Positive Reinforcement & Negative Reinforcement for Dog Training

Positive and negative reinforcement play a role in effective dog training.
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Dog trainers debate the role of reward and punishment in shaping a canine’s behavior. However, most experts agree a role does exist for positive and negative reinforcement in the training process. To understand that role, you must first understand the difference between the two types of reinforcement and how they differ from the concepts of positive and negative punishment.

Reinforcement Versus Punishment

When trainers criticize negative dog training, they usually mean training that relies on punishment instead of reinforcement. Punishment and reinforcement can be either positive or negative. The difference between the two terms is actually whether you want the specific dog behavior to happen less often (punishment) or more often (reinforcement). The negative or positive aspect of both methods refers to whether the trainer takes something away (negative) or adds something (positive) to bring about the desired behavior change. Collars that deliver an electric shock to a dog who barks excessively are one example of positive punishment -- the shock is added to reduce the frequency of the behavior.

Positive Reinforcement

Trainers who use positive reinforcement use rewards to encourage the dog to repeat a specific behavior. Rewards can be treats, affection or a toy. As soon as the dog does the desired behavior, the reward needs to be given. For example, if you train a dog to sit, then as soon as her hindquarters touch the ground you need to provide her reward. Most trainers recommend acknowledging the desired behavior with praise, such as saying "good dog" in a high-pitched voice so the dog knows you are pleased.

Negative Reinforcement

While dog trainers today usually avoid negative reinforcement, this method of training can also be effective without harming the dog or his relationship with the owner. According to police dog trainer Deborah Palman, negative reinforcement, such as pulling up on a choke collar, can also train a dog to increase a desired behavior. The key, however, is to release the dog from his state of discomfort as soon as he does the desired behavior. Electric fences are a good example. The dog is shocked when he gets too close to the perimeter, but the shocks stop when he moves away from the boundary so he begins to stay away from the yard's edge more frequently.

Negative Punishment & Positive Reinforcement

Negative punishment coupled with positive reinforcement can be a powerful training tool, especially as an alternative to positive punishment. If a dog jumps up on people, for example, some trainers might recommend positive punishment such as kneeing the dog in the chest to make him get down. However, trainers such as Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz suggest using negative punishment by ignoring the dog (removing the attention he desires in order to decrease the unwanted behavior's frequency). When the dog finally sits and stops jumping, the trainer can give the dog attention as a positive reinforcement. By combining both methods, the trainer can simultaneously reduce the undesired behavior and increase the desired behavior.

Dangers of Positive Punishment

Some trainers, however, recommend extreme forms of positive punishment, particularly for aggressive dogs. A 2009 study of dog training and aggression found that methods such as physical punishment and forced submission actually caused the dog to respond aggressively in at least 25 percent of cases. Another study five years earlier found dogs trained using positive punishment exhibited more problem behaviors than dogs who were not. Furthermore, a 2010 study illustrated how positive punishment used on small dogs could actually increase the dogs' fear, anxiety and aggression.