone can expect that level of trust to happen when they use fear and pain while training.

  5. paganone

    What a load of piffle. This sounds like human psychology 101 for dogs. Anyone who thinks they are that smart isn't working with the best parts of their brain turned on.

  6. Dog's Day Out

    Thank you for this article. I am posting it once again (I did so when it originally came out too) on my dog training page and will continue to do so. I am so tired of having to explain over and over again to clients who come to me after working with these "balanced" trainers that there is a much better way. Sigh.

  7. Audrey

    Thank you for this Victoria! I just watched an awful video of a trainer lift a dog off the ground for acting aggressive. This trainer claims that there has to be both reward and punishment in order for there to be balance. It just makes me want to bang my head on the wall. We should have higher standards for our dogs.

  8. Terry

    Hanging dogs is not included in what a "balanced" dog trainer does. Unfortunately, the word balanced can't be copyrighted so anyone can use it, even people who hang dogs. I'm a "balanced" dog trainer and know hundreds of other balanced trainers that have never and would never hang a dog or in any other way abuse or be inhumane to a dog. Yes, I believe in saying yes and no to a dog just the same as I say yes and not to my child. That's not abuse. I'm totally open to discuss the humane methods I use to train dogs with any one who has an open mind. Please don't categorize ignorant, inhumane and abusive
    people who use the word balanced as a true balanced dog trainer.

  9. Allie

    Actually, I think Nicole Wilde sums it up rather nicely in her blog post on DogStar Daily here:
    The fact is that bad dog trainers exist at both end of the spectrum, and just as bad, in my opinion, are those people who have no tolerance or understanding of someone else's opinions. Many of my friends are professionals in the dog world and we all train differently, but our dogs are all happy and well behaved members of society at the end of the day. I wish everyone, including the writers on Positively, would drop the self-righteous attitudes, the "my method of training is the only right way" articles have gotten very old, very quickly. There's this idea that if you aren't 'purely positive,' then you must be helicoptering dogs and screaming in their faces. This article denies misconceptions about purely positive training but then buys right in to the misconceptions about balanced training. Its ridiculous and misleading.

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