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Positively Confused

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Ask Professor Boo is our recurring, positive reinforcement dog training and behavior question and answer column. If you have a question that you would like to ask Professor Boo, please feel free to contact him.

Q: What’s the difference between positive reinforcement and positive punishment?

A: If Professor Boo had a time machine he would go back in time to find B.F. Skinner and his cohorts and have a stern talking to them about the naming of the four quadrants of Learning Theory.

Positive Reinforcement (shorthand for Positive Reinforcement is PR or R+) and Positive Punishment (shorthand for Positive Punishment is PP or P+.) are just two elements of the four quadrants of Learning Theory.

The other two elements are Negative Reinforcement and Negative Punishment – we will save those for another day.

Positive Reinforcement means that we are offering a timely reinforcer to the subject to insure the behavior is repeated – YIKES!

Okay let’s try again –

Positive Reinforcement allows us to build our bond with our dogs while we are teaching them good behaviors.

Positive Reinforcement is offering a reward (or something the dog likes) immediately after any behavior we want or like so we will get more of that behavior. When we reinforce the behavior by following it immediately with a reinforcing event like a food reward, a great game, the butt scratch of a life-time or anything that makes the dog vibrate with JOY the dog will repeat the action that earned him that great reward. Generally we also add in a praise word, or “marker word,” or clicker to mark the good behavior and predict the reward is coming for the dog. This eventually allows us to fade out the food (or other added reinforcer) so that we don’t always have to be strapped with hot dogs to take our dog for a walk.

Positive Reinforcement allows us to build our bond with our dogs while we are teaching them good behaviors. It helps the dog to enjoy and look forward to learning, and to be more creative and confident in general. Neurological studies have shown that all of us (human, dog, cat, etc.) learn better when our brains are bathed in the kids of neurotransmitters associated with positive emotions.

Positive Punishment means that we are offering a punisher to the subject to insure the behavior will stop. – YIKES again!

Okay let’s try another way –

Positive Punishment breaks our bond with our dog and our dog’s trust in us.

Positive Punishment is offering a punisher (or something the dog does not like) AS* the dog is producing a behavior we don’t like/want so that the dog will stop doing it. When we want to punish a behavior we must apply the punishing event AS* the dog is still in the act of the unwanted behavior (otherwise we run a big risk of actually punishing the dog for stopping). Traditional punishing events have included yelling, pulling on the choke collar or pinch collar, subjecting the dog to any kind of pain from a shock collar to the more severe methods of drowning, flipping, rolling, scruff shaking, or kicking, and worse. Studies have shown us that most of the time when punishers are faded the unwanted behavior returns because remember in PR – we are looking to have the animal repeat the behavior to EARN the reward. In PP we are simply looking for the animal to stop the behavior in the face of the punishment. This means you will always have to punish or at least threaten to punish if you choose this route.

*Note – because human timing in training is relatively slow in comparison to our dogs when using P+ one has to aim for “AS” in terms of the timing of the punisher so that one actually gets even closer to the event to be punished.  With R+ we have a little more wriggle room in terms of timing – maybe a quarter of a second, but that’s a lot in training terms.

Positive Punishment breaks our bond with our dog and our dog’s trust in us.  It teaches them that learning is at the very least no fun and at the worst painful. It does not build confidence – it breaks it. It all too often leads to more aggression from our dogs.  Neurological studies have shown that punishment acts quickly to suppress a behavior because of the survival instinct of avoiding pain and threats; but it comes with baggage in the nature of fears, re-directed and learned aggression, and shut down behaviors based in chronic stressors that can lead to a host of physical illnesses. In summary positive punishment not only carries a host of fallout, it has make you ask the following, “Did I get this dog so I could cause him or her pain and fear?”

When using Positive Reinforcement you must know what your dog likes and doesn’t like.

When using Positive Reinforcement you must know what your dog likes and doesn’t like.  If you have a dog who is head-shy then patting them on the head when they do something you like is a PUNISHMENT not a reinforcer.  If you have a dog with gastric issues then food rewards may not be a fun thing for your dog.  You have to know what your dog loves (remember: makes your dog vibrate with joy) in order to offer him/her that for a reward.

The biggest trick to Positive Punishment is TIMING and being ready to break your bond with your dog while you actually discourage your dog from wanting to learn.  Using Positive Punishment could shut your dog down leaving them living their lives like a hostage never knowing when the next scary thing will happen to them. Or you could make you dog more aggressive – studies have shown that one of the biggest contributing factors to aggression in dogs (and people, too) is using harsh (aggressive) correction on them. You might be told or be thinking that your dog is not feeling the pain from the shock collar because they are not responding, but in fact your dog is not responding because he/she is actually overwhelmed with stress and cannot comply.  All you will be doing is making their stress bigger.

Transport yourself back in time to when you were in school and answer this question: Would you learn better if someone smacked you in the head every time you misspelled a word or made a math mistake or would you learn better if someone showed you where you made your mistake and then rewarded you each time you overcame each one?

There is nothing that can be taught by positive punishment that cannot be taught by positive reinforcement. In fact, there is more that can be taught by positive reinforcement. The choice of how you wish to treat the animal in your care is up to you.

Boo prefers PR!

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