Walking a Fine Line

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Balance is becoming a main focus in the dog training community.  Striving for the perfect combination of rules and leniency that will ensure our dogs have self-confidence and manners, yet still have joy inside, is a worthwhile ideal.

This said, the shift in the pendulum from never saying no, all the way over to the other side to encompass harsh treatment is not what balance is all about.  
Striking a balance means to choose a moderate course or compromise.  Picture a teeter-totter, nicely perched on the fulcrum, the plank straight and neither end touching the floor.  That is balance.

In all areas of our lives we are starting to consider alternatives to keep us level, feeling calm and stress free.  Yoga is rapidly on the rise and more and more people are considering the art of Feung Sheui as they decorate their homes.  Yes, all in the name of balance.

It is often said that dog trainers need to have a large tool kit, a bag of tricks, that they can use in different scenarios.  The tool kit of today’s trainers seems to be moving away from various methods of training, to simply being full of different pieces of training equipment. We are taking our thinking caps off, and resorting to a quick fix all in the name of balance. This type of shift has really very little to do with balance.  Now consider the same teeter totter wildly moving up and down, with one side of the plank being planted on the ground and the other side swaying in the air. Then keep watching as the same plank quickly switches and the opposite side goes into the air, the word balance would not come to mind.

In an effort to find that fulcrum, harsh training equipment is once again being re-considered.  As a trainer who started my career in the early 70’s, it is apparent that we are now coming full circle.  We have seen the pitfalls of never saying no.  This was a very popular dog training technique that seemed to be at its height of popularity in the late 1980’s.  This was a time when it was common to let large growling dogs sleep on the couch and offered a reward when they finally decided to climb off.   It was a time when the pendulum had definitely swung much too far on one side. As the years passed on, it became evident that the techniques being used did not help most dogs, and in fact without offering any guidelines to them, we were not doing them any favors.

Now, as dog training actually becomes more complicated, as we are starting to discover more and more about animal behavior, techniques are going back in time.  Choke chains and prong collars are evident on the most benign family pets as a counter balance, as a way of saying that we are once again in charge of our dogs.  This is often tempered with the use of treats in the training and a quick game of fetch if our dog does as he is told.
Make no mistake about it, this is not balanced.

Consider this, you open your door and find a friend with a bunch of flowers to offer you.  You gladly accept them.  The same situation happens the next day, and the next.  You are happily anticipating the door opening.  Then, one day, the doorbell rings at the same time of day, and you open it and instead of the flowers, you are greeted by a swift slap to the side of your face.  Not sure what you have done, you go inside.  The next day arrives and the door bell rings.  This time, you flinch as the bunch of flowers greets you.  Although you are greeted many times more with flowers, the sting of the slap was so great that you are never fully confident when opening your door. That is very similar to what your dog may feel when given treats and a toy on one hand, and a jerk on a chain collar the next instance.  The sense of trust is gone.

There is a line that I heard on television one day that made me sit up and take notice.  It was not pertaining to dog training, but in fact to children.  When education runs out, aggression sets in.  Meaning, when you don’t quite know what to do, it is human nature to lash out at something or someone.  In other words, frustrations sets in. Don’t fool yourselves into thinking that you have a balanced training program if you are all over the map with your techniques and equipment.

Although we are often looking for a quick fix in our everyday lives, if you take a closer look you will find that a shift is also being made there.  Microwave dinners are being replaced by home-cooked meals, faster cars are being replaced by smaller, more energy efficient cars and service is overtaking speed as our number one priority when shopping.  
Dog training will be taking its cue from the society around us.  Hopefully, instead of old style equipment that is being used to find the quick fix, it will be education that rises to the top.  It will be the thought put into finding help for these problematic dogs and it will be our time and consistency that brings about the much needed change in the dogs who put their trust in us.

Of course, our dogs need rules and guidelines.  That is what the mid point of the balance beam is.  By being clear, fair and consistent our dogs will learn to trust us under a variety of circumstances.  Let your dogs have some fun, and reign them in when needed. A swift talking to, some efficient time out or even a  grasp of their collar can be enough to get your point across. Be very clear in your message to them.  It is not in their best interest to allow them to walk all over you, but neither is it in their best interest to subject them to eratic behavior and heavy handed treatment.  

“Mean what you say and say what you mean” is my mother’s favorite line, and one that should be well used by dog trainers. By providing this to our dogs we will be providing the best to them that we can, and the bonus to that is that we can feel good about ourselves while we accomplish it. That is the meaning of balance.