For years I would read the term “Positive Reinforcement” contrasted with punishments in dog training books. However, these terms don’t seem to be fully understood by most dog owners. Most people seem to think that “positive reinforcement” means “good reinforcement” and all punishments are lumped into one pile. However, most of the time when people say “punishments” they mean “positive punishments.”
Because of these misunderstandings, many trainers describe themselves as “All Positive” trainers when they actually mean that they use positive reinforcement and negative punishments. I have even referred to myself as an all-positive trainer because, in the dog training world, it has taken on a meaning all its own.
I believe that it is very helpful to understand what these operant conditioning terms actually mean because it will help you to understand why different dog training techniques actually work.
What is Operant Conditioning?
Operant conditioning is a term that was coined by a psychologist named B.F. Skinner. It basically gives you a lens to best determine how to shape good behavior.
There are four types of operant conditioning: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment. Basically, “positive” means that you are adding something to the dog’s environment while“negative” means that you are taking something away. In the same way, “reinforcement” means that your actions will increase the chances that your dog will perform the behavior and “punishment” means that your actions will decrease the chances that your dog will perform the behavior. I know that is a bit confusing so I will have examples from each of the four quadrants of operant conditioning below.
This means that you add something to the dog’s environment to increase a behavior. For example, if you give your dog his favorite treat when he sits then you are using positive reinforcement. You are adding something (a treat) which will encourage your dog to repeat the behavior.
Positive reinforcement is a fantastic way to train your dog and it is the quadrant from operant conditioning that I use the most in my own dog training.
This means that you take something away from your dog to increase a behavior. For example, many people in the competitive obedience world use a forced retrieve. Basically, it involves pinching a dog’s ear then releasing his ear when he takes a dumbbell. It is a negative reinforcement because something (the ear pinch) is taken away when the dog performs the desired behavior (taking the dumbbell). However, I never recommend an ear pinch and only ever use extremely mild negative reinforcements such as spacial pressure.
This means that you add something to the dog’s environment to decrease a behavior. This is what most people mean when they use the word punishment. For example, if your dog pulls on the leash and you pop the leash, then you are adding something (the leash pop) to try to decrease the pulling behavior so it is a positive punishment. I do not use positive punishments with the exception of telling my dog “no” when he does something wrong. I find that dogs work better when they are working for a reward instead of working to avoid a positive punishment.
This means that you take something away from the dog’s environment in order to decrease a behavior. Negative punishments are a fantastic way to teach a dog not to do something without hurting, scaring, or making him uncomfortable. For example, if a dog jumps on me for attention, I leave the room. When I do this, I am taking away something that the dog wants (me) to decrease the jumping behavior.
Final Thoughts on Operant Conditioning
Remember that it only matters what your dog considers to be a reinforcement or a punishment. For example, for many people, their first response when a dog jumps on them is to push the dog off of them. This might sound like a positive punishment. After all, you might think that your dog wouldn’t like it when you push her off of you. However, for many dogs, some attention (even if it seems unpleasant to you) is better then no attention. Because of this, for many dogs, you are actually using positive reinforcement and rewarding the behavior. In the same way, if you try to use dog food as a reward right after your dog finished his breakfast, then your reward might not be reinforcing enough to motivate him to work for you.