Positive Reinforcement and Positive Punishment

Many dog owners have heard the term “positive reinforcement training”.  This method of dog training emerged from animal science/behavior studies several decades ago.  Progressive dog trainers started “crossing over” from positive punishment to positive reinforcement methods in the early-to-mid 1990’s. 

Advances in animal science and understanding canine behavior and cognition led to these effective and humane training techniques.  Comparing methods can help decide which one is right for you and your dog. 

Positive Reinforcement – How Does It Work?

Reinforcement of any behavior makes that behavior more likely to be repeated.  “Positive” refers to adding something.  For example, asking the dog to “sit”, then adding a cookie to the picture, makes sitting a behavior that is likely to be repeated.  The dog is motivated to behave in a particular way when the results are gratifying to him. 

In a positive reinforcement training program, an owner sets up and manages the dog’s environment and interactions in ways that limit the dog’s options.  He is more likely to engage in desirable and appropriate activities, and these managed options are rewarded.  It teaches the dog which behaviors “work”.  He is motivated to behave in ways that have a reward history, and he will repeat them.  Rewards can be a variety of objects and activities that are important to the dog:  attention, food, access to space, toys, chews, play opportunities, walks, car rides, belly rubs, verbal praise, etc.…   Real life rewards. 

Positive Punishment – How Does It Work?

Punishment of any behavior makes that behavior less likely to be repeated.  Again – “positive” refers to adding something.  For example, a dog pulls on his leash while walking.  The owner adds an abrupt tightening of his collar.  This is unpleasant and intended to stop the dog’s pulling:  it stops because the dog wants to avoid the painful collar correction.  The same technique is used for electronic containment system training.  The dog learns a boundary to avoid an unpleasant noise/shock.

In a positive punishment training program, the dog’s undesirable behaviors are punished by adding an aversive.  Some of these include sudden loud noises (e.g. cans with coins and air horns), a spray bottle, a chin “cuff” (a smack), a muzzle hold, and pinning the dog to the floor.  The dog obeys learned cues in order to avoid the punishment.

Positive Reinforcement – Good News and Bad News

Positive reinforcement methods are behavior-based.  Techniques rely on the notion that behaviors are driven by the animal’s emotional state.  Understanding why a dog behaves in a particular way determines the best plan to change that behavior:  replace undesirable behaviors with desirable ones.  This approach is an enormous advantage, because behaviors can change without doing harm to the animal.  A fearful dog, for example, can actually learn to relax and enjoy an improved quality of life without the trauma of positive punishment.  A bold and energetic dog can learn to earn his resources without potentially dangerous dog/owner confrontations.

Dogs readily trust owners who communicate boundaries clearly and fairly.  It is leadership – not intimidation – that motivates an animal to compliance.  Because positive reinforcement redirects to and rewards desirable behaviors, the dog can feel safe in offering behaviors.  Owners reward behaviors they want to stick and redirect or ignore those they want the dog to discard.  Either way, there is no drama:  only clear indications to the dog of which behaviors “work” and which ones don’t.

Now for the bad news:  a positive reinforcement training program can take longer to achieve ultimate results.  Fading food rewards and using a range of real life rewards are important elements.  Food is a teaching tool.  It should not be a bribe.

Positive Punishment – Good News and Bad News

The biggest advantage to a positive punishment training program is that it can stop undesirable behaviors quickly.  Dogs avoid behaviors that result in pain and unpleasant outcomes. 

Now for the bad news:  a positive punishment training program is not behavior-based, so while punishment represses behaviors, it does not address the cause of them.  For example, a fearful dog is growling at unfamiliar people entering the home.  A positive punishment program can stop the growling, but does nothing to assuage the dog’s fear.  Unfortunately, the growl is the dog’s way of expressing fear and shutting down his warning communication can have dangerous results.  If the dog feels defensive, he is likely to bite, but without the warning. 

Frequent positive punishment can shut down behaviors in general.  The dog stops offering behaviors, because it is too risky.  Who wants to squash the dog’s personality?  Spray bottles and shake cans provide a startle, but don’t teach the dog an acceptable substitute behavior.  The dog obeys in the presence of those objects rather than learning to obey the owner’s verbal cues.

Appropriate and Humane Punishment

Punishment is sometimes necessary and can be used appropriately and humanely.  Many positive reinforcement trainers incorporate negative punishment techniques (negative=take something away).  Here’s an example:  your dog approaches and barks at you for the purpose of obtaining your attention.  You respond by looking away or walking away from your dog (without speaking or making eye contact).  You remove yourself and your dog’s possibility of attention.  This response makes the barking strategy less likely.  When your dog approaches you quietly, he obtains your attention.  With negative punishment techniques, the dog learns to discard behaviors that don’t work and to try a different behavior that, if desirable, will work better for him. 


Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel   CPDT-KA, 2017 all rights reserved

Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC