Let’s start with what both of these terms mean.
Balanced training is the combination of traditional (and yes, outdated) aversive training methods and reward based methods. Balanced training does not mean a balanced dog, it means the balance between using desirable outcomes for desirable behaviour and undesirable outcomes for undesirable behaviour. It focuses on reward and punishment, the dog gets rewarded for doing something “good”, and punished for doing something “bad”
Punishments can range between trainers, but they do tend to be less forceful than traditional training methods, but still aversive. Rewards can range from food, toys or verbal praise.
The reason balanced training is so attractive is because it produces fast results, the desired outcome that the owner wanted has been achieved quickly with minimal effort. It has also been glamorised by the media with certain unqualified TV star trainers. Balanced training sounds attractive too, everything with balance is healthy right? Balanced diet, balanced lifestyle, the healthy balance between work and social life, so balanced training must be good! Except it really isn’t.
The more I looked into balanced training (for the purpose of this blog) the more I came to realise there really isn’t much substance to the training, it lacks science and psychology. It lacks reasoning, understanding and communication. It is still strongly influenced by an old outdated theory that dogs are wolves and wolves are dominant, so we must be dominant over the dogs, all of which is completely incorrect, but that is a whole different subject. So to cut it short, dogs are not wolves, they are dogs, and they are not dominant; they do not have any cunning plans to rule your house and become your master! So since the whole concept of what a dog is and isn’t is very wrong, then I think it is fair to suggest that perhaps so are the training methods that were derived from this incorrect source.
Although not all balanced trainers believe some of the old myths, and do in fact take on some educated modern facts, yet they still use the methods that have stemmed from incorrect sources, combined with methods that have come from reputable sources.
It is like being 50% committed to a new eating regime, taking on the bits that make sense to you, the attractive bits and leaving out the substance of the main healthy meal. You could only then get half the results, if any at all.
Force free training involves rewarding the behaviours we want the dogs to repeat and redirecting undesirable behaviours into more desirable ones. Force free focuses more on teaching the dog what we prefer them to achieve rather than focusing on what the dog is doing wrong.
Force free trainers do not use aversive punishments in order to achieve a behaviour or to decrease a behaviour, they use psychology. There is also a misconception that force free or “positive “ trainers are just cookie pushers and use treats to try to solve everything, and reward undesirable behaviour with treats. This is then not true force free training, or in fact training at all, and I would argue that this approach could only be used by an inexperienced trainer, However experienced force free trainers would not use this approach as it doesn’t really makes sense to do so, the misconception that force free somehow means “no structure” and “no discipline” is not exactly true.
FF trainers use their words carefully and 'discipline' isn’t a hot word amongst the community, 'boundaries' is a preferred description as it is a softer approach. FF training does involve structure and boundaries but the approach is a lot softer, kinder, and applies clear communication between dogs and owners. Boundaries are more flexible and are more in line with the owner’s preference, if you want your dog on the sofa or even on the bed then that is up to you and your dog. Your dog will not get on the bed/sofa and suddenly think he is now a human being that must become aggressive in order to remain such a high status! Having a dog should be pleasurable and rewarding not full of silly rules. Reasonable boundaries should be put in place to protect your dog from danger and hazards as well as protect your home and lifestyle, but training a dog like a robot is just unfair and unwise. Training should be fun and rewarding for both the dog and the owner and from my experience most owners who have previously used traditional or balanced methods have never actually wanted to but felt they were expected to do so from highly influenced dog trainers.
A common question I hear a lot” why don’t you use punishment? “All your dogs must be so naughty” The theory does make sense but only because owners have been fed a fraction of the facts. So here are the missing facts;
As previously discussed FF trainers do not simply just ignore the dog when they are being “bad” they redirect the dog and then teach the dog a different and more desirable behaviour to do instead. If a dog jumps up at the owner, the owner will ignore the dog for a short period of time (a few brief seconds) and then ask the dog to lay down, or greet calmly and once this has been achieved a reward is given (in this case depending on the dog, the reward may just be the attention he was striving for initially) some dogs may need something extra if they are really over excited. So we are teaching the dog to greet in a more desirable way and rewarding those behaviours, we are initially ignoring the jumping but then redirecting onto something else (down). This doesn’t have to be a set rule, if you want your dog to sit, you can teach that and if you want your dog to run over to the first step of the staircase you can do that! As long as it is achievable and ethical then it is personal preference. A qualified trainer would also look into the reasons behind the behaviour, why is the dog jumping? Bad manners? Or pent up anxiety? Stress? Boredom? The list can go on but finding the cause and addressing it will solve the problem further.
When a dog is punished in any form the dog will lose confidence in itself, in its owner, in its ability to make his own choices and low confidence slows down the learning process. The dog can become nervous, frustrated because he is misunderstood, and depending on what punishment measures were put in place the dog can become defensive. The relationship between owner and dog can begin to break down and even turn into behavioural problems that could have been prevented if the correct information was given to owners from the start.
What do we define as a dog being “naughty”? A lot of balanced training punishes dogs for barking, digging, acting fearful, saying no etc, when actually things like barking, digging are normal canine behaviour and they shouldn’t be punished. The dog needs to have an outlet to express their natural behaviour but this doesn’t mean let them bark it out, or destroy your garden. It means getting creative, have a sand pit with your dog’s toys and hide fun treasures in there or a digging zone in the garden, if your dog is barking then explore the reasons why and address it. Dogs bark to communicate and if we ignore it they can end up feeling helpless, if we simply ignore a behaviour we are not listening to the dog’s needs, and intensifying the feelings of frustration between us and the dog.
The bad news is that if you are looking for a quick fix, fast approach to training then this doesn’t always happen; effort is required when training properly, but the good news is once you have taught these behaviours then you have a strong foundation of trust between you and your dog. As with most things, quick fixes with fast results often come back to bite you hard! Think of that very restricted diet you went on and lost a ton of weight only to put it all back on with extra a few months later, well balanced training is like that very tempting fasting diet we all know we should avoid.