Balanced Trainers Beware: It’s Time to Ditch Outdated Methods

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58 Comments on “Balanced Trainers Beware: It’s Time to Ditch Outdated Methods”

  1. Im glad that the vid came up on my feed. Im struggling with my 10m old pyr mix that we adopted at 6m. She missed out on a lot of early development socialization and training. She is anxious and fearful, and often redirects on us with aggression. It’s been really tempting to start using balanced training to see quick results, but hearing you advocate for R+ has encouraged me to be more patient with her because I really love her so much and want to strengthen our bond rather than her being intimidated by me.

    1. @lagottessa I think I misread your comment. That’s my bad. Yes, I don’t believe balanced trainers try to make the dog feel intimidated by you. At least any good balanced trainer would never try to do that and you should not trust one that does. Modern balanced training works through love and leadership, not dominating or harming your dog in an attempt to make them fear you

    2. I just have to say, good job on talking it out with the nay sayers.

      Second of all, don’t get too caught up on breed behaviors. Even though it’s good to do research on the breed of your dog, you want to treat your dog as a unique individual of his own. A lot of behavioral issues can be tied to behaviors that were developed from her parents which were unfortunately passed onto the offspring. That’s also not to say she didn’t develop this behaviors from prior experience before you took her in but it’s good to be mindful of the possibility of the result of psychogenetics.

      If she is being stubborn, you have to look at the context of the situation in which she’s being stubborn. Are there too many distractions? Is she displaying high levels of anxiety prior to the situation? Is she in the proper state of mind to learn in the situation? Has she gotten enough healthy sleep? Are you asking too much of her too early? Does she even understand what you are asking of her? You have to put yourself in her shoes to really understand what approach you need to take to help her understand in the set situation.

      My dog’s recall is great at home but that’s because she’s been around the house and feels comfortable. Outside, she’s not yet prepared to reliably be left to her own devices but I practice the most with her recall on a long training leash. I try not to bribe her with her food too much because I want her to voluntarily listen to me outside the house even if I don’t have food. When she successfully recalls, I pay her out heavily with lots of food. Once the behavior develops and strengths in different situations, she will start to generalize it more as she gets older. You can’t expect your dog to listen every time in all situations when they can do it well at home. Because they haven’t been around the block as much as we have. So we have to be understanding and open-minded of what your dog is experiencing in the situation. You can’t expect a child to listen very well in their first trip to the candy store. Because they are just so overwhelmed.

      With her aggression, my advice, find what you think is causing it. Do a lot of systematic desensitization and counter conditioning. Is it a resource guarding issue? Has she not had enough exposure to dogs? Does she have a fight, flight, or freeze response when she sees another dog? Set up exercises to help her prepare for those situations. Give her ample space so she can take in information from afar so that you dont trigger her right off the bat so that it doesn’t ruin the whole training session (also called withdrawal).

      Also, don’t forget that treats are not your only form of currency. I’ve worked with so many dogs that preferred toys and play over treats. It depends on what she prefers in a given moment. You don’t know until you try. I had one dog discover that her preferred form of currency was the tug toy that I had in my back pocket as she stole it when I turned my back. Or one case where I had a dog that couldn’t leave this particular toy we found around the store, so we bought it and used it to our advantage. Some dogs just like to walk and that’s currency enough. If they listen to you during a walk, the walk continues. Or if they love to sniff the ground, If you tell them to leave it and they listen, I see no harm in letting them go back to sniffing. Training shouldn’t be a shackle of stopping your dog from being a dog. Use the things that they love in life to your advantage. When your dog gives your lemons, you make lemonade.

  2. I’ll be getting a puppy soon after many many years of wanting one and I’ve been watching your videos for a while now, to prepare for that day where I finally get a puppy, I love your training methods and I really wanna train my puppy with as much positivity as I can. Thank you for your amazing and helpful videos Zak!

  3. When you mentioned many people think you can’t train a high drive ‘ aggressive ‘ dog using r+ I immediately thought of modern malinois. He seems to train with r+ only and produces very good working/protection dogs. What do you think of him?

  4. “Less aversive things, such as yelling”? Yelling to me is super aversive and can build nothing but stress in a dog. None of the balanced trainers out there that I follow and admire have I seen ever, ever yell at a dog.

  5. I’ve been working with dogs for 5 years and I can guarantee the vast majority of my clients (roughly 1000 over the years) don’t put any thought into the style of training for their dog the way they do for their kids. Most people take all their preconceived notions and just wing it. Then when their dog ends up with behavior issues they blame everything and everyone around them. I have clients that want shock collars on their dogs when at home. Need a muzzle because they eat everything on trail and use prong collars to fix pulling. The band-aid fix appeals to the lazy dog owner and there’s more new dog owners than ever due to so many people getting a dog during lockdown out of FOMO and impulse. Now 1/3 of the new pups coming in have separation anxiety. Pre-pandemic separation anxiety was rare.

    1. I fear you’re right. People are looking for the “quick fix” or claim they don’t have “time” to train their dog. They think to use positive training, you need to spend 2 hours a day working with the dog or some such thing. They don’t want to put in the work to actually TRAIN the dog. They just want the behavior they don’t like to “go away”. And I can understand that!! I have a little dog now that just L-O-V-E-S people!!! He thinks people were put on this earth exclusively to pet him and tell him how wonderful he is. When he sees a person (stranger or friend), he barks and barks and will pull toward that person if on leash. I’d love for the behavior to just “go away”. But on the other hand, he wouldn’t be Riley if he didn’t love people, so maybe I don’t want the behavior to just go away. I’ve been working with Riley and he’s doing really well. No, he isn’t perfect (and I don’t expect him to ever be perfect–he’s a dog, not a computer). Much of the time now, he doesn’t bark and pull toward people. He does still sometimes barks and pulls toward a person (usually if we are taken by “surprise” and a person comes around a corner or something and we didn’t see that person coming), but when I say “Watch me”, he turns toward me immediately, sits and watches me. The barking and lunging “magically” disappear. I took time to train Riley, not jerk him around to “get rid of” the behavior I didn’t like. That way, I get to keep my boy just the way he is (just the way I love him) and get behavior I like better, too.

  6. I really like Tom Davis, not sure where he would place himself on the spectrum but I would say he is extremely ethical in my opinion. His definition of negative reinforcement isn’t shown here but to me makes the most sense. Negative reinforcement in short means to remove something and positive is to add. Has nothing to do with emotion.

    1. @Denis Baudinot whichever method you use, timing and reading your dog is key. No way around it. You can make your dog super confused and stressed with using positive reinforcement at the wrong time, too.
      Agree with the “don’t try this at home”, though. Keep in mind that the dogs Tom Davis often get are the very toughest cases, who have traveled long and wide to see him.

    2. ​@lagottessa That is a good point. Reading body language is a very fundamental skill, but I think it’s also difficult and requires a ton of practice and education. I read books, watched videos about it and practice it every day with my dogs, but as a mere dog owner I don’t have the practice and exposure that a professional has and there’s going to be situations where I misinterpret, straight up miss subtle cues or act just a little to late.

      The good thing about positive reinforcement is that the risk of misapplying it, is not that big. The worst case is: your dog gets a bit confused or takes a bit longer to learn something. As long as the bulk of your training and play is on point you still make progress. Corrective methods carry a much higher risk, as you can stress and literally mess up your dog if you are constantly nagging it or correct it too late.

      And that’s especially true for highly reactive dogs. When Tom handles the most severe and dangerous cases, he seems to be very, very careful and precise, especially in his newer videos.

      Similarly, on this channel and other reward based training channels, you see a lot of emphasis on observing dogs and slowly and methodically introducing things, not only to train, but also to gain more knowledge about a specific dog and how to read them. But there’s typically more time and more experimentation involved rather than very fast results.

      Ultimately I think that’s why this whole discussion is almost a bit like an apples vs oranges comparison. One side is talking about long term, sustainable training. The other is talking about severe cases, where damage control is in order to get to a minimal baseline. The scientific work is on the former side, but doesn’t actually contradict the latter, as far as I know.

    3. @Denis Baudinot I absolutely agree. You need to really be able to read and know a dog and in addition know how to correctly and not harmfully use those tools. That’s why it’s important to learn and know about the tools before considering using them and many should keep their hands away from them. But they do have their purpose and help in not a damaging and painful way if you know how to use them.

  7. Yes! Children would benefit from parents who use the same philosophy in child-rearing that Zak uses in dog training. As far as finding the similarities between us and our dogs, I feel it is a good thing for us to find the similarities between ourselves and all others, especially those we choose to interact with on a regular basis.

    I’ve had a discussion about The Carrot and The Stick as presented in the field of psychology, with a couple of friends in the past week. I know full well that I do not respond well to the stick. It’s not motivating for me. In fact, it paralyzes me if it doesn’t knock me back a few steps. I respond much better to the Carrot, positive reinforcement. Yet, I recently realized that I was using the stick approach on myself!!!! Why would I do that?!? Last week, I started rewarding myself for every small improvement; and I’m actually moving closer to my goals, plus I feel better, more energized and self-confidant.

    BTW, I loved seeing the puppy footage of Inertia! 🤩😍😍

  8. Zak I wish you’d do a video on how HARD it is to be a positive trainer. It takes A LOT of energy to find alternative ways of engaging your dog in some high-stress situations and I feel like this is the number one thing stopping people from being able to use this method, myself included. Most of us are not full-time dog trainers, we have jobs and lives. I tried being a positive-only trainer inspired by your content, but with time it just became so much work compared to, what you would probably call balanced training (although I do not use aversive tools meant to cause pain or discomfort I do use some very mild corrections) because the results while better in the long run from positive training are not as quickly achieved, or at least that is what I found with my labrador.

    Gently popping the leash is quick, simple, and effective. And unless done harshly seems to me to be no more than a tap on the shoulder for the dog saying “hey, remember me?”. Personally, I think these types of very mild corrections, and I absolutely do not mean pulling or yanking the leash harshly, are acceptable as minimally aversive because I do not have infinite energy to spend on training my dog every moment of every day. But if we were to stay strictly within positive-only training EVEN this type of extremely mild-mannered method would be off-limits. And what you have to do instead to get your dog out of prey drive or sniff mode takes a lot of effort on a daily basis and you may not see results for months and months which frankly is an eternity when dealing with a very energetic young dog making your every day feel like hell because you dread having to take him on walks. With gentle leash pops I got my labrador to walk in a good enough loose leash walk even in unknown environments in just a few weeks, meanwhile, I was struggling for months to get the same results with positive reinforcement before I gave up and fell back on these old methods.

    Yes, positive training has a lot of great merits, but it also has limitations and I think you should actually talk about these and what you do to get around them – THAT would be incredibly helpful for me and other trainers wanting to get into more positive-only training.

    1. I’m a force free dog trainer, I don’t use leash pops. Instead I train the dog to respond to leash pressure but without a ‘pop’ just a gentle pull to say ‘hey slow down’. And focus on actually teaching the dog what you want by setting up for success.

    2. @theskyisgrey2day that is why you must CONDITION to the gentle leader / head halti before use. It’s not designed to inflict pain or correction although an owner with no other knowledge may use it that way.

    3. @Dekiams exactly; the animal shelters are full of dogs that have behavior issues because their owners never communicated to them what they CAN”T do. This PP training may work for a small subset of dogs but for the average dog balanced training (80% positive, 20% corrections) work the best.

    4. @Layla Flame Fine Art What would you do about trash eating? My dog responds to leave it and drop it, but leave it only works when I see the trash first (sometimes impossible in a big city) and drop it seems to have increased her interest in trash because she wants me to tell her drop it to get the treat.

  9. Before I really knew anything about dog training, I used the use balanced dog training on my jack Russell terrier who already had anxiety. I found that it made her anxiety worse. One day she was just laying limp in the back yard and couldn’t walk. We ended up having to put her down because one she had diabetes that we didn’t know of and the vet said it also could have been about her severe anxiety. I am now training my Aussie, border collie mix with positive training and he is a very well behaved dog. Your videos have helped me a lot so thank you Zak!

    1. Just want to point out that if your training, however you label it, increased your dog’s anxiety, then you didn’t do it right. Which can be super difficult with a fearful, anxious dog, don’t get me wrong. But what modern, balanced training is all about doesn’t have anything to do with making a dog more anxious.

  10. I disagree that balanced trainers can be lumped into the same category as aversive trainers. The balanced trainers I respect use the tools that help their dogs understand and appreciate their leadership. If the dogs gets it using positive only so much better. There is no one size fits all.

  11. I would love to hear your opinions on dealing with a highly reactive dog. Not just a puppy but an adult dog. I share your opinion on positive reinforcement training but I have yet to see this training style used on many reactive dogs

    1. I use force free training with fear reactive dogs on a daily basis. There are tons of trainers using positive reinforcement to solve reactivity. Michael Shikashio is a great example of a world class force free trainer who almost exclusively works with aggression cases.

  12. I am a volunteer at my local shelter. A BREEDER came in to look at a Labrador once. He obviously had a ton of energy because he has been cooped up for a few weeks. After looking him over a while she says, ” HE JUST NEEDS TO GET SHOCKED A FEW TIMES AND HE WOULDN’T BE SO ENERGETIC. GOTTA TEACH HIM IM THE BOSS”. You have no idea how happy I was she DIDN’T adopt him. 😭 I could never get behind the use of shock or e-collars. People like this make me sick.

    1. OH MY GOD. What power do the shelters have to stop an adoption if it’s so clearly against the dog’s best interest? Because I would’ve kicked him the hell out.

    2. I’m not against using those tools appropriately (in my mind, we likely disagree), but that’s still a disgusting comment.

      That’s just a messed up goal to start with, and dude sounds like a narcissist.

  13. When I first got my rescue dog, I knew she needed behavioral intervention. (She would scream if she saw dogs, or if you stopped paying attention to her, or something made a noise, or she just wanted to…) The first several trainers I called wanted me to buy an e-collar before they’d even met her! I kept looking and eventually found a positive trainer, and it was the best decision I made.

    Working through her reactivity with positive reinforcement has done so much for her mental well-being. She’s regularly the calmest dog in any dog encounter we have now! Any time we bring her somewhere or we have visitors, she gets SO many compliments about being “the best behaved dog [I’ve] ever seen”! And, most importantly, she spends so much time just being calm now. Zero fear of us, and she knows if she’s worried about something, she can come to us to check it out and get comfort. (She’s so at ease with us that she’s taken to laying in the doorway to the kitchen, and when we step over her, she never flinches. Only time she’ll move from there is to get into a better belly rub position!)

    This is the best relationship I’ve ever had with a dog and I’m SO happy that we went this route.

    1. Yep. The use of positive reinforcement enhances your relationship with your dog. The use of positive punishment and aversives damages your reltationship with your dog. You mention stepping over your dog. It reminds me of my Great Danes and Wolfhounds. They’d lay on the floor or drag their dog bed to the middle of the floor and expect us to step over them. When my mother, who was feeble and didn’t get around well, would visit, they would get up and move for her. They knew she couldn’t step over them, so they didn’t expect her to. Us, on the other hand, the expected us to step over them!

    2. @Jan Hankins It was pretty cool seeing the little gears in her head turning when I’d reward her for turning away from a strange dog. Like, the thought of “wait, I can just LEAVE??” hadn’t occurred to her, and her anxiety levels have been so much lower out in public since then! “If it sucks, hit tha bricks!!”

      Aww, that’s so cool that they’d recognize your mother’s needs like that! Dogs definitely aren’t small people in furry coats, but they still amaze me with how intuitive they can be regardless.

  14. There’s no perfect training method but this sure is damn close! I trained my puppy mostly like this but I know I made some mistakes. He is now 10 years old and I’ve still been studying dog training methods and changing things when I need to.

    I think people would want to see your positive training methods work on a reactive dog from the start to a successful finish, to believe it will work. What we need to remember though it’s hard to show that because it could take years if not a pups lifetime, for the dog to become less sensitive with what they are reacting to. With any method. At least with positive training we can get there without the added stress for our dogs.

    1. That’s my main problem with the positive-only methods. They don’t work with more complex problems. For me there is nothing humane or positive about leaving the dog in a reactive state of stress on every walk for months or even years, while we simply are afraid to tell the dog no. For many dogs a tap with your hand and/or a light leash correction is all that may be needed to tell them hey, that behaviour is not okey with me. After that 100% positive training, desensitization around other dogs.
      I’m not afraid to see my dog stressed for a very short period of time, if it helps him lead a more relaxed and stress free life thereafter.

  15. I feel like you’ve been more than diplomatic over the years and you’ve been getting more savage on the balanced dog training community as of late (while using science to support your claims), and I am here for it.

    1. When you’ve got science to back you up, you can be more vocal. Balanced trainers and those who use aversive methods don’t have science behind them. They an shriek all they want, but they’ll end up flat on their face because science will demonstrate that they are wrong every time. When I went to graduate to school, my professors taught me that if I could defend my position with good science, I could make any claim (even if others thought it was preposterous) and be in the right and other professionals would respect my position (rather than insult me) because I was backed up by science. Those that insult do so because they know they don’t have science on their side.

    2. @Jan Hankins I would say neither side has the science and that’s the issue and why the debate continues 😀 very few peer-reviewed studies. we need to be much more disciplined so that the industry can then be regulated properly the same as other fields.

  16. as someone who is from Sweden where, crates (except at competitions, vets and for car transport) , prong collars and e collars are ILLEGAL and punishment may include being banned from ever owning any animals at all for the rest of your life as well as huge fines for using them. I’ve never understood the kind of approach to use these tools. with a country of 10 million people and around 1 million dogs I cannot for the life of me understand any argument to use these tools. if all of us can train dogs ( which btw Sweden are usually consistently top dogs in majority of all top elite level dog sports ) we have been praised for the military dogs we produce, about the BPH and MH ( mental evaluation exams for dogs that can be done to any dog) worldwide and we cannot have these tools, and someone feels the need to use them? I wonder what is wrong with their style of training that they need to use these tools…. crate training is the only one which I would consider good depending on the situation, but the other 2… would never for the life of me understand the reasoning to use them. if you need to use them, re-evaluate your training methods ASAP….most of the time when people turn to these tools I feel like it’s because they lack patience and knowledge. When I tell people it took my Russkiy toy almost 6 months to a year to walk nicely on lead in almost all situations people are like OMG thats so long. and I always say yep, 3-4 walks per day being consistent everyday, making clear criteria everyday, never letting loose because I know that a desired behavior with only + reinforcement may take time. but people don’t have patience for the whole process….


  17. Yes, definitely do a video on the value of reward based training for “aggressive” dogs, because that’s always the main argument people bring up.
    Personally, I would also touch on mental illness in dogs and when it’s appropriate to consult with a qualified Vet Behaviourist. Actually, even talking about the advantage of working with a qualified reward based trainer when people feel overwhelmed. I think it’s also important to talk about mental health care of the dog guardians.
    I love what you’re doing, you and Emily Larlham provide an invaluable resource that anyone with internet can access. That’s huge! ❤️👏

  18. In the defense of “Balanced training,” I must say, Everyone I have seen who claims to be a “balanced trainer” has mostly used positive reinforcement. At the 6:42 mark in this clip, I noticed the dog nipped at your hand when you reached for her food bowl. Tell me, did your dog use negative or positive training at that point? If dogs use nipping (a negative reinforcement) in order to relay a message, why is it so awful for humans to relay a message in similar fashion to a dog?

    1. Not necessarily saying it’s awful. Saying it’s less than ideal. As to your other point, we are people we have human brains and can intelligently approach the situation.

  19. I used to train using aversives because that was the way I was taught but instinctively I wanted a kinder way. It took me 6 years to understand how positive reinforcement training is different from traditional balanced training. Because…it is completely COMPLETELY different. It is very difficult to explain to be honest, but once I understood, I was mind blown. Basically you figure out what the dog loves and you use it to reinforce the behaviour you want to see. Sit=cookie seems to be where balanced trainers stop listening. It’s more like walk nicely at my side=getting to occasionally interact with environment until the dog FINDS MORE VALUE in walking nicely because you supply the reinforcement and therefore are awesome. The dog chooses the behaviour by choosing you. It’s magic. This is how you teach really complex behaviours. Under the threat of pain an animal gives you the bare minimum required of it. By making it fun and consensual the sky is the limit!

  20. I have a fully trained program service dog that was trained using a balanced method (prong corrections) that is the most confident, reliable dog I have ever known. I feel like this video is not an “open letter” to balanced trainers, but to people who already support FF+ methods which doesn’t help move the conversation forward. As an owner and supporter of balance-trained methods, I fully support FF methods and believe that like 98% of “balanced trainers” you see on social media are not balanced at all, but fit into pure punishment training territory, which is an important distinction. I, for example, have incredibly weak hands (service dog=disabled handler) and live in manhattan. I need a prong for safety reasons, and at most I use a single leash correction once out of a dozen outings. 98% of her training would fit into positive reinforcement because as Zac says, it works. In my personal experience dogs who are behaving out of a state of anxiety or trauma are definitely worse off with balance training because you should never correct a feeling. Like if my dog breaks a command because she got startled, of course, there’s no correction. That’s common sense used by real balanced trainers. Even the terminology “punishment” is not what a correction is. When I correct my dog, it is not punishment, it is marking a behavior the same way that you mark a positive one. You cannot “correct” anxiety with a prong or E collar. I think that Zak George here is just adding flames to the wrong fire. This conversation is necessary and is happening right now, but the people you see on the internet sticking a prong on every dog are not balanced trainers. My service dog, for example, had months of training before being introduced to the prong. Don’t pretend that balanced training is the same as adverse and punishment techniques because it is not. All that said, if we’re comparing dogs to children, we also have to recognize that every dog, just like a child, needs something different. The way my dog’s training is kept up may not work for yours, the opposite being true too. Proper FF+ and balance training work better depending on the dog you have in front of you. I will always recommend FF+ to the average dog owner but don’t assume every dog with a prong or balanced trained leads this horrible life.


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