The Problem with Positive Reinforcement

© Copyright 2011, Jerry D. Patillo, CPDT-KA

The problem with positive reinforcement is that people really don’t know what it means. Sure, most people recognize positive reinforcement when they see it. They see it as something good or pleasant or desirable that rewards a behavior. And they’re right. However, that’s not what positive reinforcement means. Because of this misunderstanding, they miss out on several other tools they could use to train their dogs.

Most dog trainers and behavior specialists these days advertise that they train dogs using positive methods or positive reinforcement. These “positive” words give us warm feelings inside, don’t they? However, did you know that many of these same trainers also use positive punishment and negative reinforcement? Positive punishment is not so positive. Negative punishment is more positive than positive punishment. Negative reinforcement is much worse. And we haven’t even talked about extinction yet!

Confused? So are a lot of trainers, behaviorists, and even some veterinarians! Let’s clarify some terminology. Let’s open the box of training tools and examine the good – and not so good – tools that are available to us. We call that toolbox operant conditioning. This is the learning that occurs when a consequence, favorable or unfavorable, follows a behavior. In other words, is the behavior likely to occur again? Or is it likely to get less frequent and disappear? In operant conditioning . . .

Positive = “additive.” That means something is added, given, or presented to the dog after it does something. It could be good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, desirable or undesirable.

Negative = “subtractive.” In other words, something is subtracted, removed, or taken away from the dog after its behavior. It has nothing to do with bad, unpleasant, or undesirable. It could be good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, desirable or undesirable, something which is subtracted or removed from the dog.

Reinforcement is something added or removed that encourages a behavior to get stronger and more frequent, that increases the likelihood the behavior will occur again.

Punishment is something added or removed that discourages a behavior, that decreases the likelihood it will occur again.. It causes the behavior to get weaker and less frequent, and even disappear.

Now let’s put the terms together. We’ll list the most important tools first, the least important last.

Positive reinforcement = “additive reinforcement.” It is by far the most important tool of operant conditioning you can use in training your dog. It is positive because you add or present something to the dog. It is reinforcement because it encourages the behavior to get stronger and more frequent. Example: Dog sits on command. Owner says “Good dog!” and scratches the dog’s chest. Dog is likely to sit on command again.

So, what do you give or present to your dog to reward its behavior? A reward can be anything the dog likes, wants, or needs. We have to think of these rewards from the dog’s order of importance, not ours. For most dogs – but not all – food and food treats are right at the top of what’s important. You want the treats to be small, only the size of an English pea or your little fingernail. Many dogs love hotdogs, cheese, or freeze-dried liver (yummy!). Next on the list for most dogs are toys, games, or physical touch. Many dogs enjoy chasing a toy across the room or ball across the yard or going for a walk. Many dogs love a scratch on the ear or a good belly rub.

Verbal praise is at the bottom of the list! Can you say “Good girl” or “Good boy” to your dog? Absolutely yes! I say “Good girl!” to my dogs all the time. But, I’m usually coupling praise with something a lot more rewarding, such as a scratch on the chest or a little piece of hotdog.

Negative punishment = “subtractive punishment.” It is the next tool you should use, especially when addressing undesirable behaviors. It is negative because you subtract or remove something from the dog. It is punishment because you are discouraging the behavior from happening again. Example: Dog barks at you for attention. You leave the room. The barking for attention will likely get weaker over time and disappear.

Let me add here very quickly that addressing undesirable behaviors is always a two-step process: (1) Remove the reward of the behavior you don’t like. (2) Teach the dog the behavior you want it to do instead. So, if you use negative punishment, it is only step #1. You must also use positive reinforcement for step #2. In the example above, what do you want your dog to do instead of barking for attention? How about sitting up quietly (as if begging)? How about sitting quietly in front of you with its paw on your knee? It doesn’t matter what your answer is. Step #2 is teach your dog a behavior you like that is incompatible with the behavior you don’t like.

For more information on this two-step process, please see my article about addressing undesirable behaviors.

Extinction is when a behavior gets weaker and disappears simply because nothing is reinforcing it. Nothing is punishing the behavior, but nothing is rewarding the behavior, either. Some trainers will put this as more important than negative punishment. However, this is a tricky one.  That’s why I put it after negative reinforcement in importance. You have to make sure nothing is rewarding the behavior. It’s easy to keep a small dog from swiping the roast off the table. Just keep the chairs pushed in under the table. However, if you have a Labrador “Food Retriever” or a Great Dane, you definitely would not try extinction for this problem. They could steal tonight’s dinner from the table in the blink of an eye. That would certainly reward the stealing behavior!

Positive punishment = “additive punishment.” When people use the word punishment, they are usually thinking of positive punishment. It is positive because you are adding or presenting something to the dog. It is punishment because you are discouraging the behavior from happening again. Example: Dog barks for attention. A shock collar zaps the dog when it barks. Dog learns to bark or whine under the threshold that triggers the zap. Not so positive, is it? Even the shock-collar manufacturers will tell you the shock collar is not appropriate for aggressive or fearful dogs. The side effects of the shock collar’s use can be detrimental. Indeed, the side effects of positive punishment in general can damage your relationship with your dog.

Negative reinforcement = “subtractive reinforcement.” It is negative because you subtract or remove something from the dog. It is reinforcement because it encourages the desired behavior to get stronger and more frequent. Example: Owner pinches dog’s ear. Dog opens its mouth and screams in pain. Owner removes ear pinch, inserts dumbbell into dog’s open mouth, and exclaims “Good dog!” Several repetitions later, owner reaches for dog’s ear and dog opens mouth before the pinch occurs. This is an extreme example. But, this is how we used to train dogs many years ago to take a dumbbell into its mouth!

So, when training your dog, use lots and lots of positive reinforcement (“additive reinforcement”) to encourage desirable behaviors to increase in strength and frequency.

Use negative punishment (“subtractive punishment”) or extinction to remove the reward of undesirable behaviors. Combine this with teaching your dog to do the right behavior instead.

Use positive punishment and negative reinforcement only sparingly. Use the least aversive punisher you can to get the job done. Make sure your dog associates the punisher with its actions and not with you. Otherwise, you can seriously damage the relationship you have with your dog.


This is the short version of this article! I tried my very best to keep it only one printed page in length. You can see how unsuccessful I was with that. I’ve only touched the surface of this very important topic. Please check back with us from time to time to see if I’ve completed the expanded and detailed version. If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions about improving this article, please let me know.

For more information on positive reinforcement and other tools for training your dog, call or e-mail us today. Today – now – before you do anything else. We can help!



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