Finding A Trainer With Balance

Behavior Clips

By Gary Wilkes

As a groomer you cannot be completely isolated from the world of training. First and foremost, if your client has a dog behavior problem it is very important for you to be able to refer them to someone good.

If you can’t, you run the risk that the dog will no longer be in the home and you will no longer have the opportunity to groom them. Second, trainers will periodically attempt to ally themselves with you in a mutual referral relationship. That can be a very good thing if you pick the right trainer. In that spirit, I offer you some insight into a major division within dog training so that you can objectively interpret what you hear.

For the last 30 years many trainers have moved to a ‘positive’ perspective on training. They assert that ‘negative’ training causes problems. They have shaped their training around that assumption and oppose trainers who do not share their bias. The essence of their rhetoric starts with referring to other trainers as ‘punishment based’ or ‘coercion based’.

Considering that you use things like loops, occasionally muzzles and manhandle dogs to facilitate bathing and grooming, you would, by their standards, be a ‘coercion based’ groomer. The underlying theme is that ‘coercion’ or ‘punishment’ causes terrible side effects. I’ll let you decide if what you do causes terrible side effects. I think it is a false dichotomy. Having handled thousands of dogs that didn’t want to be handled, I see the intelligent and often elegant application of ‘coercion’ as a major tool in insuring a polite, easy–to–handle dog. Meaning the coercion is not an end in itself, but a way to ease the dog’s resistance and give them a better life. You do it all the time. It’s called ‘handling’.

Words Can Affect the Market

Ever since people coined terms like ‘punishment based’ another term emerged to help protect the targets. Obviously, the public thinks that someone who always uses some form of punishment is abusive. Calling someone ‘punishment based’ is a deep insult that turns the public away from an entire class of trainers.

To defend themselves, those trainers coined the term ‘balanced training’. You will now hear trainers style themselves with that title, implying that they use both reinforcement and punishment with the goal of creating a well–behaved dog. However, when you take it out of its context and just look at the term ‘balance’ you will see that this proprietary training term isn’t exactly what it suggests.

The Nature of Balance

Generally speaking, balance is the process of arranging something so that it remains in a particular relationship to its surroundings, or some other thing. If you have a boat that is heavily weighted to one side, you recognize the problem because the boat’s relationship to the water is askew. Shifting the weight of the cargo will shift the boat’s relationship to the water and it will become in balance.

While many things are as straightforward as balancing a boat by evenly distributing its cargo and ballast, some things do not fit that simple rule. For instance, to balance a teeter–totter does not automatically imply putting two kids of equal weight on either end. A teeter–totter can be balanced with two children of unequal weights by shifting the heavier kid toward the center point. The center point, called the fulcrum, doesn’t even have to be in the center of the teeter–totter. You can balance the kids in one of two ways —shift one of the kids closer to the fulcrum, or move the fulcrum. Both solutions achieve the same result. The relative weight of the children is equalized so that they balance each other.

So, balance does not mean equally weighted—it can also mean that things are distributed in a particular fashion relative to a balance point. The reason that this second type of balance is important to dog trainers is that rewards and punishments are rarely of equal weight.

A mildly pleasant experience like parking in the first parking space you see can shape your first tendency when parking your car. A single experience of having your car towed (because you didn’t look closely at the “no parking” sign) can disrupt your existing behavior completely. While you may not remember any of the parking spaces that created your initial behavior, you will never forget the time you parked incorrectly and your car was towed. The pleasant experience of finding a place to park is far less important to you than the hassle of finding your car and paying to get it back. The breaking point between a close place to park and the risk of parking in the wrong spot is the fulcrum between which the two opposite consequences teeter. Finding balance between consequences is one of the most important training skills for all dog professionals.

An Objective Perspective

To be an effective trainer, the vast majority of what you do has to be ‘positive’. By definition, punishment stops behaviors. It is illogical to think that one could be successful by stopping everything. At some point you have to create behaviors and that require ‘positive’ methods. At other junctures you will have to stop behaviors—like destroying property, threatening and attacking people, jumping up on guests, nuisance barking and a host of other unacceptable behaviors.

Here’s the key to these terms. You cannot stop behaviors with ‘positive’ methods. You cannot create behaviors with exclusively ‘negative’ methods. Every effective trainer does what you do—facilitate the dog’s experience based on what it does and what it needs. There is no cruelty to using good handling to prevent a dog from biting when its nails are being trimmed. There is a form of cruelty in letting the dog get away with biting and never actually addressing a true ‘deal breaker’ behavior.

When you interview trainers to see if they can help you in your business, I suggest you forget the labels, fancy letters after their name and any other claim of credentials. Talk to them. If they don’t sound like you in their statements about ethics and practice, it’s probably a bad fit. If you hear them focus on how the dog benefits from training and how they can help you make dogs easier to groom, you’re on the right track. If they are more concerned about methods than the outcome for the dog, you may want to keep looking. The most effective trainers are results based and their goal is to help dogs live harmoniously with their owners, groomers, vets and other people. That is real balance. ✂