Reinforcement in dog training: the Positive and the Negative

by Jeff Stallings

I recently reread Temple Grandin’s book “Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals” in which she brilliantly differentiates between various training techniques, including Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment.  It got me thinking about how often in dog training these terms are misused and confused, so this post is about explaining these terms and when various techniques are appropriate.

The most important concept here is semantics because “positive” and “negative” are not in this sense judgments of good or bad but rather indicators of whether something is added (+) or taken away (-). The “reinforcement” part refers to the fact that we are working towards increasing the likelihood that a desired behavior will be repeated.  Conversely, both types of punishment are about decreasing the likelihood of an undesirable behavior.  Here is a graphic that sums this up:

Positive Reinforcement vs. Negative Reinforcement

An example of Positive Reinforcement is giving (+) a treat the instant your dog performs a desired behavior (sitting on command, for instance), increasing the likelihood that she will do so again in the future. Positive Reinforcement is the highly-effective first course of action for training objective behaviors, such as the sit, stay and down commands. That’s easy to understand.

Negative Punishment refers to taking something away (-) as a means and decreasing the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated.  For instance, one method of teaching your dog not to pull on the leash is to stop (-) forward motion when he pulls, only resuming the walk once the leash is loose.

Contemporary training programs use a combination of the above—Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment—to teach a dog what’s expected of him.

I also believe that there are (limited) instances in which Positive Punishment is warranted.  One common example is teaching a puppy not to bite humans:  You calmly but loudly yell “OW!!” (+) when he bites your hand in an effort to eliminate that behavior.  The “punishment” in this instance—a loud and unexpected sound—is meant to startle the puppy, providing the opportunity to redirect his mouth to an acceptable chew toy.

Negative Reinforcement means taking something away (pain, for instance) to encourage a behavior (fetching an object.)  This example is culled from old-school techniques of yore whereby, in the process of teaching a dog to fetch, his ear is pinched until he picks up the object in question, at which time the pinch is released (-).  For training fetch, Positive Reinforcement is by far the better option.  In fact, the old-school training techniques that have been most widely criticized and discounted involve Negative Reinforcement.

That said, there are instances in which Negative Reinforcement is appropriate and effective if used judiciously and correctly, and under the guidance of a professional trainer.  Example:  teaching loose-leash walking by employing a head collar (Gentle Leader or Holt).  The head collar applies pressure when the dog pulls that is released (-) the instant he is walking at your side. You have taken something away (pressure) to train a desired behavior (walking by your side instead of pulling.)

Many dog trainers tout the fact that they use only Positive Reinforcement, probably in part because the term Negative Punishment sounds so, well, negative. But using only Positive Reinforcement takes other effective and humane dog training options off the table. Perhaps someone should come up with a better terms, but in the meantime I will continue to reference Temple Grandin’s analogy to adding (+) and subtracting (-) stimulus to achieve training results.

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About Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA

Having owned well-trained dogs all my life, I started Better Nature Dog Training to exploit decades of experience teaching across a number of fields. I am nationally-certified through the highly-respected Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers and am a professional member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. I teach people how to effectively train their dogs by clearly demonstrating that every interaction counts when training a dog to come when called, for example, or instructing a puppy how to best get along in life. I take a scientific and holistic approach to dog training. The scientific aspect comes from understanding dog psychology from an evolutionary perspective, knowing how dogs are both similar to and distinct from their ancestors, including the grey wolf. The holistic component derives from taking into account all facets of any particular dog’s situation, including upbringing, prior training, traumatic events and—most importantly—the characteristics of his home and family life. Training a puppy or dog can be a most rewarding life experience; it can also be stressful and perplexing. One of the best services I provide is taking the guesswork out while lending a sure, guiding hand in successful dog behavior development and modification.
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One Response to Reinforcement in dog training: the Positive and the Negative

  1. Judy Stamper says:

    Fred is an exuberant 7 year old Havanese who has always given me a workout when walking him, even using a choke collar as instructed by another trainer. Because I have Parkinson’s Disease, several of my friends urged me to contact Jeff in hopes that Fred’s walking habits could be relearned to lessen the chance that he would throw me off balance. I was amazed. Jeff quickly established a relationship with Fred and had him walking in heel position on a slack leash in short order. Even more amazing, he was able to coach me to walk Fred in the same manner. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Thanks, Jeff. I am now confident that I can safely continue to walk Fred.

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