There are three main approaches to dog training – traditional, modern, and balanced.
All these approaches work, if applied correctly. But they are based on very different principles.
This article looks at each of these dog training methods in turn. I’ll explain how they work and look at the pros and cons of each method.
#METHOD 1 Traditional dog training
Just like modern dog training, traditional dog training methods are based on the assumption that dogs needed to learn to obey commands or cues given by their owners.
But crucially, it was originally believed that this learning process was facilitated by the dog having respect for the owner’s authority.
The leader of the pack
It was widely believed, until quite recently, that left to themselves dogs form ‘packs’ with a structured hierarchy culminating in the ‘alpha’ or ‘top dog’ that controls all the other dogs.
Traditional dog training emphasizes that human dog owners need to ‘take control’ by becoming that ‘alpha’ dog or pack leader and by suppressing any attempts by their dog to become the alpha in the family.
The struggle for power
Many different aspects of undesirable dog behavior were seen in the past as symptoms of the struggle for alpha position.
This included behaviors such as ignoring the owner’s signals, pushing through doors, etc.
Owners were encouraged to dominate their dogs using aggressive body postures, and behavior that dogs find intimidating, such as staring or growling.
And to correct unwanted behaviors with punishment of one kind or another.
Challenge and corrections
One of the features of traditional dog training is a refusal to incorporate food or other powerful rewards into the training process.
This is partly because most dog trainers in the twentieth century had only seen food used as bribes, and partly because it was widely believed that dogs should learn to obey out of love and respect.
The key focus of the training process was to teach the dog to do nothing unless commanded and to achieve this by the punishment of unwanted behaviors.
Rewards, when offered are often of low value or no value to the dog.
With traditional dog training methods, dogs were often ‘set up’ or challenged so that they would make errors, in order that the error could be corrected.
For example to teach a dog not to move from the SIT position a trainer might leave the dog sitting in position until he attempts to get up and then punish the dog for doing so.
Popular traditional dog trainers
A number of traditional dog trainers have achieved celebrity status and high levels of popularity, and methods are in some cases named after them.
The Koehler method of dog training for example is named after William Koehler, a traditional trainer who recommended the use of forceful or ‘emphatic’ leash corrections
Traditional dog trainers can appear to achieve the kind of dramatic results that make great TV viewing, and this gives a skewed result of how widely their methods are supported.
It can also cause other problems because in many cases these quick fixes are not permanent and in some cases can make dogs aggressive.
Rank reduction in dog training
In the past, dog ‘experts’ often recommended ‘rank reduction’ strategies to teach dogs their place, which of course needed to be lower than that of their owner
Strategies such as ‘always eating before your dog’ and ‘always going through doors first’ were used.
Control over sleeping places was thought to be crucial. Some experts advised never letting your dog on your bed, some even getting into your dog’s bed yourself.
Then one day, everything changed.
#METHOD 2 Modern Dog Training
We now know that the assumption that dogs form a social hierarchy with an alpha at the top, is flawed.
Studies have shown that dogs will fight over scarce resources, but that they don’t organise themselves into any kind of consistent ranking system, with one dog dominating the others.
Science based dog training
We often refer to modern training methods as ‘science based dog training’. But it is worth remembering that all dogs learn according to the laws of science.
They learn through the consequences of their behavior, whatever those consequences may be.
The laws of science apply to all dogs and all dog trainers, not just modern dog trainers.
This is true whether or not the person training the dog is aware of the science behind what they are doing. The only difference is that traditional trainers are often unaware of the ‘laws’ that underpin the results they are getting.
Of course, you don’t need to understand the basic rules of behavior in order to train a dog, any more than you need to understand the physics that applies to wind and waves in order to sail a boat. But it helps.
Focusing on reinforcement
Some of us feel that we are better trainers if we understand how those ‘laws’ are influencing our behavior. And if we understand what is actually happening when we train a dog.
This isn’t as complicated as it might first appear. Because essentially, dogs do what works for them.
If an outcome is favourable, and the dog gets food, or some other resource, the dog will repeat the behavior associated with it. If an outcome is unpleasant, the dog is less likely to repeat that behavior in the future.
Avoiding aversives in dog training
Modern dog training methods focus on the first consequence, on providing a happy outcome for the dog when he offers the right behavior, rather than on correcting mistakes after they have happened.
Many modern dog trainers avoid the use of aversives altogether and most aspire to do so.
The reason these techniques have only recently become popular is simply that people did not realise how effective they are for teaching and controlling dogs.
Zoo keepers, film makers and scientists have been using them for decades, but only now are we using them widely for dog training. With fantastic results.
Benefits to modern training methods
There are a range of benefits to modern training, and it is these benefits that have driven the swing to modern methods of dog training that has taken place worldwide.
Those benefits include:
- Faster establishment of new behaviors
- Ability to teach unnatural behaviors (operating a switch for example)
- Ability to teach complex chains of behavior
- Reduction of anxiety and stress in canine students
- Increased pleasure for trainers
The ability to teach complex and unnatural behaviors using modern methods has been a huge driving force in the changeover, and in the widespread adoption of modern methods by the police, military and service dogs.
But modern methods have also now been widely adopted by the pet dog community, driven in large part by people’s desire to train their dogs without pain or stress.
The proper name for modern dog training is positive reinforcement training. You can find out much more about this process here: Modern Dog Training
Concerns about modern training methods
When modern dog training began to spread and gain in popularity, many people were skeptical about its benefits.
They were worried because they saw people training with food. In the past the use of food in dog training was associated with bribes, and we all know that bribing dogs is not an effective training strategy.
But initially this kind of evidence was lacking. This made people nervous of using them.
#METHOD 3 Balanced Dog Training
Dog trainers were afraid to abandon punitive traditional methods for fear of losing control. So many trainers decided to ‘hedge their bets’
As a result, a system called balanced dog training was developed, which attempted to combine traditional and modern methods.
Combining traditional and modern methods
So for example, a balanced trainer might use clicker training techniques with puppies and for early training, but also use punishment for dogs that make mistakes.
Balanced dog training arose out of the flawed assumption that positive reinforcement training is not effective on its own.
After all, how could something so simple as a clicker and treats be used to actually control a willful dog? Fortunately they can!
Balanced training wrongly assumes that modern methods need to be ‘balanced’ with traditional use of aversives, in order to work effectively. That is how it got its name.
An overview of balanced trainers
In general language, the word balanced is used to mean good thing, a reasonable, sensible way of tackling any subject. Unfortunately this is rather misleading when it comes to dog training methodology.
Balanced trainers are essentially traditional trainers who delay the point at which punishment is introduced and who acknowledge the value of using food to establish new behavior.
Some may lack the skill or patience to proof behaviors using positive reinforcement.
A wider problem is that participating in balanced training will handicap the trainer’s ability to improve their modern training skills. This is because the temptation to fall back on punishment whenever training becomes challenging is so strong.
Most experts now feel ‘balanced’ is not a good term to apply to this approach to dog training as it is neither as effective as was hoped, nor as pleasant, for anyone taking part.
Some balanced trainers are actually crossover trainers (see below) in the making, and it is worth talking at this point about crossover trainers and where they fall in the whole dog training scheme of things.
A crossover trainer is someone that is moving, or has moved, from traditional to modern training methods. Some of those trainers will have tried ‘balanced training’ on the way and found it lacking.
Many modern dog trainers, including me, are ‘crossover’ trainers. Especially those of us who are over fifty.
This is because modern dog training was largely unheard of when we were learning to train dogs.
Being a crossover trainer can be hard. There are many obstacles along the way and a whole belief system to dismantle and rebuild
Those who have learned modern training from the start have a great advantage.
There are no bad habits to crush and your skills will develop much faster if you don’t have to wrestle with all the assumptions and myths that come parcelled up with traditional dog training.
But not all of us have the luxury of getting it right from the start, and it is certainly better to crossover later, than not at all.
Comparing dog training methods
So, we have looked at three different approaches to dog training. Traditional dog training, modern dog training, and balanced dog training.
At the heart of traditional training lies the concept of provoking the dog into mistakes and then correcting him for them so that he can learn what is acceptable behavior.
At the heart of modern training lies the concept of provoking the dog into desirable behaviors and reinforcing them so that he can learn what is acceptable behavior.
You can see that the underlying philosophy here is very different, even though both concepts work according to the laws of science.
The use of rewards in different types of training
Some traditional trainers, including many more modern traditional trainers attempt to use low value rewards in training to establish behaviors. Examples of low value rewards are praise and petting.
Unfortunately low value rewards do not work well during the proofing process and punishment inevitably follows.
Studies have shown that this is because low value rewards are not effective at changing dogs behavior.
Modern training methods use high value rewards, and deliver them effectively to the dog. This requires some skill and knowledge which can easily be learned with the resources on this website, or from any positive reinforcement trainer.
Falling back on punishment
Traditional trainers use punishments throughout the training process to correct dogs that have made mistakes.
Balanced trainers have taken on board the concept of using valuable rewards and in marking desirable behaviors to help dogs learn quickly, but give up during the proofing process and fall back on punishments at this point.
Punishment is defined as anything that diminishes behavior. So this does not necessarily mean harsh physical punishment of dogs, but may also include what most traditional trainers refer to as corrections.
So how do we choose between them, these three methods? Are any of these methods much faster? Or more difficult to learn? Which method is best for you and your puppy?
The use of punishment in dog training
The use of physical punishment in dog training varies widely from leash jerks to smacking and from nose taps to grabbing the dog and shaking him.
Many trainers will refer to mild punishments as ‘corrections’. These may include actions by the trainer which are not physically harmful to the dog. Such as ‘growling’ at the dog or scolding him.
Some dog owners have no problem with this, and are happy for their dog to be ‘corrected’ in training.
Others are not comfortable with using any form of punishment on their dog whatsoever. Because it doesn’t feel like the right thing to do.
There is a huge range of opinion on this subject at the moment, so it’s good to take a step back and look at the facts behind the feelings.
The drawbacks of punishment in dog training
There are some practical drawbacks to training with punishment. Ways in which punishment gets in the way, rather than helps us. Let’s take a look.
The sensitive dog
Some dogs are much more sensitive than others.
This is because he is afraid, and fear inhibits an animal’s ability to make decisions and to remember things.
It is pretty hard to think straight when you are scared, never mind work out what is the right thing to do.
Many inexperienced dog owners find it very difficult to judge just how sensitive their dog is, and how much force to use without adverse side effects.
Even experienced trainers sometimes make mistakes in this respect.
Multiple punishments are required
The effect that punishment has on an animal’s behavior has a purpose. In nature, punishment ensures that dogs do not keep repeating behaviors that are not beneficial.
But nature is variable, and it is important the dogs and other animals are willing to be persistent. This is why training takes time.
If nature stopped a dog from ever trying again something that once had a punishing effect, that animal would miss out on important benefits.
If your dog would never walk on a particular track again because he once stepped on a prickle there, it would be disadvantageous, especially if that track was the only way to get at an important resource like food or water.
So dogs are persistent and do not give up at the first punishing consequence. If you want to use punishment to stop your dog doing something, you are going to have to punish him more than once.
Unless the punishment is extremely severe and quite devastating to the dog, it will need to be repeated several times before that behavior is extinguished.
What is more, many dogs are tough.
The tough dog
Some dogs are really very tough characters. A tough dog may feel little fear when punished mildly, and rapidly become immune to increasingly severe punishments.
A tough dog and a determined owner using a punishment based approach, very quickly get into conflict in training.
An escalating spiral of punishment can rapidly set in as the dog learns to take everything thrown at him ‘on the chin’. Such a relationship can insidiously turn a nice dog owner into an abuser.
Punishment can unwittingly be a slippery slope towards aggression, even in the most well intentioned people. Especially when human tempers and frustration are thrown into the mix, during a challenging training session.
Learning and teaching
Perhaps one of the greatest drawbacks of punishment in training is that it is difficult to teach the appropriate level of force required to get the job done, to a novice dog owner, without harming the dog or damaging the bond between the two of them.
And because punishment is so easily associated with the punisher, rather than the misdeed or mistake, punishing a dog can make a dog fearful of his handler
Delivering a treat to a dog on the other hand, is more difficult to get wrong.
Put simply, there is potential for physical harm in the use of punishment, and no potential for physical harm when using rewards.
Like reinforcement, punishment focuses on a single behavior.
Unlike reinforcement, punishment focuses on the behavior you do not want to see any more.
The problem with this approach is that there are often many different and undesirable behaviors that your dog could choose as an alternative to the one behavior you are trying to encourage.
This means you may have to train out several undesirable behaviors using punishment, when you could simply be teaching one great behavior using reinforcement.
But what about balanced training?
The introduction of punishment, or corrections as balanced trainers call them, into a training program impacts on the dog’s ability to learn.
For everyone using those punishments, no matter how great the rest of their training program may be
Punishment causes problems for balanced trainers and their canine students in just the same way that it causes problems for traditional trainers. These effects are not cancelled out by the use of reinforcement or rewards.
A balanced trainer who uses even occasional punishment is compromising their proficiency when trying to use positive reinforcement training the rest of the time.
This is because positive reinforcement training involves the dog making choices. And perhaps unsurprisingly, people and dogs alike find it harder to make choices when they know that the wrong choice will be punished.
Traditional versus modern – the controversy
The majority of the pet dog training community has transitioned now to modern dog training.
But traditional trainers can still be found, online and in the real world, giving advice and instruction in their methods. Especially within the working gundog community.
The traditional trainer’s viewpoint
Traditional dog trainers are often bemused by the enthusiasm for modern, science based methods.
They struggle to see the point. Their old methods work. They really do. So why is everyone in such a rush to change?
Not to mention the fact that many traditional trainers see themselves as rescuers of the many people that get into difficulties with modern methods.
Traditional dog trainers often tell me:
“I have to deal with the results of all this modern training, with owners that have tried bribing and cajoling their dogs, and are now completely out of control.” And they are telling the truth.
They genuinely do see many clients that have failed to train their dogs using modern methods.
They genuinely do see people that have got confused by modern methods and are bribing their dogs rather than training them.
The modern trainer’s viewpoint
Modern dog trainers, on the other hand, are frustrated by the failure of traditional dog trainers to understand the principles of behavioural modification.
They struggle to understand why traditional trainers cling to the old ways when the new is clearly better.
Not to mention the fact that modern trainers see themselves as rescuers, for the many people whose dogs are mentally scarred by the abuse they have received at the hands of traditional trainers.
Modern trainers often tell me:
“I have to deal with the fall out from these old fashioned methods, dogs that have fallen apart under punitive methods or grown hardened to punishment and are now completely out of control”
And they are telling the truth.
They genuinely do see many clients that have failed to train their dogs using traditional methods, and they genuinely do see dogs that are distressed and demoralised by being physically pushed around.
Two sides to the story
As you can see, there are two sides to the story.
People are failing and people are succeeding with both traditional and modern training methods.
The truth is that many people fail to train their dogs, no matter what ‘method’ or approach they use.
Choosing the right method to train your puppy
Choosing a dog training method is not just about choosing what works. It is about choosing what feels right for you and your dog. Especially when that dog is a puppy.
To decide what is the best method we need to ask ourselves some important questions:
- Is this method safe?
- Is this method effective?
- Can I use this method on my puppy?
- Will this method improve my relationship with my dog
The best dog training method
There is plenty of hype on both sides of the debate, but modern, traditional, and balanced dog training methods all work if correctly applied. So we can discount that question. Let’s look at the other three:
Is this method safe
Traditional dog training and balanced dog training, carries a risk. This is because the use of punishment in dog training has been shown to increase aggression in dogs.
That does not mean that all traditionally trained dogs are aggressive, but the risk is there.
Modern dog training on the other hand, is completely safe
Can I use this method on my puppy?
Traditional dog training methods cannot be used on small puppies. The methods are too stressful.
This is why, in the working gundog community where traditional training still dominates, puppies are often not trained until they are over six months old.
Modern dog training on the other hand can be used on puppies from eight weeks of age.
Will this method improve my relationship with my dog
Dogs thrive on attention, and some less sensitive dogs will thrive in a traditional training program if applied accurately by an experienced trainer.
Inexpertly applied, traditional training methods can cause serious harm to the relationship between man and dog, as the dog becomes fearful of his owner
Dogs of all kinds however will enjoy modern training methods.
And modern dog training has been shown to promote a great relationship between the dog and his human companion.
Experts agree that the best way to train your puppy or older dog is by using the kind of humane modern training methods you will find throughout this website.
Finding a trainer to help you
I am often saddened to read about the experiences of people who have put their trust in a traditional trainer and been distressed at the way their dog has been treated.
If you are going to train using modern methods, and want to join a class, you need to be sure that there is an experienced modern trainer in charge.
Sometimes it can be difficult to decide what methods are being used in a training class or online training course, or to discriminate between different kinds of advice given out on a website facebook group, or online forum.
But there are some common clues that will help you.
- If a trainer is talking about the importance of understanding pack structure or being the leader of the pack, he or she is a traditional trainer.
- If a trainer talks about getting your dog’s respect, he is a traditional trainer
- If a trainer asks you to bring a sliplead to a training class, he is a traditional trainer
- If a trainer asks you to bring your dog to a class in a harness, he is a modern trainer
- If a trainer asks you to bring food for your dog to a class, he is a modern trainer
If you join a puppy training class, always be ready to walk away if you don’t feel comfortable with what you see there.
Although most puppy trainers nowadays are modern trainers, there are still traditional trainers to be found. Especially in specialized disciplines or dog sports.
The world of dog training is changing. Modern training methods are now firmly dominating the international dog community and have been shown to be an effective and powerful tool.
The evidence points to punishment based training as being less effective than positive reinforcement training, and as potentially harmful.
Punishment based dog training is slowly but surely being replaced by science based methods. Training without force is a philosophy that is now firmly established and gaining momentum.
Most importantly, modern methods are humane and painless, and they turn the learning process into a wonderful and enriching experience for both the dog and his owner.
It is not too late to cross over
If you are using traditional methods now, it is never too late to cross that bridge. I was a traditional trainer for nearly thirty years before changing my approach!
You can start as I did by incorporating some modern techniques into your training and learn how to teach with positive reinforcement one step at a time.
Or you can plunge right in and commit to never correcting your pet again. Many people prefer this approach, and it certainly makes sure you learn rapidly.
Let us know which method you decide to use to train your puppy and how you get on. You can also join my forum for help and support along the way
- The use of punishment in dog training
- The use of reinforcement in dog training
- Modern dog training methods and techniques