Starting Training

Positive Reinforcement, Negative Reinforcement, and Punishment

By February 17, 2015July 5th, 2017No Comments


by Kirk Moses

(Working Aussie Source note: Kirk Moses is a successful trainer and handler of Border Collies for sheepdog trials, who at the time of this article’s publication, lived in Cedar City, Utah. )

I would like to clarify some terms relative to training dogs which I see misused in articles and hear misused in conversations as a matter of course, by even the most talented of trainers. The terms I am referring to are positive reinforcement, punishment and negative reinforcement. If I’m not mistaken, many of the people reading this article just said to themselves, “punishment and negative reinforcement are the same thing, aren’t they?” Not by a long shot. So let’s take a look at what each of these are.

Most people understand positive reinforcement. It is simply reward for a positive action. The obvious example is giving a dog a piece of food when it downs on command. We also use praise commonly as a positive reinforcer. For example last summer I purchased a 16-month-old bitch from a horse trainer. I was very familiar with the dog’s breeding and was certain she would be an excellent worker. However up to that point the only livestock she had seen were horses and she’d been scolded if she fooled with them or if she paced the fence. Consequently the first time I encouraged her to go to livestock she looked at me as though she might have a nervous breakdown. The next day however she got into a crouch and took some tentative steps toward the sheep “good girl, sss-get `em” I whispered excitedly. By talking to her in an approving way I positively reinforced her interest. As a result she went out, brought the sheep back to me and we did a little work that day.

Punishment is another term which is fairly well understood. In animal training punishment refers to the corporal variety, meaning it involves some kind of physical battery (e.g., the jerk of a collar, a zap by a shock collar, a switching on the stomach, a bop with a pole, or grabbing by the jowls and shaking, we all have our preferred methods) to discourage the repetition of undesirable behavior or disobedience. There is no reinforcement involved in punishment, so it cannot be negative reinforcement.

Some people think they can use non-corporal types of punishment on their dog, by crating it or making it skip a meal. However even people cannot make the complex connection between bad behavior and confinement before at least age two and none of our dogs are as intellectually sophisticated as a two-year-old.

The trouble with corporal punishment is that while it is, in my opinion, a necessary tool when dealing with an adult animal that cannot be reasoned with, it tends to be a slippery slope for people like me. It’s easy increase the frequency and intensity of one’s use of punishment without being immediately aware of it. The best advice I can give about punishment is, stop and think before acting. The decision to use punishment should always be motivated by necessity, not anger and the animal must be fully aware of what behavior it is being reprimanded for.

While it’s difficult to ruin a really good dog, excessive and inconsistent punishment can easily ruin a decent one. An example of punishment being used in training is practice of stomping on the leash to slam the animal to the ground or hitting it on the head when it fails to lie down on command. It is important to note here that while punishment will create an effective fear in the dog to motivate obedience, most animals, including humans, who are subjected to corporal punishment become sneaky and more poorly behaved when the enforcer is not right at hand. They do not as readily accept lessons taught and therefore will not apply them on their own.

Probably the most effective tool we have for training animals is negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement means that a negative stimulus is applied the animal performs the desired behavior, the negative stimulus is then removed in order to reinforce the behavior. For example I do not teach anything to my dog before we go to stock because I want the animal to stay focused on the livestock when given an obedience command during work.

In other words when I have a young dog going and give him a down command, I don’t want him to slide over next to me wagging his whole body because he did what he was told. I don’t even want him to turn and look at me. So the first time he hears the down command he’s on stock. To get him to obey I place myself between the dog and the livestock, lift my arms over my head to make myself as large as possible and tell him “down”. Of course he doesn’t know what I want but continue to balance him off the stock. This is the negative stimulus. The dog will be blocked off the stock until he figures out what I’m asking him to do. As soon as he stops, I remove the negative stimulus, myself in this case, and let him back on the stock.

This reinforces him for stopping when told. The dog soon learns that if he doesn’t play according to my rules he doesn’t play at all and the quicker he responds to mequicker we can get back into the flow of the work. He figures this out for himself. I encourage him to work through his confusion, give him the best body language I can to help him figure out what I want and send him back to the stock at just the right moment so he will understand what he did to regain the privilege of working. However he figures it out on his own and now he owns that idea, he has been taught it and allowed to discover it, not had it knocked into his head with the latest edition of Ranch Dog Trainer. His mind is not muddled with fear and he has improved his ability to problem-solve.

This is the best way for me to teach the down. Another way to use negative reinforcement to teach the down, although I don’t like it nearly as well, is to place your hand on the dog’s head using light pressure, say “down” and keep applying steady pressure until he decides to lie down (it may take some time). As he begins to lie down say “down” again and as soon as he is on the ground release your hand. The hand pressure was the negative stimulus and with the release the dog is reinforced for lying down. It works the same with all animals and in many situations.

I like to use the example of stopping a horse. When pressure is applied to the bit, it is a negative stimulus but it isn’t punishment. When the horse stops the pressure is released and his positive behavior is reinforced. Soon a wise horse with a good rider will hit the skids, as soon as he feels the rider’s weight shift. This is why riding a horse with a tight rein will screw her up. There is never a release of the negative stimulus regardless of the horse’s behavior. She soon gives up and begins to use poor behavior such as throwing her head as an attempt to escape the constant negative.

I was at first reluctant to write this article, considering that many people may be uninterested in the technical meanings of psychological jargon. However a clear understanding of these concepts and how they work on the animals mind will help any animal trainer make better decisions, have better focus, get more out of their dogs and finally have more success. Hope it helps.
this article was first published in The Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine August/September 1998