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  • K-9 Magic

Trainer Style Differences

Updated: Mar 11

Recently a coworker asked me about what she should look for in a dog trainer. I thought it might be a good time on the blog to describe the basic options. There are three common methods of training a dog- compulsion, positive only, and balanced.

Compulsion training is my least favorite training style. This is the trainer that might pin your dog and make it watch other dogs to solve reactivity. (Note- this does NOT work!!!) This is the trainer that will tell you to dominate your dog. I have had the misfortune of having classes with this type of trainer in the past. It was all about super hard corrections for any mistakes. Trying to teach a drop on recall, this trainer would attach a long line to my dog and force him to a stop from a full run. It was awful and I did not continue with that trainer. I would not recommend anyone go to a compulsion style trainer and if you find yourself with one its time to consider another trainer. Yes, it can work but often at a tremendous cost. This tends to make for fearful and unhappy dogs. Thankfully, there are fewer and fewer compulsion trainers as there are far better methods.

Positive only is the big buzz word in today's world. Everyone wants to be kind to their dog. When we were teaching classes many people wanted only positive methods. I love positive only. All my dogs search work is positive only and all my tricks and fun things I do with the dogs is positive only. With positive only, you reward your dogs positive behavior and ignore their bad behaviors. The theory is that dogs will seek the reward so they will keep doing the good behaviors that are being rewarded and drop the bad behaviors as its not being reinforced. In a lot of ways it works absolutely amazing. You do have to be very good at your timing and make sure your not bribing your dog. But done right, positive only makes for a happy dog and a good relationship.

I had a time in my life, I was trying to do everything positive only. Unfortunately, I saw it breaking down over and over in certain scenarios. Where it broke down is dogs that do not value the treat over their bad behavior and dogs that think they should be boss. When I was dealing with my first reactive dog he had absolutely no interest in the highest value rewards I had. We are talking roast beef and steak type rewards and he had absolutely no interest when another dog was around. I have seen positive only work for reactive dogs, but its extremely rare. The majority of reactive dogs I have seen, positive only doesn't work. Which leads me to the style of training I have become-Balanced.

Balanced training is about doing what the dogs need and training the dog in front of you. Positive is the preferred method for balanced training and as much as possible, balanced trainers use positive methods. However, when dogs need help with certain things, such as reactivity, the balanced trainer will use appropriate tools such as a pinch collar. Over and over, I have seen dogs with major issues that were not resolving with positive only, start making progress when I switched from positive only to a balanced approach. I have found over the years that balanced is the best method in general for me to get a mutual respect relationship with my dogs. I have dogs that are prone to reactivity and are high drive working dogs with very strong minds of their own. With positive only, these dogs walk all over me. With corrections as appropriate for their issues, they start developing respect for me. It leads to a nice mutually respectful relationship. They are happy and I am happy. With my first reactive dog, as soon as I gave up on positive only and started training him in a balanced manner, he made immediate progress on all his reactivity issues. When I stopped and thought about it, it made a lot of sense. In the wild, wolves are not going to say nicely please stop doing that and I'll give you this bit of meat. They are going to correct the bad behavior of their peers. If we don't correct, certain types of dogs will lose respect for us and walk all over us. A balanced training style allows me to do positive for most of the training, but still have the option to correct the bad behavior.

If your looking for a trainer consider who your dog is and what your after. My coworker is having aggression and reactivity issues with her new puppy. She offers her high value rewards and the dog ignores it and goes crazy at the other dog. The pup is also getting angry at her for trying to stop her. That is a recipe to get bitten or get someone else bitten. My recommendation to her was to find a balanced trainer immediately. A dog with those type of issues is not likely to resolve with positive only. If you have a dog that wants to please with no big issues, positive only might work well. If you want to do fun things like tricks or nose work positive only could work for you as well. A balanced trainer will also work in those scenarios as they can also show you positive techniques. In general, I have found over the years the best approach is a positive only as much as possible, but stepping up and correcting when the dogs behavior warrants it or when there are safety issues involved.

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