It is very common for people to get in a muddle with some aspects of the terminology that surrounds behavioral science when it comes to dog training.
Most people nowadays do understand what Positive Reinforcement is.
They understand that this means teaching dogs the right thing to do by reinforcing good behavior with rewards.
However, many people still misunderstand what Negative Reinforcement is.
And that is what we are going to address in this article
Negative reinforcement doesn’t mean correcting a dog
People sometimes refer to mild punishment or corrections as Negative Reinforcement.
They think that if Positive Reinforcement means teaching dogs what they should do using rewards, then Negative Reinforcement must be all about teaching dogs what they must NOT do, using corrections.
This is not the case.
Negative reinforcement doesn’t mean ‘stopping bad behavior’
The confusion usually arises because we think of ‘negative’ as meaning bad or unpleasant, and ‘positive’ as being good or happy.
However, the language of behaviour comes from behavioral science.
And in behavioral science and in activities derived from it such as dog training, positive and negative are mathematical terms which refer to addition and subtraction
It’s all to do with maths
To understand what Negative Reinforcement really is, we need to break it up into the two halves.
The first half – NEGATIVE – refers to the events that are taking place around the dog – usually as the result of an action taken by the trainer.
The second half – REINFORCEMENT – refers to the effect of this event on the dog.
And how the dog is affected, depends entirely on how the dog perceives or experiences that event.
This will become clear I promise!
Let’s take the first half first and look at the word NEGATIVE
Addition and subtraction
I said earlier that negative and positive in dog training are mathematical terms.
- Positive means something added
- Negative means something taken away
These terms refer to what is happening around the dog, the consequences of the dogs behaviour. Consequences that the dog’s trainer will attempt to control.
Dog trainers may provide consequences to their dog’s behaviour by adding something. It doesn’t have to be something the trainer does, it could be something he says, or something he allows the dog to do.
So for example a stern “NO” or “AH AH” would be something added by the trainer. It wasn’t there before.
A smack or a poke from the trainer would also be something added.
So would a treat or a game with a ball. This are all consequences deliberately added to the dog’s experience of life. They are all therefore, in behavioral terms POSITIVE – even though some of them are clearly unpleasant.
Taking something away
Sometimes dog trainers subtract or take away, something from the dog as a consequence of his behavior.
A trainer might take away a treat, or a ball. He might take away the dog’s opportunity to play with another dog by removing him or restraining him.
A trainer can also take away something really unpleasant, painful or scary.
All of these consequences are NEGATIVE even though some of them are good (like the removal of pain for example) and some are bad – from the dog’s point of view. But it is not their effect that we are concerned with when we use the word NEGATIVE.
Negative means something taken away
So to recap. The word negative has nothing whatever to do with the final effect on the dog’s behavior. It doesn’t mean something that is unpleasant for the dog and it doesn’t mean teaching the dog not to do things.
It simply means that the trainer has removed something that the dog was experiencing.
Now to understand the whole term Negative Reinforcement we need to look at the second part of the term.
The part concerned with how the dog is affected by what happened around him. We need to understand exactly what is meant by the use of the word reinforcement.
What does reinforcement mean?
Reinforcement is about the effect of what happened to the dog. Crucially it is about how the dog perceived what just happened.
Reinforcement is anything that increases a dog’s behavior, or makes it more likely to be repeated in the future.
And for that to happen, reinforcement must be something that the dog values or appreciates. It needs to be something the dog really likes or wants.
Examples of thing that can be used for reinforcement
To increase or strengthen a dogs behavior we need to apply reinforcement. Which means being very clear about what dogs in general and our dog in particular, finds reinforcing.
Obviously this will include treats and games, opportunities to play with his friends and so on.
But importantly, reinforcement also includes the cessation of something unpleasant. Including fear, discomfort, or pain.
So this is Negative Reinforcement
Remember negative, in dog training, means taking something away. And reinforcement in dog training means something which makes behavior stronger.
So Negative Reinforcement is where a handler or dog trainer takes away something and by doing so increases or strengthens the behavior that he is training.
The unpleasant fact that we now need to address, is how this process is used.
Examples of negative reinforcement in dog training
Dog trainers don’t just wait around for something unpleasant to happen to their dogs, then grab the opportunity to ‘switch off’ the unpleasant thing in order to reinforce whatever their dog happens to be doing at the time.
This would be a completely haphazard and ineffective strategy.
Therefore, in order to ‘remove’ something unpleasant under controlled conditions, the trainer has to apply the unpleasant thing to the dog in the first place.
You may find it hard to believe that anyone would do this to a dog, but in fact, this technique has been used extensively in retriever training in the USA now for several decades.
Trainers apply pain to the dog in the form of an ear pinch or toe hitch, and end the application of pain when the dog complies with their requirements.
I’m not going to go into the rights and wrongs of this, here in this article, but this is a very clear example of negative reinforcement in action.
Negative Reinforcement is not about correcting dogs or stopping bad behavior.
The traditional dog training techniques used for that purpose all embrace the principles of Positive Punishment (which need not necessarily be harsh) which means ‘something added, that diminishes behavior.
Negative Reinforcement is about turning off something unpleasant, and its most common use in dog training is in the process known as Force Fetch for retrievers as described above.
Negative Reinforcement is not normally used in dog training in the UK and is not widely used in dog training at all. It requires the application of an unpleasant stimulus to the dog, in order that a trainer can then turn the unpleasantness off when the dog complies.
The key point is that
- Positive/Negative refers to what the trainer does (or controls)
- Punishment/Reinforcement refers to the effect on the dog.
A word about Punishment
Remember that punishment is anything which diminishes behavior. It does not have to be harsh to be punishment. It does not even have to be physical to be punishment. It simply has to be something that the dog will work to avoid.
Punishment can be either Positive (something added like a ‘smack’ or a stern word) or Negative (something the dog wants, is taken away).
You can also find a detailed explanation of the meaning of punishment and reinforcement in these two articles
And if you are interested in learning more about the language and principles of dog training, drop in to my forum for a chat!