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Not every dog is the same, nor is every human. Dogs are unique and have many different backgrounds, experiences, and innate abilities. Not every dog is going to have the sweet, happy, energetic disposition to be an agility enthusiast. Nor is every dog going to have the courage and inner confidence to defend its humans against a real human threat. In dog training, we must fit our approach to the type of dog we own. We must be able to move fluidly between ideas depending on what works for each individual dog. This cannot happen if we remain within the high walls of our private dog training box, never looking out at another dog training method that might work because we have been taught to fear the other method as abusive.

Those in the traditional (escape/avoidance) training camp sincerely believe it is cruel and inhumane to never tell your dog what not to do. When dogs believe they are always okay to do whatever they want without fear of correction, they become big spoiled brats, out for themselves and what they can get from the human. When humans view all correction as abusive, the dog has no understanding about right and wrong.

I once knew an all-positive trainer through my work training tracking dogs with search and rescue in Colorado. This woman had a completely unruly eight month old German Shepherd Dog, but she refused to punish her dog at all costs. As a result, the dog ended up as a tyrant that nobody enjoyed being around. At one point, while the owner sat, looking on, a young three year old girl passed in front of her unruly dog. At the end of its leash, pulling fiercely on its flat collar, her large German Shepherd Dog angrily barked and spit at the little girl walking by. The three year old girl was, thankfully, not harmed, as the owner had a tight grip on the leash, but, my eyes widened as I witnessed that once the girl had passed on and the dog stopped its aggressive barking, the owner clicked the little metal box, pulled out a treat, and said, "Good, quiet dog." All-positive training cannot, and never will, change self-rewarding behavior. No one can reinforce a dog more than it reinforces itself in the very dog-like behaviors that make it the special dog that it is.

Similarly, those in the all-positive training camp believe it is abusive to never teach your dog exactly what to do. When dogs never learn exactly what it is they should do, they can become confused and uncertain. When a sensitive dog is uncertain about what to do, it can become fearful of performing. Being corrected without being shown exactly what to do first is not the answer.

When I was around twelve years old, I was given my first dog to train all on my own. She was a beautiful party-colored English Cocker Spaniel named Bonnie. She was a spirited, loving dog with a happy disposition. But, unknowingly, in my ignorance, I punished her so frequently during training that she was completely unwilling to perform. She would lag behind and slump down as I walked her on a heel. All of the positive energy she showed earlier in her life left her as I went further into obedience with her. She loved me so dearly, but hated every minute of training with me. In my zeal to attain the perfect movements from my dog, I had forgotten to reward her for all the things she did right. Too much negative stimulus can, indeed, change a dog's spark.

When we swing from one side to the other side of the dog training spectrum, we find something is lacking. When we rely on science and do not take into account the very real, breathing, thinking dog in front of us, all of the credentials mean squat. We must see the individual dog for the unique animal that it is and use the best methods available for that particular dog to truly learn and grow to be the best it can within the confines of our human world. The best way to do that is to employ the strategies from each of the training philosophies when we need them.

Therefore, it is best to teach a dog exactly what to do and exactly what not to do without placing ourselves or our dogs on one side of the dog training spectrum or the other. Then, we free ourselves to be fluid, moving as we need from each of the aspects of dog training. At the same time, we allow our dogs to be who they are without giving them so much freedom that they forget the boundaries in which they must live.

Take a lesson from nature. Watch a mother dog with her litter of puppies. When a pup comes too close to the mother's bowl or bites too hard on its mother's muzzle, she sharply and swiftly corrects it using enough force to imprint on the puppy just how strong that boundary is. At the same time, mother dogs can be loving and gentle, rewarding their puppies with sweet caresses when they play with soft mouths and are quiet and calm.

American Dirus dog trainers know that this balance scale is not always perfectly balanced exactly in the middle. Sometimes there is a harder dog that pushes boundaries much more frequently. That dog requires more correction and a harder hand in order to understand that its behavior must fall in line with societies rules. On the other hand, sometimes there is a more sensitive dog that wilts under emotional or physical pressure and always strives to do what is right. This dog needs more positive reinforcement and encouragement when it has correctly performed.

As dog trainers, we must know our dogs and work with them to bring about their greatest potential, which in turn, brings out the very best in us, as well.

Here are a few excellent trainers and training facilities who understand this balanced approach to training dogs:
Michael Ellis
Stonnie Dennis
Ivan Balabanov
McCann Dogs

Michael Ellis's Philosophy of Dog Training