But We Don’t Give Our Kids a Cookie Every Time they Tie Their Shoes!

Here’s another remark often addressed to reinforcement based trainers, sometimes in a mocking tone, sometimes seriously:

A woman's hand is suspended over a clear glass cookie jar. The jar is full of Vanilla Wafers, a small, disc shaped light brown cookie. The hand is holding a cookie (has just pulled one out of the jar). But we don’t give our kids a cookie every time they tie their shoes or pay them a nickel every time they say thank you!

The writer often further implies that to do that with children would be the worst sort of bribery, indulgence, and permissive parenting (and-by-the-way-it’s-responsible-for-all-the-current-evils-of-society). And we’re being just as weak willed when training our dogs!

But the “cookie” objection is so easy to address. People who write this, with all due respect, don’t have much of a clue about how positive reinforcement works. And the misunderstanding has existed for decades.

Let’s let B.F. Skinner handle it this time. Yes, this (mis)perception has been around that long!  In the following excerpt from his Review Lecture: The Technology of Teaching, 1965, Skinner is referring to a case study about a boy with “childhood schizophrenia” (the terminology of that time) who had had cataract surgery. He was resistant to wearing his glasses and was taught to wear them through positive reinforcement with an external treat.

Another objection is to the use of contrived contingencies of reinforcement. In daily life one does not wear glasses in order to get food or point to circles in order to receive chocolate. Such reinforcers are not naturally contingent on the behavior and there may seen to be something synthetic, spurious, or even fraudulent about them….

It was necessary to use a “spurious” reinforcer to get the boy to wear glasses, but once the behavior had been shaped and maintained for a period of time, the natural reinforcers which follow from improved vision could take over. The real issue is whether the teacher prepares the student for the natural reinforcers which are to replace the contrived reinforcers used in teaching. The behavior which is expedited in the teaching process would be useless if it were not to be effective in the world at large in the absence of instructional contingencies.

…In American education it is commonly argued that a child must be taught nothing until he can reap natural benefits from knowing it. He is not to learn to write until he can take satisfaction in writing his name in his books, or notes to his friends. …Unfortunately the teacher who confines himself to natural reinforcers is often ineffective, particularly because only certain subjects can be taught through their use, and he eventually falls back upon some form of punishment. But aversive control is the most shameful of irrelevancies: it is only in school that one parses a Latin sentence to avoid the cane.

There is a whole world of relevance to dog training in those few paragraphs. Skinner is making a distinction between “contrived” reinforcers (treats) and what we would call life rewards in dog training, and describing making the transition between them. And he also points out that those teachers and trainers who do not successfully use “contrived” reinforcers when natural reinforcers are not available fall back on one thing: punishment.

This applies perfectly to the animal training world as well.

A vanilla wafer, a small, light brown, disk shaped cookie, with a bite taken out of it
Why not?

So, let’s discuss a little more the criticism of the very idea of giving children a treat for tying their shoes (and applying that disapproval to dog training). On top of everything else we have the societal nervousness about commonalities in learning between humans and other animals to contend with.

First, the kids.  Newsflash: it is not really such a bad idea at all to use external reinforcement for tasks that are not intrinsically meaningful or rewarding to children.

Tying shoes is a great example. During the first stages of learning this mechanical skill, the process may not be intrinsically rewarding. The child may be too young to understand or experience the advantages of knowing how to tie her own shoes. The physical task can be quite a challenge. Reinforcing the individual steps with something more potent than praise, like bits of a favorite food or counters that can be swapped for an item or a privilege, can aid the process. And once a child can successfully and consistently tie her own shoes, the act will be reinforced by physical comfort and independence, both potent reinforcers. She will not need or be expecting raisins, Skittles, or chocolate chips anymore.

There is, of course, a whole discipline of positive reinforcement training for humans using markers: TAGteach. Teaching with Acoustical Guidance is clicker training for humans. It is used in a variety of contexts,  frequently with children with autism but also all sorts of older kids and adolescents learning a sport or other physical skill. The youngest children are indeed given treats for performing behaviors; slightly older kids may get counters or chips they can cash in, and teenagers are generally working for the satisfaction of succeeding at the task. (It certainly appears on the videos that getting to select a counter–a bead or a bean or a pebble–and put it in a bowl is pretty fun for kids all on its own.)

Here is a boy being taught to tie his shoes using TAGteach, and he counts a bean into a bowl for every click. But my favorite TAGteach video shows the exact moment of a child transitioning from Skinner’s “contrived” reinforcers to intrinsic reinforcement. Be sure and watch to the very end of the video of the little boy learning to get in the swimming pool. He is somewhat fearful. At the beginning he is getting Skittles, but then something very interesting happens.

However. Many people find the idea of using food treats, stickers, or tokens when teaching children shocking, even repellent. Like dogs, they are supposed to eagerly apply themselves to tasks that have no intrinsic value to them just because we want them to. In the world of cultural fog described by Susan Friedman, people tend to react to punishment as a perhaps unfortunate but inevitable part of bringing up children, but run screaming at the idea someone deliberately might use reinforcement to affect a child’s behavior. Oh, the horror!

Second, the dogs. There is one particular difference between teaching tasks to children and behaviors to dogs. The important tasks we teach to children will eventually become socially or intrinsically reinforced. These reinforcers are often not even recognized as such by the critics of teaching with reinforcement. A smile or nod from a parent. A “thanks” from a stranger. Physical comfort. Control over one’s environment. Encouragement from a teacher. Passing a test. Performing well in a job interview. We are social animals and sensitive to social success and acceptance. Folks who quote the “cookie” remark above generally do not recognize the reinforcement that is naturally available and going on all the time for us social humans. (That includes negative reinforcement, of course. A child may choose to make his bed to get his parents to stop nagging him about it. But the bigger point is that many things that are chores for children are naturally positively reinforcing when they get older.)

Dogs do not “grow up” to get the social reinforcement or the joy of fitting into our culture and society. However, Skinner’s plan to switch to non-contrived reinforcers works for them, too. Teaching a dog to walk on a loose lead using positive reinforcement may take a lot of treats (or play) at first, but a skilled teacher can show the dog that learning to walk nicely on a leash expands their world. The dogs can transition to the life rewards of going places, exploring, and sniffing new things.

Here is Skinner again in the same article, about children:

The application of operant conditioning to education is simple and direct. Teaching is the arrangement  of contingencies of reinforcement under which students learn. They learn without teaching in their natural environments, but teachers arrange special contingencies which expedite learning, hastening the appearance of behavior which would otherwise be acquired slowly or making sure of the appearance of behavior which might otherwise never occur.

Adapted by me for dog training:

The application of operant conditioning to dog training is simple and direct. Training is the arrangement of contingencies of reinforcement under which the dogs learn. Dogs learn without human trainers in their natural environments, but trainers arrange special contingencies which expedite learning, hastening the appearance of behavior which would otherwise be acquired slowly or making sure of the appearance of behavior which might otherwise never occur.

Three dogs are lying down in a row on brightly colored mats. On the left is a smallish black and rust colored dog with long ears, who looks like a beagle. In the middle is a sable (brown fur with black tips) mediums sized dog. The dog on the right is light tan with a black muzzle and ears. There is kibble on the floor in front of them. The dogs are looking at the kibble but staying put. The tan dog is looking very intently because one of the pieces of kibble is touching her foot.
Would my dogs naturally leave dropped kibble alone without training?

Doesn’t that sound familiar? The un-doggy behaviors we want from our dogs would not initially have natural reinforcement without our intervention. Most would be acquired “not at all.” So we arrange reinforcement for them. But in many cases, just like for kids, some natural reinforcement will fall into place as well as our dogs enjoy their lives with us.

Thanks for reading. Have a cookie.

Copyright 2013 Eileen Anderson

This post is part of a series:

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

88 thoughts on “But We Don’t Give Our Kids a Cookie Every Time they Tie Their Shoes!

  1. Hi, Eileen, You did another great post. Tio Kiko just stopped by and gave me two cookies – gonna have one! Love, G

  2. I think another point of confusion is caused by the term, “cookie.” I have spoken with a number of people who think that the dogs get delicious, special treats all day long in addition to their regular meal portions. So this idea of over-permissiveness is compounded with the idea of doing something unhealthy for the dog too.

    But the fact of the matter is that most of us who do a lot of clicker training take the food out of the dogs’ daily meal rations, and often use the dogs’ regular food — frequently kibble — which means that we are “rewarding” our dog with the food he would for breakfast or dinner anyway for free! So we are making our dogs work for their daily keep (which of course brings the opposite charge: that we are mean!). And after all, kids have their “jobs” too — learning to tie their shoelaces, going to school, doing homework, washing the dishes, whatever, which comes along with getting food and shelter and love like we give our dogs.

    I think the other point that gets missed is that kids do get “cookies” all day, every day, in the same way that many dogs get kibble throughout the day. Which is that when Joey or Susie tie their shoes or brush their teeth or wash their hands or help with the dishes or say “please,” they get smiles, pats on the back, hugs or verbal praise, which — when distributed with genuine warmth, gratitude, or pleasure — can be very reinforcing for humans of all ages. Of course many people think that using the same reinforcers (praise, petting, hugs) should work for dogs, too, but unfortunately what we primates find reinforcing are not necessarily the same thing that canids find reinforcing (as Patricia McConnell explains so wonderfully in THE OTHER END OF THE LEASH).

    1. Such good points as usual, Sharon. And there’s my picture of a sugary treat right at the top of the blog! Oh well. I’ll write another post and illustrate it with all sorts of “cookies.”

  3. Eileen,
    each and everytime I read one of you suscribed to posts, I learn. They are so clarifying to me! You do have a gift of writing and I am sure many others than it!
    Hope you are well after dealing with the loss of Cricket.
    If you are like me, work is sometimes the best therapy when dealing with hard times.

    1. Thank you so very much! Your comments warm my heart and thank you for asking after me about Cricket. I’m doing OK. And yes, work helps, especially writing. I have some projects specifically related to her that help me to work on sometimes.

  4. Mmmmm, cookies 🙂

    I think another thing that is often misunderstood is that “cookies” aren’t always food – sometimes the reward is a toy, or game to be played with the owner; but that can (of course) bring us to another problem: that of “tug causes dominance, and makes dogs aggressive”…*sigh*

    Sometimes it’s like they’re looking for an excuse not to do anything fun or nice with their dogs 🙁

  5. I was sent here by the “Your Pit Bull and You” facebook page.

    When I potty trained my toddlers (twins) we had a “treasure chest” in the bathroom. Each time they were successful they got to choose a prize (a sticker, dollar store toy, or piece of candy). I was able to ween them off the prizes using a varied schedule of reinforcement and just showering them with praise, and now, 2 years later, I don’t have to praise them. They were fully trained shortly after turning two years old. It never occurred to me to use this as an example until after reading this article!

    This was such a well written piece, I’ll be back often!

  6. With the term “cookie”, to me there is difference between a primary and secondary reinforcers as your “cookie”. In my mind, primary reinforcers immediately make your dog feel good (tug, chase game, chicken/treats, etc.) but secondary reinforcers have to be linked to something else in order for a dog to inherently “feel good”. I put praise in this category because I think we have to teach our dogs to “feel good” when we smile big, be disgustingly cheery and say nice words about them…otherwise, to a dog, they are just random noises and gestures we are making. \

    Of course some dogs immediately enjoy praise without needing to specifically teach it, but my dog is not one of those. “Miss Independent” feels that praise always looks interesting but it doesn’t really make her “feel good” and has a “what’s in it for me?” attitude…so when I paired it with food (oh will this girl work for cheese!), praise makes her feel good and she learns that praise itself can be a ‘cookie’.

    But with Miss Independent, praise itself will never be reinforcing enough when working on something she really doesn’t feel is worth her time at that particular moment. She’s a smart bugger…if she knows already knows that all she’s getting will be praise, I’ll get a half-hearted attempt on her part, or no attempt at all. And it’s not like I’ve always just been a Pez Dispenser for her either.

    Any training suggestions for dealing with all the Miss Independent’s (aka Miss What’s In It For Me) out there?

    1. Hi Kim, I hope we get some hints from the professionals out there. Summer is my “Miss Independent” (think Chow temperament), and I will tell you quite frankly that what worked for me was to be a Pez dispenser for a while, of very high value treats. I wrote about it in this post: Ant-Sized Treats. The good news is that after getting her attention that way, she now has quite the work ethic and will work for kibble, as I described in another post.

      One thing you wrote caught my eye: “if she already knows that all she’s getting will be praise.” Can you avoid that situation? The pros say that one of the keys to using a variable schedule of reinforcement successfully is that the dog never knows whether this time they perform a behavior will be the time the slot machine pays off. Sue Ailsby in her Training Levels describes some really cool ways to surprise your dog when they thought there weren’t any treats available. I’ll dig up a link if you’re not familiar with them. Just some thoughts. Hope a pro weighs in.

      1. Yes I’ve been the Pez dispenser, but with her it’s hard to move away from that once she’s experienced it. But I am still very generous with rewards and with my rate of reward with her…far more generous than I am with my other dog (who does not need me to ‘be the cookie jar’ to feel rewarded). Holly has a very good work ethic, but will only go into work mode in exciting environments (for example, when we are in the feed store…I have no problem with her going into work mode at home or at agility competitions) when she knows a high value reward will be her payout. I work on visiting distracting environments as often as possible, but high value rewards must be her payout or I get the “whatever” look.

        And also yes, I do my best to avoid being caught without food rewards for Holly, but I guess I haven’t fully flushed out Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels to find those ways to surprise Holly with a payout when she wasn’t expecting it. I’ll be rereading them, thanks for the tip!

        1. I’m trying to remember where I saw this–it’s not in the Training Levels–but someone talked about hiding a hamburger in a tree on a route she was planning to take with her dog. Amazed the dog no end. I haven’t gotten that extreme, but I do have little caches of treats in airtight jars around the house, sometimes really good ones.

  7. The aversion against “giving cookies” is, in my impression, rarely following your description. Instead it is directed at the excesses some naive educators or parents go to (or are perceived to go to). In effect, there is a risk that already spoiled children are brought to the point of not doing anything if there unless there is a reward.

    In addition, what might work for a small child need not work for a larger one, and what might work for a “simple” behaviour need not work for a “complex” one. I recall e.g. how my mother set rewards for my sister when she reached certain grade goals in junior high and high school in an attempt to improve her very poor performance in school. My grades were good and I received no reward (and, yes, I found that highly unfair). Today, I have two masters in “hard” subjects, while my sister took until her late twenties to complete her GED (resp. its approximate Swedish “komvux” equivalent). Lesson: There is no guarantee that a reward system will bring a noticeable benefit and each case (at least involving humans) should be treated individually.

    As an aside, an interesting aspect of rewards is that research has shown that a rare reward can lead to a greater influence on behaviour, at least when dealing with e.g. rodents and simple repetitive tasks. (Of the “push button for food pellet” kind.) My subjective impression (I have never seen a study) is that this principle applies to some degree to adult humans and more complex tasks too.

    1. Hi Michael! You make some interesting points. I do agree that people react really strongly to the excesses and bribery one can see with parents and educators. That’s definitely a big cause of the stigma. But so many people, in the States anyway, have so little knowledge of operant learning that they lump all rewards and reinforcement schemes in the same category. Plenty of people here would also object to the TAGteach videos I linked to, even though what one sees there is very different from the overdone rewards and bribery you refer to.

      And I agree, complex and longterm behaviors are a whole different category. Much more difficult to reinforce because of the timing factor. I agree with your statement about a reward system not guaranteeing a benefit with the caveat that there is a huge difference between a reward and reinforcement. Reinforcement has a recursive definition: if the behavior didn’t increase, reinforcement didn’t occur. So if a reward didn’t work, it says nothing about the success of operant learning (which is just a description of what happens, after all). It generally means that the attempted reinforcer was ill-chosen or ill-timed.

      School and grades can’t be treated that simplistically, as you and your sister are proof of. (And I agree, that was an unfair scheme!). The whole paying for grades thing can fail miserably for that reason. The ability to study, take tests, and do well in school consists of dozens of smaller habits and behaviors, and it’s probably safe to say that none of them are actually reinforced by rewards at the end of the term, no matter how well chosen. It would be as if at the end of a long day with my dog, I gave her a cabbage for good behavior. Even if it were a better choice like a meatball, it still wouldn’t be tied to all the good things she did, and that’s not just because of her small doggie brain. Humans need that proximity in time between behavior and reinforcement as well.

      Karen Pryor cites a really interesting study about that very thing: On My Mind: Paying Kids to Learn. The most modest of three attempted reinforcement schemes appears to be the only one that worked, and it was probably because the reinforcement was much more immediate in time and linked to the behavior than the other two.

      Good point about variable reinforcement. I’m pretty sure there are studies with humans, but I don’t have my hands on them right now. Another interesting thing to investigate. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Made me think, too.

  8. Hello!

    Thank you for this post. What I don’t like about psychology is that it put people into a box. Humans and dogs are different. Comparing a human and a dog is a simply not right. If dogs are like human, why can’t they talk? Well simply, you will say that’s genetics. Humans are effected by outside factors,and the idea of positive reinforcement is not ethically right.Because your child is not a dog, cat or a monkey.

    1. Hi, and thanks for your polite disagreement. The thing that speaks to me (leaving dogs aside) is that we humans learn from consequences. Good and bad. If we need to teach a child something they just aren’t yet interested in doing, we have two main choices: positive reinforcement, or some type of coercion or punishment. What did you think of the two videos of TAGteach? It was like a game for the kids. They were both willing participants. One learned a valuable life skill, and the other got over what seemed like a small phobia and got a new way to enrich his life. That seems like win/win to me.

    2. Physiologically, “humans” are no different to “animals” – we have the same neurotransmitters, hormones, neural pathways. Just because humans have a large neocortex, and dogs do not does not mean that it is “not ethically right” to use one method on dogs and kids. Just ask my nephews – who all behave brilliantly for me (because I use +R methods & techniques with them), and who are monsters for their grandparents & parents (who use +P methods & techniques with them).

      When we give choices, communicate what we want, ignore (safe) unwanted behaviour, re-direct (unsafe) unwanted behaviour, and reward the choices we want to see made again, we get good behaviour – whether that behaviour comes from a dog, child, spouse, chicken, cat, cow, or horse.

      I, personally, do not believe it is right to use +P at all – especially when we know the psychological problems it causes in all animals.

      1. Great points, Sam. Terminology hints for the new folks: +R means positive reinforcement. That’s what I’m describing in the post, when something the animal (or human) likes and will work to get happens after the behavior. +P means positive punishment. That’s when something the animal or human will work to avoid (hitting, jerking, scary noises) happens after the behavior. In this terminology, “positive” does not equal good. It means something that is added.

  9. This is so interesting. I’ve vaguely wondered in the back of my mind why kids getting rewarded for potty training for example don’t stagnate at the point where they’re still getting rewards. I never thought about the temporary, contrived reward transitioning to being able to recognize the natural reward provided in the real world.

  10. My child and my dog are both motivated by hugs and affection (and both well trained and well behaved). Food and other bribes don’t do a thing for them. My cats on the other hand are a different story.

    Fun post. Gets me thinking about all sorts of issues with both kids and dogs.

    1. Yeah, cats are the original “what’s in it for me” species, aren’t they! But food reinforcement works really well for them. People used to say they were untrainable. Now, not so much. Here’s a fun video: Cat vs Dog: A Trick Contest. They certainly perform differently though.

      I should probably have addressed the difference between reinforcement and bribes, but I think you probably know. An earlier commenter addressed it very nicely as well.

      Thanks for commenting, Juliette!

      1. I met a trainer who found cats easier to train because there were fewer “emotions” and “expectations” involved.

  11. We’re using some positive reinforcement to train a puppy we got several weeks ago and she’s doing really well. I hadn’t really considered using it on my kids, but I think you may be on to something.

      1. There’s an interesting passage in Don’t Shoot the Dog about a woman who used clicker training on her kids to get them ready for bed. Her mother participated in that, and then was surprised to learn that clickers could also work on dogs!

  12. Yay for finding you! I’m training a 2 year old Golden Retriever who I’ve had since 8 weeks old as my service dog using a clicker. I am currently trying to teach him that is Ok to stand on his back feet to put stuff in my lap, I don’t think he believes me. Come visit us at Gideon’s Golden Way, also on WordPress. The posts are sporadic and the doggie pictures need upating but I’m working on that

  13. What works as a reward motivator is whatever works. Food, praise, physical affection, stickers (I’m in health care) – whatever the target subject likes! Change it up, and pass it around. I think the objection to reward-based positive reinforcement training is part of a cultural tradition of training through negative reinforcement (pressure), corporal punishment, forced obstacles and spiritual stinginess. There’s no being that communicates that can’t be tamed and trained primarily with love. But you have to refuse the opposite method consciously.

    (I train guide dogs for the blind.)

  14. I always use positive reinforcement for my Beagle -Archie. I hate all this tugging and shoving the dog about like you see a lot of people doing!

    1. I bet you have a happy, cooperative dog, too! Positive reinforcement works so well with my little hound mix, Zani. When I first got her I could just see the wheels turning in her head when she realized she could do stuff and get stuff she wanted. Thanks for posting.

  15. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed! I love your blog, and I’m thrilled to see +R training get some awesome recognition on WP today in such a well-written post! (I’m a trainer in San Diego).

  16. I use these methods for getting my kids to practice their instruments. We have at various times used oreos, m&ms, special games, clips and DS time. Whatever works, and keeps us going. Why not use tools that work?

  17. Excellent post and definitely something to think about! I don’t know whether you have seen The Big Bang Theory but your post just reminded me of one scene in it. The link it below, I thought you might enjoy it!

    1. I do enjoy that clip. I have watched it over and over because it is so funny, well written, and well acted. It’s also, I might add, a great example of the unease that our society has regarding “using operant conditioning” on others. Note the references to lab rats, and of course the fact that it is Sheldon, the ultra nerd, imposing his views of correct behavior and performing the training. Pointing those things out doesn’t spoil the fun for me, and I hope it doesn’t for you. Thanks for posting!

  18. I used peanut butter cups to bribe my boy into using the potty. Every hour, on the hour with the help of an egg timer, and if he was successful he got a candy. It only took two weeks before he got the hang of it, and as soon as he started going without the aid of a timer telling him when to go, he stopped asking for his candy.

  19. As someone who has just got two puppies this post has made me think.

    Our puppies are whippets and we have been trying to train them with lots of praise, key wording and fuss. for example: puppy goes to the puppy pad and is walking in a way which suggests he wants to ‘go’ at this point we start saying softly “be clean [name] be clean” and when he does his business we continue in the same tone (so as not to distract them) “well done [name] being clean! good boy being clean” once he is finished we raise our voice to be more excitable and “well done [name] being clean and they will bound towards us for their well deserved fuss 🙂

    I believe the fuss is their cookie at this stage – they crave our attention so much and they get it loads – but always crave more) They are so eager to please us at the moment that this seems to be working 🙂

    I think a point worth mentioning though is that all children and dogs are different, we are lucky that this is working for us, but some dogs will require that physical treat and that physical distintive click when they do something right rather than using the key words as described.

    1. I’m glad that’s working and I bet your puppies are adorable. Two whippets, wow! You are wise to keep your eye on the situation regarding the effects of praise and fuss. In general, as I’m sure you know, for most dogs food is a much more potent and as you say, distinctive reinforcer than praise.

  20. I completely agree with everything mentioned! Dogs and children are very alike yet very different. I have a 7 month old Golden Retriever and I can tell you one thing; had it not been from treats..This dog owner would no longer BE a dog owner (Just kidding, but it is a lot of work!). When your puppy grows up you reward it with treats, when your child is growing up you reward it with stickers (some do).. So it’s basically the same ;).

    Great post! 🙂

  21. Thanks Eileen! Great post which brought me back to my college days. As a teacher, I use rewards, and verbal praise and as a dog owner I use rewards and verbal praise too!

  22. Hey Eileen! I loved your article. I just wanted to clarify to some of the commenters above that rewards are different than reinforcement. Rewards are given after a specific task has been completed and is outlined in a contingency contract. Reinforcers are delivered immediately after the target behavior and thinned out gradually on to natural reinforcers that are available in the environment. With dogs, if I am correct, trainers pair unconditioned stimuli, like treats, with praise (a function altering effect!) The same is true with kids, but the skittles are faded out and praise remains the consequence. If it is a behavior you want to increase, positively reinforce that behavior. If you want to decrease that behavior, you can use differential reinforcement or if needed, punishment.

    1. Thanks Ali! Very clear and useful comment, and I love the phrase “outlined in a contingency contract.” I am so going to use that. In turn, I want to expand on praise for dogs. Most people grossly overestimate its power as a secondary reinforcer. To really use it as such means lots and lots of pairings with food, with frequent “tuneups.” It’s just not nearly as naturally potent as it is for us folks who use language. Thanks for commenting!

  23. My nephews used to get a toy car every time they use the actual toilet, now after a specified number of correct behaviors. For them, it’s an inconvenience: they have to stop whatever they’re doing at the time and make the long trip to the bathroom.

    My dog Kona and I do dog therapy with the elderly. In an ordinary visit, there are unpleasant things that happen to Kona: she is handled or poked by people with poor muscle control, she is forced to interact with all residents and not just the ones she chooses. She’s gotten used to the elevator now, but that was definitely frightening the first few times.

    I have made an effort to give her many treats on these visits and after, not nec. as a reward to encourage her to like this type of treatment or behave in a particular way. I want to provide as many positive associations as possible with the days we do these visits, so I try to overwhelm her with love and attention all day. It’s gotten to the point where she wags her tails and gets very excited to put on her vest, which is only worn on these visits.

    1. Nope. Lots of people misuse the term negative reinforcement, it’s true. But nagging is classic negative reinforcement. An aversive is applied, and continues, until the naggee takes action. The naggee’s action is negatively reinforced. Classic pressure and release.

      Another way to look at it: is the function of nagging to increase behavior (reinforcement) or decrease behavior (punishment)? It is to increase behavior. We generally nag people to do something, not to stop.

      But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here are some Psych 101 and Applied Behavior Analysis links.


      You can find a dozen more by Googling “nagging negative reinforcement.” It’s a very commonly cited example.

      Also you might want to check out my own post and movie with examples of the processes of operant learning.

      1. Nope. Nagging occurs when you want a behaviour to change. For example your child doesn’t do the dishes, the husband forgets the milk again. If it was negative reinforcement you would be encouraging those behaviours to continue.

        Negative reinforcement actually occurs when you take something away (hence negative) to encourage similar future behaviour (hence reinforcement). For example your child does his homework you take away his chores for the night, your dog comes when he is called you take away the leash (or unleash him).

        On the flip side positive reinforcement most people generally get correct. Positive=give, reinforcement=for the purposes of encouraging future similar behaviour, such as giving praise, cookies, treats, hugs etc.

        Positive punishment is giving something (positive) to decrease the likelihood of future similar behaviour (punishment) such as nagging, spanking, shocking, etc.

        Negative punishment is taking something away (negative) to decrease the likelihood of future similar behaviour (punishment) such as taking away the tv or cell phone.

        The same rules apply for dogs, pigeons, humans, dolphins, cats etc. it’s an easy mistake to make, but it’s still a mistake that tells me you aren’t actually educated in behaviorism you are Internet educated in behaviorism.

        I hope that makes sense. Positive always means giving something negative always means taking something away. Reinforcement always means for the purpose of encouraging similar future behaviour and punishment always means for the purpose of discouraging similar future behaviour.

        1. First, I want to say thank you for commenting, and backdate that “thanks” to yesterday. I was more terse than I should have been when I responded last night. Now, on to discussion.

          To review: the comment in question was when I wrote, “That includes negative reinforcement, of course. A child may choose to make his bed to get his parents to stop nagging him about it.”

          To repeat the definition of negative reinforcement in your second comment: “Negative reinforcement actually occurs when you take something away (hence negative) to encourage similar future behaviour (hence reinforcement). For example your child does his homework you take away his chores for the night, your dog comes when he is called you take away the leash (or unleash him).”

          I’m sorry. You have so much of it right. You have the adding and the subtracting. You have the increasing and decreasing. But your definition and first example are a bit off by the standard of any textbook. When you say “encourage similar future behavior” you don’t define what behavior you are talking about (what order it happens in the scheme of things), and you don’t include the fact that the thing you later take away is there before the behavior. From your examples, I think this is the part you may not get. (You also repeatedly use the word encourage. I can just feel my mentor cringing. Operant learning is about completely observable phenomena. Concrete consequences causing observable changes in behavior. Encourage sounds like a process that is prompted by an attitude of the trainer. Anyway, side issue.)

          A textbook definition: Paul Chance’s in Learning and Behavior: “In negative reinforcement, a behavior is strengthened when it is followed by the removal of a stimulus. This stimulus is an aversive event–that is, something the animal or person will normally escape or avoid, given the opportunity.”

          Or the definition and examples from Pam Reid’s “Excel-erated Learning”: “Negative reinforcement involves the removal of a bad consequence when the response is performed. For instance, you say, “Sit” (the Discriminative Stimulus), your dog sits (the Response), you stop choking him with the noose collar (the Negative Reinforcement Stimulus). This also serves to increase the likelihood of the response in the future. Negative Reinforcement is also a common method for controlling behavior: child does homework to avoid nagging, person bangs on the ceiling to complain about the noise upstairs…

          OK, back to your example. Your assumption that chores are something a kid would work to avoid is a good one. The problem is that the chores (as you have described them) do not constitute an ongoing stimulus. They are not something that is happening to the child in real time that he can cause to cease by doing his homework, such as a loud noise or flashing light. They are a possible event in the future.(Note that in the Reid example, the choking was going on right then. It is not something that could have happened in the future but the dog gets excused from.) Negative reinforcement from the subject’s perspective is about taking action to make an aversive stop, or to avoid it altogether. The chores have not started, so they are not there to be stopped. Now you could make an argument for avoidance, but you would have to begin your description with the threat of chores. If you want to say to the kid, “You are going to have to do your chores tonight unless you do your homework” you could make a better case for it. (See the part about antecedents below.) You made it sound originally like there were no contingencies on the chores. But anything involving deadlines, threats, or quotas often involves negative reinforcement.

          Your leash example is a bit better, but the leash would have to be aversive (it might not be if the dog were just dragging it around or if it were loose). One way it would be aversive would be if you were pulling the dog by the leash. You pull the dog by the leash, he comes to relieve the pressure. That’s a good R- example, and you don’t have to remove the leash for it to happen either. The dog just has to take action to relieve the pressure, and that action can be reinforced.

          Do you see how that is different from excusing a child from future chores as an unexpected consequence?

          Whenever these examples get foggy, I use Applied Behavioral Analysis.

          (For other readers who may not be familiar) Applied Behavior Analysis defines operant learning scenarios in terms of antecedents, behaviors, and consequences. Antecedents are the things that set the stage. They are stimuli that are EXTERNAL to the subject (person or animal). Behaviors are what the subject does. Consequences are what happen after the behavior. They are generally external and environmental, but can also be a way the creature gets to interact with the environment. They are where the adding and subtracting of good and bad stuff occur.

          One of the hallmarks of using ABA to map negative reinforcement is that the antecedent is always the aversive. It makes the process very easy.

          In ABA, we would map the nagging example as follows:

          Antecedent: Parent nags (repeatedly urges) the kid to make his bed
          Behavior: Kid makes bed
          Consequence: Nagging stops
          Prediction: Kid makes bed more frequently in the future.
          If the prediction doesn’t come true, it means that negative reinforcement didn’t occur. The definitions of all the processes are recursive. The main reason the prediction might not come true in these cases is when the aversive is not severe enough. Then nagging just becomes an unpleasant interaction with no longterm consequences.

          For our mutual leash example. Let’s say the dog is on a long line.

          Antecedent: Human pulls on the line to force the dog to move towards her.
          Behavior: Dog yields to the pressure and comes trotting close to the human
          Consequence: The uncomfortable pressure of the leash stops
          Prediction: The behavior of the dog responding to the leash pull by coming to the human will strengthen.

          In your homework and chores example the way you wrote it, you are lacking an antecedent. But you could change the scenario just a bit to have one.

          Yesterday you wrote that my nagging example was positive punishment and I really feel I must refute that for the sake of the readers. Let’s look at a definition again.
          Positive punishment:
          “Something the creature will work to avoid is added (there’s the positive) after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening less often.” Punishment is about decreasing behavior.

          Question: In my nagging example, what is being punished? We’re not trying to decrease anything. On the contrary, we are trying to get a behavior, bed making, to increase. Punishment (in the Skinnerian sense) has nothing to offer.

          That in itself completely dismantles the positive punishment argument. But I’ll add a little more since I think there are some opportunities for discussion here, perhaps for you, perhaps for my other readers. Certainly for me. It always helps to write about this stuff.

          Some people who go down this positive punishment road in this type of scenario (and believe me, I’ve been down it) would be tempted to say, for example, that the nagging is punishing “not making the bed.” But the next thing you hear after making that claim is the Skinner/Thorndike failure buzzer. First of all, can you describe that behavior? What does “not making the bed” look like, specifically? The beauty of the processes of operant learning is that they are about concrete, observable behavior. As soon as you get into a “behavior” that you can’t see and describe, it’s a really good sign that you are off the track. On days that you do make your bed, you are “not making your bed” for about 23 hours and 58 minutes. What does that “behavior” look like? How could it be punished? And if it was, would that mean that you would just take longer to make your bed? Make it more often?

          Applying the concept of punishment when trying to increase a behavior leads us to absurd conclusions.

          If you or anyone would like to do an ABA analysis and try to rewrite the nagging scenario into positive punishment, be my guest. (Big hint: the nagging has to follow something; it can’t start. So you would need to add to the story.) But if you do that you aren’t necessarily going to get the bed made.

          Thanks for commenting. It was thought provoking.

          1. Whew that’s a lot of reading! It’s good to see you have done research and do actually understand what you are preaching about. I see that our misunderstanding is a matter of personal semantics rather than a misunderstanding of fact. There are so many factors that play into conditioning it certainly is not a easy as saying X=Y and I see where you are coming from with the word encourage. My favorite aspect of behaviorism is the focus on the observable rather than the speculation of internal cognitive process.

            1. Mine too! Thanks for the response. Agree about the semantics. I had to think long and hard about your example of the chores. It’s a great one. Thanks for triggering some challenging thoughts.

  24. Actually we use metaphorical reinforcers in education all the time. Children are given profuse verbal praise and encouragement for even trying to complete a task. At school the “star” system was a favourite with children who got a coloured, silver or gold star as proof of their efforts. So, I agree that the terminology “cookie” might be misleading if we take it too literally, but the concept is still valid.

    1. That’s great, Mary! It’s wonderful to hear from somebody who’s doing it. I think I read somewhere that stickers and checkboxes are reinforcing even to adults. Thanks for the comment.

  25. My psych teacher did this with her kids to teach them to eat their veggies. She has a maters degree by the way AND her kids now love their veggies. She gradually increased criteria to get a reward and eventually they stopped needing anything reward in addition they just didn’t care about the reward the would normally have gotten because eating their veggies became a learned behavior. They had intrinsic motivation to eat their veggies in the end.
    The point is you need to raise the criteria so you can eventually fade the rewards out. She is by no means a permissive parent and neither is her husband. She is an Authoritative parent and her children are polite, well adjusted, happy kids.It does not take a masters degree in psychology to teach your children to love eating their veggies You DO need to understand how to properly reward behaviors and how to phase out rewards.

  26. I’ve been wondering one thing… Many clicker training/positive reinforcement training tutorials explain how to teach a behavior or how this training method is succesful compared to others but I’ve yet to watch a trick tutorial video or read an article that would explain for the curious newbie what they should do next when the dog knows the new trick. Off course, if they have done their homework, they have learned how to handle different rewards/reinforcements, random use of them etc. So, could it be possible, these nagging aversive trainers have not done their homework properly and only skimmed the first few facts about reward-based training and if that did not include weaning of treats, they have gotten it all wrong. Though I read between their lines many of them do not even want to know.

    1. I agree that some trainers probably don’t want to know the subtleties of training with positive reinforcement. I think I may be able to find an article or short piece about weaning to life rewards though. I’ll ask around a little.

  27. I’m enjoying catching up on your old posts…very interesting stuff! Lately, when clients bring up the “cookie and the kids” analogy, I have responded in a new way. Have they ever taught their kids any table manners? Do they run around the table grabbing too much food in their hands, pushing their family members out of the way? Do they shove food in their mouths until it spills out or they chew loudly with their mouths open? Or do they wait their turn, take only their share, use utensils and napkins properly? Do they say please and thank you? Do they eat dessert at the end of the meal? Well, then, I think they trained their children with and around food. It’s so deeply embedded in our social learning that people can’t even recognize that it’s happening. I get a lot of amazed reactions at the end of that discussion! And it doesn’t seem to come up again.

  28. Eileen I just stumbled upon you and your posts. Amazing! Love it! Once I started reading I couldn’t stop, and my usual slouchy posture changed to edge of my seat, eyes wide, nose to screen, thinking YEAH! YEAH! This lady gets it! Thanks.

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