Obedience Without Conflict:
Clear Communication with Ivan Balabonov
by Mark Plonsky, Ph.D.
Copyright © 2003 (originally for Canine Training Systems)
My first introduction to Ivan Balabanov was hearing about his book, “Advanced Schutzhund”, which encourages gentler methods for Schutzhund training. I bought a copy and put it on the shelf with all the other dog books I have. One day I was having a problem with a dog on the Schutzhund bark and hold exercise. The dog was being mildly dirty, that is, it would touch and/or nip at the sleeve while guarding the helper. As a psychologist and dog trainer, I thought “what does the dog really want to get from the bark and hold?” - Obviously, the bite. So I thought if the dog is dirty, I would tell the helper not to give the dog the bite. On the other hand, if the dog is clean, a bite would be given. Since I had never seen this technique used, I looked around in various books to see if anyone recommended it. Ivan’s book was the only one that seriously advocated the technique. In fact, not only did Ivan advocate the technique, he described how he used the theory behind the technique in innovative ways that I had not yet begun to think of.
In the learning theory literature, the idea behind this technique is called “negative punishment”. It involves taking away something the dog expects and desires (that’s the negative part) in order to decrease a particular behavior (that’s the punishment part). In the bark and hold example given above, the bite is withheld in order to decrease the dog’s dirtiness in the blind. While the technique requires some patience, it is extremely effective and results in less of the undesirable side effects associated with more traditional techniques.
My next encounter with Ivan was seeing his performance at the 2000 United Schutzhund Club of America Nationals in Madison, WI. I was extremely impressed by four aspects of Ivan’s performance.
- He took eighth place with a Malinois in a competition dominated by German shepherd dogs.
- He had the only Handler Owner Trained (HOT) dog of the top 10 contestants. In other words, Ivan was the only one that trained the dog from a puppy up to the national competition level.
- He walked naturally during heeling with his dog. Most competitors did a very fast, stylistic and somewhat unnatural walk when heeling with their dog.
- The commands he gave his dog where at the same volume he would use if talking with a friend. Most competitors shouted at their dogs like drill sergeants.
In the following year, Ivan took first place in this same competition.
As a result of his book and observing his performance at the nationals, I became very interested in Ivan and began to seek out his seminars. I was very pleased when his video, “Obedience Without Conflict: Clear Communication”, became available through Canine Training Systems. The videotape introduces the viewer to the fundamentals of the Balabanov method for training competitive obedience. It will be of interest to the novice and advanced obedience trainer, and especially, to those interested in gentler training methods that apply scientific knowledge to dog training.
In terms of scientific perspectives, the Balabanov method employs a cognitive-behavioral point of view and is unique in this regard. It takes the best of the current trend of applying principles of operant conditioning to dog training (the behavioral view) and adds the view that the dog is a processor of information (the cognitive view). Thus, handler given cues that provide the dog with information are central to the Balabanov method.
In addition to specific commands used to cue certain behaviors, like "sit!" and "down!", the Balabanov Method employs four other signals that are fundamental to the training and practice of any obedience skill. The video concentrates on these four signals.
- The "out" command. Ivan’s innovative method for teaching the release of a toy object (which is a central motivational tool in most working dog sports) is presented.
- The "release" command. This is a word, such as “OK”, that marks appropriate behavior and releases the dog to a reward. In other words, the release command communicates to the dog that what it just did was great and it can now obtain the reward.
- The "encouragement" command. This is a the word, such as “good”, that communicates to the dog that what it just did (or is doing) is good and that reward will be forthcoming.
- The "no!" command. This is a word, such as “no!”, “wrong”, or “oops”, that serves as a no-reward marker. In other words, it communicates to the dog that what it just did resulted in losing the opportunity to get the reward that it expected and desired.
The Balabanov Method involves giving as much information to the dog as possible. In this way, the dog will solve the problem at hand more easily and with less frustration. In addition, because the vital clues that allow the dog to solve problems and gain reinforcement arise again and again from the handler, the dog comes to rely on his handler—he forms the habit of looking to and being dependent upon his handler. This is another aspect of the method that I like. Ivan places great emphasis on a relationship between the dog and handler that is based on trust.
The video is done extremely well with high quality action footage used as examples for the concepts discussed. I recommend it highly to anyone interested in competitive obedience. I eagerly await the next video in the series.
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