Teaching Without Conflict:
with Ivan Balabonov
by Mark Plonsky, Ph.D.
Copyright © 2015
My day job is a professor at a state university in the Midwestern United States. My doctoral degree is in experimental biopsychology and have I spent a lot of time studying animal learning and behavior. After about 15 years of studying how rats learn, I took a serious interest in dog training. As you may imagine, being a scientist, I am particularly keen on the application of scientific principles to dog training.
I have known Ivan for about 15 years. While his success as a dog trainer and breeder are simply impeccable, part of my personal attraction to Ivan's method of training is that he too likes to apply science to dog training. There are three perspectives or points of view in science that are particularly relevant to dog training and are part of Ivan's method. The first is the behavioral point of view which says that behavior is a function of its consequences. In other words, this view is concerned with how to use rewards and punishments to motivate the dog (also known as operant conditioning). The second is the cognitive view which views the dog as a processor of information. This view emphasizes the use of signals to provide the dog with information. The third is the social perspective which pays attention to the unique relationship between the handler and dog. It is noteworthy that these views are not mutually exclusive and most scientists agree that each has something unique to offer.
Scientists have long known about the importance of play in the training of animals. For example, the famous Swiss biologist Heini Hediger (known as the "father of zoo biology") noted back in the 1950's that "good training is disciplined play". Steven Lindsay is the author of the three volume series entitled, "Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training" (2000-2005). This series is probably the best single source of information on the relationship between science and dog training available at the present time. In the first volume, Lindsay notes that, "Play and training are not contrary things, but complimentary activities. If puppies or dogs cannot be shown the play in an activity, they will not willingly perform it for long. Nothing is more motivational important in dog training than play." In the second volume he goes on to note that, "the ability to train dogs is an art that depends on the trainer's ability to play and the dog's ability to play in turn. Where there is no play, there is no relationship or meaning ... Humane dog training is playing with a purpose..." Ivan has studied this theoretical stuff and is incredibly good at applying it to everyday dog training.
Among the behaviorists (folks that employ operant conditioning), a well-known concept is called Premack's principle. In short, in the 1950's David Premack found that humans and other animals will work for the opportunity to play. In the video on possession games, Ivan focuses on play as a way to improve the dog's focus, motivation, self-confidence, communication skills, and endurance. It is basically a video that gets very specific on how to use Premack's principle to work with and train high-powered dogs.
In particular, Ivan talks in detail about possession games which have a goal, rules, and penalties when the rules are not followed. They also involve competition. Ivan is a master at playing these games and discusses their components in a comprehensive manner. He provides numerous visual examples (handlers with their dogs) to make the discussion clear. He notes that the goal or purpose of the game is more important than the particular toy object used. He emphasizes that clear signals need to be used (the cognitive view) and that the trainer needs to be sincere in the game, that is, both you and your dog need to have fun when playing the game (the social perspective). Thus, Ivan's system involves a behavioral-cognitive-social view of the dog. From watching the video however, you would not realize that Ivan's system is so heavily based on science because he speaks in plain English rather than using technical jargon.
Ivan breaks down the possession game into four parts: the handler has possession of toy, the dog has possession of toy, both the hander and the dog have possession of the toy, and neither have possession of it. He then discusses (with visual examples) the ins and outs (no pun intended) of each of these parts of the game. For example, many trainers are uncomfortable with the part of the game where the dog has possession of the toy. Ivan describes the importance of this part of the game because it is a part that most dogs find especially enjoyable. With the knowledge Ivan shares, this part of the game can be used to build the dog's confidence and keep the relationship of dog and handler well balanced.
In summary, Ivan's video on possession games teaches you how to use play to train your dog and build your relationship with it. It is a conflict free method that results in a dog that is happy to do the work and does so with focus, intensity, and power. The video is definitely a worthy view for any serious dog trainer. Even if you already use play in your training, watching this video will greatly improve your ability and success in doing so.