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Finding the "Balance" in Dog Training: A Look at How We Train & Why

Ever wondered how many dog trainers you can put in a room without risking WWIII?


Just kidding! Sorta. Okay, not really kidding...

Dog training has become quite a "hot topic" these days and, with so many different methods and avenues to to train a dog, you're probably feeling a bit bombarded with information on which training technique(s) is best. Unfortunately, we can't tell you that. We can only tell you which training technique we think is best... As will every other trainer. It's up to you to decide which approach is best for you and your dog because you know you (and your dog) best! So, if you'd like to learn about a training approach that we've been having success with for over ten years, just keep on reading!

Back in the day (30+ years ago), it was pretty common practice for dog trainers to be purely compulsion-based trainers, meaning that they relied on corrections to teach dogs what to do and what not to do. For the purposes of this article, we're going to dub this type of training as "old school" training, although it could more accurately be described as "escape training." Hunting dog trainers got a particularly bad rep during this period of time due to their misuse of electronic training collars. Most of these old-school trainers just didn't see the value in using treats to train. Lots of corrections and very little (if any) reward. Were the dogs trained & compliant? Yep, for the most part. Did the dogs retain their happy & spirited personalities? Ummm, nope, not for the most part. We can always spot a dog that's had old-school training (yes, some trainers still do this today).... Head down, tail tucked, generally very compliant, but absolutely no spark or "pep in his step" left. It's a sad look, and Team Chattanooga Canine is not here for it.

Did we mention that this type of old-school training can cause aggression in a dog that would not normally be aggressive? You see, when you correct a dog over and over and over again (especially when said dog has no idea why he's being corrected) and don't give the dog any opportunity to "win" and be successful, one of two things will happen... The dog will break and just give up (bye bye happy/sparkly personality) OR the dog will fight back. Not every dog will tolerate being backed into a corner... Of course, these dogs that fought back were then deemed aggressive when, chances are, 99.9% of them would have never resorted to aggression if they'd had literally any other choice. It was a sad state of affairs, and change was needed.

Insert purely positive training here. We humans have a tendency to over-correct when we sense a problem... Lots of wrecks happen like this. Driver glances down at his cell phone for a second and then looks back up to see that he's run off the road just a bit. Driver panics, over-corrects, crosses the median, has a head-on collision with a semi-truck, and crashes and burns. Okay maybe not that dramatic, but you get the picture. We like to fix problems. We saw a problem with compulsion-style training so it would only make sense that we balance that out with purely-positive training, right? Ummm... Stick with us a bit longer.

If you're not familiar with purely-positive training, it's a 100% reward-based training method that uses all-positive reinforcement (treats, toys, verbal praise, petting, etc.) to teach and enforce behaviors. It's actually a fantastic training method when it comes to teaching a dog a behavior. Dogs learn through repetition and, by rewarding desired behaviors, it's very easy to get A LOT of reps in really quickly. We love using positive-reinforcement to teach behaviors & commands. It's the most fair, quick, and easy way to teach everything we need a dog to learn. When it comes to actually enforcing the taught behaviors, however, we find purely-positive training to have some limitations.

The biggest issue with purely-positive training is how effective it is... Until it's not. We see purely-positive training start to break-down right around the time when higher-level distractions are introduced. Depending on the dog (along with his level of prey-drive & food drive), distractions may be more motivating than treats. Ever tried to call a beagle off of a rabbit trail using a hot dog? Trust us when we say that it doesn't go so well. Treats and rewards can only be so motivating. When your dog decides he'd rather go chase a squirrel than take a treat, what do you do? You're unfortunately left with very few options other than to give chase or hope he returns. Purely positive trainers will tell you that you introduced distractions too soon. Your dog was over-threshold (too close to the squirrel) and not able to focus. It was your fault that you rushed things. Do more distance work around distractions. Slowly work closer to the distractions. Give your dog time to adjust. Be more engaging. Be more interesting than the distraction. This is all true, and these are all great suggestions, but for some dogs, it unfortunately will just never be enough...

Some dogs are not "unicorn" dogs who just "get things" and want to please their owners. Some dogs have a mind of their own, and some dogs like to act on their impulses at the most inconvenient of times. Have one of these dogs? Then stick with us. Have a unicorn dog? Then you can stop reading... Purely positive training is all you need, you lucky guy/gal!

For some dogs (if you're still reading, then you probably know what we're talking about), no amount of distance/engagement work will give you bomb-proof obedience around distractions. At least not for many, many years. Dog trainers started to realize, yet again, that change was needed. There had to be some way to train a dog that wasn't borderline abuse but also resulted in reliable/enforceable obedience... Right??? Right.

Insert balanced training here. If we had to describe our training approach here at Chattanooga Canine in one word, "balanced" would be our word of choice. We're no one-size fits all training program. We don't lean towards one extreme or the other. We simply train the dog in front of us using a range of techniques and tools that will create the most reliable obedience in the shortest amount of time... All while keeping things fair and fun for the dog. Yes, that is all possible!

In our opinion, the biggest mistake a trainer can make is to force their (usually well-intentioned) ideologies on a dog... Just because we as humans feel good about a training approach doesn't mean it's going to work for the dog. Why? Because dogs aren't humans. What we think should work for a dog might just not. What works for one dog might not work for another dog. This is why balanced training is so effective... We have so many different types of training and tools at our disposal to pull from that we can always find an approach that works for each individual dog.

As we said earlier, positive-reinforcement is the fastest way to teach behaviors. Do we use treats, praise, etc.? Absolutely! If your dog isn't having fun, we aren't either. It's incredibly unfair to correct a dog for something they don't know, so we use positive reinforcement to teach every single command & behavior before we ever introduce a consequence for not doing said behavior. Treats also allow us to teach corrections (yep, it's true) so that, if/when we do have to correct, your dog knows exactly what the correction is for, what it means, and how to respond to it. This keeps things fair, and your dog's personality remains 100% intact (that's a win-win!). As far as corrections go, there's no yelling at, spanking, or hitting your dog. Dog training is not supposed to be dramatic. Simple, calm collar corrections will be all you need to get that reliable obedience (even around distractions) you've been dreaming of... And it won't take years! We promise.

Being able to communicate with your dog is what balanced training is all about. We believe that you should be able to not only tell your dog "yes" but also "no." We believe that, for safety purposes, your dog should know that listening is not optional. We believe that you should be able to trust your dog in every scenario, and your dog should be able to trust you in every scenario. Our goal is to give you that open-line of communication so that you can safely navigate all situations... Yes, even the squirrel scenario! Above all else, dog training is supposed to be fun. Give us a call if you'd like to see how fun dog training can be... And definitely give us a call if you'd like to see how fun having a reliable, fully-trained dog can be!

Happy training!

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