Training: Positive, Negative, Reinforcement, Punishment

There’s been something that’s been weighing on my mind in understanding how to teach, adjust, and modify Knox’s behaviour: what the fuck does positive reinforcement even mean and how am I actually using it?

I’ve been slowly reading through Gail Fisher’s The Thinking Dog: Crossover to Clicker Training and it’s been an interesting exercise in figuring out what I’m doing. As we’ve progressed with Knox’s reactivity, having both good and bad days, I’ve begun to worry about whether or not I’m 1) using food effectively, 2) focusing too much on “positive/negative reinforcement/punishment.”

The biggest thing that opened my eyes was remembering that B.F. Skinner (and Thorndike) are psychologists, which means their use of terminology is not the way we, non-psychologists, would.

Positive (+): to add
Negative (-): to remove

This seems simple enough to comprehend, but how does it apply with reinforcement and punishment? What does reinforcement and punishment even mean?

They are consequences. Reinforcement (R) strengthens while punishment (P) weakens. 

We should not simply assume that punishment means something aversive, physical, or painful. As humans, we tend to think of punishment as being hit but in reality, we learn the same way as children: “no going outside to play until you clean your room!”

Gail breaks down the four possible behavioural effectors the best. How many owners think they’re only R+? I definitely thought I was very limited in using any of the other quadrants!


Positive Reinforcement (R+): The trainer adds something desirable to the dog to strengthen a behaviour. The dog perceives that his behaviour results in good things.
“Sitting means praise and hot dogs!”

Negative Reinforcement (R-): The trainer’s goal is to strengthen a behaviour by removing something the dog perceives as undesirable. The dog perceives this as bad things stop when I do this.
“When I stop pulling while on leash, the pressure from my head halti stops. Not pulling = no more pressure.”

Positive Punishment (P+): The trainer adds something undesirable to weaken a behaviour. The dog perceives this as bad things result.
“When I bark at dogs, I get a leash pop.”

Negative Punishment (P-): The trainer takes away something desireable for the purpose of weakening a behaviour.” The dog perceives this as good things stop.
“When I bark at my human, my human goes away.”


As we’re slowly incorporating more and more techniques into our reactivity repertoire, I’m realizing there are people that are against Behavioural Adjustment Training (BAT) because it is based on negative reinforcement. While that’s an completely different can of worms, it teaches the dog that “if I react to the dog, it doesn’t go away” and the dog can make good decisions to get away from the undesirable thing: reacting doesn’t make it go away. Giving calm behaviours does.

Just as we socialize puppies by introducing them to potential stressors (loud noises, random textures, different people, different dogs, etc.), controlled introduction to potential stressors (or punishment) teaches a dog to cope, adapt and learn how to deal with it appropriately.

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