When you’re a centrist, everyone is suspicious of you. You’re not in the tribe, therefore, you must be wrong, or worse, you must be a double agent from the other tribe, hell bent on subversion. There are two main tribes in modern dog training, the “positive” tribe and the “balanced” tribe. Every training specialty (i.e. agility, herding, therapy, and hunting) has its own set of competing tribes. Most often the “positive” and “balanced” tribes compete for hearts and minds amongst the general dog loving populace. A quick google search will give you access to an astounding amount of information, but if you’re like me, it won’t answer the question you came with… Why are these folks so wound up?
To be honest, I tend to sympathize with the “balanced” approach to training, but that’s because it’s less restrictive, not because I agree or disagree with anyone in particular. I rely heavily on reward based systems in early training, and if a client requests that I restrict myself to those systems with their dog I’m happy to entertain them with the understanding that it may come with limitations to effectiveness and efficiency of training.
There are some top flight reward based trainers out there that have made a conscious decision to limit themselves to positive reinforcement, negative punishment (withholding reward), and extinction (non reinforcement). These trainers recognize their limitations and do good work for their clients without engaging in divisive rhetoric. There are not too many of these folks.
There is also a handful of “old school” trainers that think of “treat training” as bribery and aren’t interested in discussing theory. They’re usually not picking fights in public, but will be happy to sit with you on the tailgate at a hunt test and give you their opinion of treat trainers. You’re likely to get a heavy dose of politics as well, so pack a lunch.
Then there’s the contingent of “positive” trainers that think they occupy the only moral high ground in dog training and have some sort of monopoly on humanity. They are extremely effective at recruiting suburban soccer moms, raising awareness of the evils of various pieces of training gear, and demonizing those that disagree with them, but tend to be less effective at actually training dogs, for any purpose, at all. They will often invoke “science” while completely bastardizing terms like positive, negative, punishment, and reinforcement. These zealots are much more likely to be found in some internet echo-chamber of self promotion than on the trial or test field.
Most “balanced” trainers tend to be hobbyists and solid professionals that have had to finally react to “positive” pestering by adopting the label. They tend to come off as ironic and sometimes arrogant. They love to argue “science” with the posi crowd and will happily put themselves and their work on display in a competitive setting. The balanced crowd can normally, actually train a dog, and can do it in a fair and humane way. They would just be called informed dog trainers if they weren’t defined by their adversarial relationship with the “positive” tribe.
Truth be told, none of these tribes has a monopoly on science or humanity. There are many great trainers out there that have chosen to not hang a label on themselves. They just go to work every day and produce results. Good trainers have a feel for a given dog’s attitude and can ensure that the dog remain a willing participant in training even if it’s being trained to perform tasks that it would rather not perform (given it’s druthers). Good trainers will use the tools they have available and will know when and how to use them. They will not knock anyone else’s work, because they are confident in their own. Good trainers have nothing to hide, and nothing to fear because they know that no matter how ugly the tribes get with one another, there will always be folks out there that just need a good dog trainer.