Balanced Dog Training vs. Positive Reinforcement

Victoria Schade, CPDT-KA
By

Victoria Schade, CPDT-KA

Updated Sep. 27, 2023
African American girl holds treat above seated Golden Retriever while parents watch from couch

The goal of dog training might seem simple: helping your dog learn how to be a good canine citizen.

It might come as a surprise that training your dog isn’t just about instilling manners to produce a polite, happy, confident companion. Sure, knowing how to sit, stay, and come when called are vital, but it’s far more important to preserve your growing bond with your dog by using dog-friendly, science-backed techniques.

So, what’s the right way to train your new puppy or rescue dog? The experience of training can vary dramatically depending on who’s on the other end of the leash and the method they’re using. It’s no wonder if you’re confused, since there’s no shortage of advice when it comes to dog training methodologies.

First, we need to understand the four types of operant conditioning and what people mean when they say “positive” or “negative” reinforcement. Then we can talk about balanced training and how it compares to positive reinforcement.

The Four Types of Operant Conditioning

Learning something new begins with the idea that behavior has consequences, both good and bad. With dog training, the learning process involves a form of operant conditioning, where you either reinforce a behavior to increase the likelihood that your dog will repeat it or punish the behavior so your dog won’t do it again.

But the terminology associated with operant conditioning, like “positive punishment” and “negative punishment,” can be very misleading. “Punishment” carries negative associations, but in the operant conditioning quadrant, it simply means a behavior will become less likely to happen.

The four types of operant conditioning are:

  • Positive reinforcement: A good consequence happens when your dog performs a behavior, which increases the likelihood that they will repeat it. For example, you ask your dog to sit; they do it, then you give them a treat.
  • Negative reinforcement: A bad consequence is removed when a behavior is performed, which also increases the likelihood that a dog will repeat it. For example, a trainer using a shock collar on a dog that jumps will turn off the shock mode when the dog keeps four paws on the ground.
  • Positive punishment: A bad consequence is introduced when a behavior is performed, which will reduce the likelihood that a dog will repeat it. For example, a trainer tells a dog to sit; the dog goes into a down position; and the trainer uses a choke collar to jerk the dog into a seated position.
  • Negative punishment: A good consequence is removed when your dog performs a behavior, which will decrease the likelihood that they’ll do it again. For example, your dog paws at your arm to get you to pet them, and you ignore them instead of giving them attention.

What Is Purely Positive Training?

This type of training leans on positive reinforcement and rewards for desired behavior. However, “purely positive” is a bit misleading, since it suggests the training doesn’t use corrections of any sort.

A more descriptive label for “purely positive” is LIMA training, or Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive. According to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, LIMA training uses “the least intrusive, minimally aversive technique likely to succeed in achieving a training (or behavior change) objective with minimal risk of producing aversive side effects.”

In short, the trainer will always try to use techniques that don’t cause pain, startled responses, or undue stress. This training uses an ethical and humane approach to learning that’s backed by scientific research. A LIMA trainer will never use tools or techniques that would scare or hurt a dog or cause them to feel like they are being punished.

This method requires monitoring dogs for distress signals during training sessions—and changing the training plan if the dog shows signs of discomfort. For example, a clicker isn’t considered aversive since it usually doesn’t cause fear or pain, but if a canine student is frightened by its sound, then it is an aversive tool for that particular dog. A LIMA trainer will reassess the training scenario and switch to a different bridging signal to make sure the dog remains an eager participant.

What Is Balanced Training?

Balanced training is the belief that dogs learn best when using a mix of positive reinforcement training as well as aversive, punishment-based training. This training methodology includes all four operant conditioning quadrants.

A balanced trainer might use treats to reward a dog when teaching loose-leash walking (positive reinforcement), but they also might use a choke chain and resort to correcting when the dog pulls by tightening the choke (positive punishment).

Balanced trainers might use a variety of tools with their canine students, from those in the positive reinforcement sector like clickers and body harnesses, to aversive devices like choke, prong, and shock collars; water bottles; or shaker cans.  

Which Is More Effective: Balanced Training or Positive Reinforcement Training?

The science leaves little doubt as to which training methodology is superior. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) makes clear that “reward-based learning offers the most advantages and least harm to the learner’s welfare.” It states that “reward-based training methods have been shown to be more effective than aversive methods. Multiple survey studies have shown higher obedience in dogs trained with reward-based methods.”

While it might seem like a balanced approach takes a wider variety of canine learning styles and abilities into account, there is no research to support the idea that dogs learn better when trained with a mix of methods that include aversive training.

Instead, aversive methods and pain-based tools often used by balanced trainers increased anxiety, aggression, and fearfulness. According to the AVSAB, “dogs trained with aversive methods or tools showed stress-related behaviors during training, including tense body, lower body posture, lip licking, tail lowering, lifting front leg, panting, yawning, and yelping.”

We now know that dogs of all ages, breeds, sizes, and temperaments learn best when we use positive, force-free techniques that focus on rewarding what the dog is doing right instead of correcting perceived wrongs. Positive training is the perfect way to build a common language with your best friend and grow a bond that will last a lifetime.

Featured image: iStock.com/Prostock-Studio


Victoria Schade, CPDT-KA

WRITTEN BY

Victoria Schade, CPDT-KA

Animal Trainer


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