A Well-Balanced Companion
What is a “balanced” or “well-balanced” dog?
Honestly, I don’t know. And I’ll tell you why.
“Balance” is a term I see frequently in descriptions of dogs and their behavior. Most recently, I saw this term used in an online discussion about how a certain kind of training will produce a dog who is a “well-balanced companion.”
“Balance” is a word that is used honorifically in many contexts, meaning that the word connotes something good (the phrase “a balanced breakfast” come to my mind). Having a “balanced” dog sure sounds like a good thing! But what does “well balanced” mean in relation to a dog’s behavior? It doesn’t refer to a dog balancing a cookie on their nose. It refers to something else.
Here are two related ways that “balance” is frequently used in discussions about dog behavior and training:
(1) When a dog’s behavior is both predictable and desirable to human observers, the dog’s behavior is described as “balanced.”
(2) If a dog has had their behavior reinforced and punished in a roughly equal proportion in training, the training may be said to produce a dog who behaves in a “balanced” way. Not surprisingly, this kind of training is frequently called “balanced” training and usually includes the use of aversives.
In the first usage (1), “balanced” means that the human describing the dog’s behavior approves of the dog’s behavior. While “balanced” can also refer to predictability of behavior, I’ve yet to see a dog who predictably races out into the yard to chase squirrels and bark at birds described as “balanced.” In other words, it’s not mere predictability or consistency of behavior over time that would earn a dog the label of “balanced.”
Let’s look at the second usage (2) of “balanced” that I outlined above. “Balanced” training usually means that the training includes the use of aversives, or things that dogs will seek to avoid—like pain, discomfort, or fear. Aversives are used to make undesirable behaviors decrease or to make desirable behavior increase. A dog’s undesirable behavior may be punished when an aversive is added as a consequence for a behavior, or a dog’s desirable behavior may be reinforced by the contingent removal of an aversive. Commonly used aversives in dog training are electric shock, startling noises, use of equipment designed to cause discomfort, and physical contact. To say that “balanced training” produces “a balanced dog” is confusingly circular, but this usage seems to also refer to behavior that is met with approval from human beings. It does not reflect what dogs are experiencing when they are trained with methods utilizing aversives.
I argue that “balanced” is not an informative descriptor about dog behavior. I don’t use it when describing dogs or their behavior, and here’s why: The word doesn’t tell me much of anything about the dog’s behavior or emotional state. While I might interpret such a description as a gesture toward reliability or predictability of behavior, there is too much ambiguity for the word to be truly useful.
I’d love to see “balanced,” and other descriptors, operationalized more frequently. “Operationalizing” means describing what the dog is doing in a way that can be observed and measured by others.
Here are some examples of operationalizing descriptions of dog behavior:
“Chloe barked three times when she saw Steve. She wagged her tail, and she looked at Steve until he left the room. She bounced five times and her front feet came off the floor with each bounce.”
“When the friendly stranger tried to pat Lily, she ducked her head away from the stranger’s hand.”
“Bocce’s handler cued him to ‘sit’ with a verbal cue, and Bocce sat within one second. After four seconds had passed, Bocce changed position to a "‘down.’”
Operationalizing behavior also means drawing a distinction between describing behavior and interpreting behavior. When we use operationalized descriptions to guide our interpretations of behavior in training, we can stay focused on behavior and behavior change. We can use observable information to measure behavior change and meet our training goals.
For example, take Chloe’s behavior upon seeing Steve. To help Chloe learn a desirable greeting behavior, we’d make a plan, define criteria, and work incrementally on the distance, duration, and level of distraction to help Chloe be successful. We’d also measure whether Chloe barked and bounced less frequently in the future. Interpretations about Chloe’s behavior, emotional state, or disposition as “balanced” or “unbalanced” simply wouldn’t be helpful.
I’m not advocating for avoiding the use of all interpretive flourishes or creative uses of language when it comes to dog behavior. On the contrary, effusive language about the goodness and specialness of dogs regularly flows from my mouth! Words and language influence how we view dogs and how we behave toward them. They’re important and we could afford a bit more care and clarity.
If you’re interested in engaging in a bit of word sleuthing, I’ve included a link to the Merriam-Webster definition of “balance” here.