We Don’t Need to Stop Discussing “The Quadrants”

Every so often, in the midst of a discussion about operant learning,  someone will write,

The quadrants* don’t matter. Talking about the quadrants just confuses people and makes them pay more attention to theory than what is going on in front of them. To be truly humane we need to pay attention to the individual dogs and how they react to each teaching method.

I really wonder about that.

Of course the dog is the arbiter of what is pleasant and what is aversive and to what degree. But how good are most people at reading dogs, really? How many pictures and videos can you find on the Internet in 30 seconds that look roughly like the one below?

Head shot of handsome young man smiling with his eyes closed and holding a dog (black and rust; perhaps a min pin) with their heads very close. Dog's ears are back, mouth is tight, and it does not look happy.The background appears to be a swimming pool. The photo appears "slick" and staged and is titled, "True Friends."
Public Domain Image of Unhappy Dog Being Held Too Close By a Human

[If you are new to the blog or new to the concepts or nomenclature of operant learning, you may just want to skip down to the movie. It is an example of what I will be discussing here: using theory to inform our practice. It is particularly geared towards folks to whom the theory is new. Or if you really want to go for it, here is a whole post, including a video, that gives examples of all the processes of operant learning.]

Setting up “the quadrants” and observation of the dog as exclusive from one another is a false dichotomy. That is a rhetorical fallacy that implies that there are only two choices when there are actually more, or implies that two choices are mutually exclusive. It doesn’t have to be either or, folks, and I will put forth that that attitude can be harmful.

Learning theory and dog body language observation inform each other. Why encourage people to depend on just one and not the other? Why leave a gap in people’s understanding about the processes of learning, certain ones of which have been shown repeatedly in research and real life to have undesirable side effects?

I know that many pet owners who have hired trainers look at them like they have two heads if they start speaking about learning theory. I get that. Clients often just want a method to solve the problem. But when someone is eager to learn and serious about working with their dog, I think it’s a disservice not to share the nuts and bolts of how animals and humans learn. And it’s a disservice to discourage Internet discussions about the processes of learning. Yes, I know they can be tiresome. But just like with any other aspect of humane training, there are always people new to the subject who can benefit.

The more I see people objecting to “the quadrants”, the more I notice that most of them are attempting to veil their use of less humane techniques.

Here are the two main reasons I think teaching people about the processes of operant learning is important:

  1. Generalization of a behavior is one of the steps to fluency. One of our ongoing goals with dogs is to help them generalize. So I hope that trainers and teachers would want to help their human students generalize as well. With the humans it’s not only about generalizing behaviors, but about learning concepts and generalizing them as well. Studying the processes of learning and recognizing and naming them helps with this. If negative punishment in one situation stressed my dog out, wouldn’t I want to keep a special eye out for other negative punishment scenarios? Why would I not want that conceptual assistance?
  2. I also know from painful personal experience, and observation of, like, all of YouTube, that reading the body language of a dog and getting past one’s own assumptions is a difficult and time-consuming task. It’s easy for an experienced trainer to say, “Just look at the dog.” But can all students really do that and perceive what the dog is saying? I don’t think my observation skills are below average, but I gotta say, it took me lots less time to get the basics of operant learning processes than it did to learn to read dogs well. I’m still working very hard on that. Being informed by the theory about what kinds of situations to look out for can really make a difference for anyone who is  learning to observe and learning the language.

There was a video making semi-viral rounds on the clicker training community recently, often accompanied by comments like, “The power of positive reinforcement!” The video has an adorable, tiny young Yorkie with a bow in her hair doing all sorts of tricks. I saw it posted on a list of thousands of people, and not one person spoke up to discuss the stress signals the dog seemed to be throwing. (Not to mention that some of the tricks might have been physically too demanding for a pup.) Perhaps people were just being polite. I didn’t say anything myself because I had dealt with enough controversy that week, sigh. But the dog did not appear delighted with the training interaction at all.

I’m not linking to the video here, but will send a link privately to any curious folk who make a request through email (sidebar) or a comment.

It sure confirms my doubts about the advisability of just having everybody depend on “watching the dog.”


The following two stories are true. They both happened to me. One tells how my observation of dog body language led me to analyze and classify the reason for my dog’s stress. After the classification I could be alert to other similarly stressful situations. The other example tells how being informed of what quadrant/process I was using made me question a decision I had made, gain more empathy for my dog, and change my behavior. My (beginner) knowledge of learning processes helped in both cases.

Example #1: From Body Language To Learning and Generalization

My puppy Clara has always loved doing stuff with me and has great attention and a great work ethic. However, I have noticed that shaping can be quite stressful for her. I even wrote a post about shaping and stress. I started thinking about why it might be so. I realized that with my imperfect skills, the changing of criteria was hard on her. Riding the little extinction trails where one version of something ceases to be marked and reinforced and another behavior is desired was quite hard for her.

In the photos, Clara is doing a fast counterclockwise circle, which is a default stress behavior for her. Ironically, the behavior we were working on was, “Relax.” (We’re doing a lot better with that now.)

Clara circle 1
Clara circling during a shaping session (1)
Clara circle 3
Clara circling during a shaping session (2)

I have since learned more about shaping and know that if it’s done with careful manipulation of the environment like Skinner suggested and the great trainers can do, there can be much less of this type of stress. I like to think that my skills have improved. Clara has also grown up a little, and doesn’t think the world will end when she doesn’t get clicked.

But my realization that extinction in shaping was hard on Clara made me both more empathetic to her situation and also proactive in avoiding extinction in other scenarios. Her stressed body language made me analyze the cause of the stress, and being able to put a term to it allowed me to learn more about it and look for similar problems in other situations.

(Extinction is not one of the four operant learning processes that people call the quadrants. Extinction is when a behavior that has been previously reinforced ceases to get reinforcement. It is a process that can happen with both operantly learned and classically conditioned behavior. What’s important for my point is that it is a learning method that is often under my control and that I can choose whether or not to employ, and one that can definitely be stressful.)

Example #2: From Quadrants to Empathy

Early in my life with my dog Zani I picked her up and carried her into a public place. She is very friendly and immediately started to struggle to get me to put her down. Since I was just learning about reinforcement, and had learned that what you reinforce is what you get, I decided to hold onto her until she stopped. I didn’t want to positively reinforce her struggling by giving her immediately what she wanted. She finally stopped, I waited a few seconds, then put her down.

I mentioned this episode to my teacher, who said, ah yes, you used negative reinforcement instead! Up until that moment it had not trickled into my head that I had been using a mild aversive. Zani did not want to be held. She was struggling to get away. I not only hung onto her but I had tightened my grip until she figured out that struggling wouldn’t work. (There could be an element of positive punishment in here as well. But the duration of the tight grip, and the requirement for Zani to come up with a different behavior to escape it, even if the behavior was relaxing her body–these indicate that the major process was that of negative reinforcement.)

I grew up spending a lot of time in the country and was around a fair number of small animals and farm animals. Holding or holding down a struggling animal with force was just something you took for granted. You had to do it sometimes “for their own good” and it was something I was absolutely comfortable with.  I was 50 years old before I realized that there are things you can do to help prevent you and your animal from getting into this situation in the first place, and ways you can give them more of a say about things. And it was in part because my teacher reminded me of the different processes of operant learning. This led to empathy for Zani on my part, and for me not only to work on that specific situation but to be more aware of the negative reinforcement moments in the future.

Education about Learning Theory

Here is an example of the kind of thing that I believe can be helpful. This is a video I made that demonstrates what negative reinforcement can look like, and shows the same behavior trained with negative reinforcement vs positive reinforcement. It is a modest attempt at linking the theory, practice, and dog body language.

I’d be interested to know what the rest of you think. Can we train humanely without knowing learning theory? For me, the theory definitely helps.

Four quadrants of operant conditioning
Four quadrants of operant conditioning

*NOTE “The quadrants” is not optimal nomenclature in learning theory. I use the term throughout this piece because that is how the argument is almost always stated, and people might not know what I was talking about otherwise. Better nomenclature is “the processes of operant learning.” “The quadrants” is just a description of the shape of the diagram they fit in, as Dr. Susan Friedman points out.

Thanks for reading!

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

21 thoughts on “We Don’t Need to Stop Discussing “The Quadrants”

  1. I definitely think that knowing some theory helped me to understand what I was doing and learning how to read the dog helped me understand how the dog is reacting to what I was doing. And reading other people’s experiences sometimes also cast a light on why my dog did that!! 😀 Great post. But yes, I profess I have not delve deeply into theory and I am still learning how to read my dog (just adopted this year).

  2. Eileen, I love the way you break things down for the everyday dog owner. It’s so helpful and yes, I agree, it makes sense that one would have much greater success in identifying what’s going on with their dog if they knew what to look for. Again, you have flushed out the bones of the thing beautifully. I can clearly see that I need to start throwing cheese crackers down the stairs as well, in preperation for those bad weather days when they don’t want to go out 🙂

    1. Thanks Marjorie for the nice comments. You also made me laugh. Be careful with the cheese crackers. The end result of what I taught Zani (which was predictable but of course not for me at that time), is that now I have a dog that runs down the steps and looks at me, and if I don’t treat her that time, runs up and runs back down again. Zani knows how to work a situation! At least she gets some exercise.

  3. Your explanations with the videos explained it perfectly to me. 😀

    Recently, I’ve been teaching my dog to step up on a stool and then spin. To make him move, I’ve been “stepping into his space”, which results in him taking a step in the other direction upon which I click and treat. I hadn’t realized this was an aversive, but it makes sense. Very interesting. Other than moving away from me, he doesn’t show any other calming or stress signals, though.

    1. Sarah, I did the same thing. It seems I have tried almost everybody’s method for platform work! The one I ended up liking the most was taught to me by Marge Rogers of Rewarded Behavior Continues. I don’t think she has a video, but one of these days I’ll see if I can write about or film the steps. She starts with the dog coming to a front position, opposite you on the platform. You can see that in this video of hers. Notice that the dog is already swiveling on the perch to get into front position because she sends him from different positions; to get swiveling all the way around (or to heel position), she taught me to click while the dog is still moving. I’ll video it sometime. But it sounds like your guy is doing fine.

      Oh, and thanks for the compliment on the videos!

  4. I don’t like the quadrants but for different reasons… After attending a Dunbar seminar last year, he made all the quadrants so blurry, as in, when one starts and the other finishes, that they really aren’t as clear cut to me as they used to be.

    For example, your example about Clara…
    When you picked her up, did she find that aversive? If so, that was positive punishment.
    But if she found the removal of freedom aversive, then that was negative punishment.
    When you released her, that was negative reinforcement (removal of your bad hands) and positive reinforcement (introduction of freedom).

    It’s just so messy and gets to the point that it’s no longer really that important. Dunbar advocates a more binary approach – dogs see stuff as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and it’s really not a big deal to just work on that principle.

      1. Thanks! I read it and one other. I don’t think I had ever read your blog before except that I have seen your Week in Tweets (such a nice idea). Enjoyed it.

        P.S. I LOVE border terriers. Covet, covet, covet.

    1. Interesting about Dunbar. I had read previously about the computer/lab thing that you covered in another post, but not so much about the anti-quadrants. Dr. Dunbar has trained thousands of people and dogs, so I definitely listen to anything he says about what works for people.

      However, the blurry stuff is unnecessarily blurred. Susan Friedman’s class emphasized something such that I think I finally got it. Applying an aversive is not punishment. Removing an aversive is not reinforcement. That’s because the very definitions of punishment and reinforcement include a change in future behavior. The picking up the dog scenario is a perfect example.

      I picked my dog up out of my car after she had exited her crate on cue. At the moment I picked her up, she was standing in front of her crate. I do that every single time we go somewhere, whether to carry her or just lift her down. She doesn’t love being picked up (something I’m working on, actually). It is mildly aversive. But for picking her up to have been punishment, the behavior of standing in front of her crate would have to decrease. It hasn’t. No punishment of that.

      If, when I was already holding her and she had started squirming, I had given her a quick squeeze or shake, that would be punishment if her squirming decreased in the future. As it was, let’s say my grip didn’t even change. I was already holding her tightly enough that she couldn’t get down. I don’t think I can be adding something if my behavior doesn’t change. So I think it would be possible for her behavior change to be completely the result of negative reinforcement (her settling down is reinforced). As it was, I think I tightened my grip a little bit, so you could say that squirming was punished and being still was reinforced. But they don’t necessarily have to go hand in hand.

      I think that another way for punishment not to happen because of the application of an aversive is if what the dog is doing when the aversive is applied is randomized. Let’s say for an ear pinch retrieve: When the pinch starts, sometimes the dog is looking off into the distance. Sometimes she has her head turned to the left. Sometimes she is licking her lips. Maybe she’s scratching herself. Maybe she’s barking. If she could be doing a variety of things, it’s possible nothing gets punished (I think). This is my little theory. But if she is always in the same position when the trainer starts the pinch and she starts avoiding that position, then yeah, that’s being punished.

      Where we agree for sure is that there can be a blurry area right in the middle of positive/negative punishment, and positive/negative reinforcement. Jail is a good example of the first. Is it positive punishment, being in an awful environment? Or negative punishment, lack of freedom? It can certainly be both. (Edit, 8/21/13: But only if the behavior that sent the person to jail decreases in the future. That part of the definition is so hard to remember! –EA)

      So it seems like the distinction that’s important to Dunbar is reinforcement vs punishment, and the distinction between adding and subtracting stuff less important.

      I realize that what I wrote above proves Dunbar’s point somewhat. Most people are not interested in all that detail. I think any way that explains it to people training their dogs is good. But I don’t think anything is going to erase the fact that there are four distinct processes (five if you count extinction). Some people may profit from knowing them.

      Thanks a lot for your post. Got me thinking!

      1. Of course, an aversive or an appetitive consequence won’t necessarily cause a change in behaviour (i.e. it won’t necessarily be punishing or reinforcing). However, if it does, then it is. Of course.

        I have a dog here that does find picking up aversive enough that it has punished compliant behaviour. I pick this dog up to put him in the car. Initially, he was compliant, but now when he predicts that I will be picking him up (i.e. the back of the car is open), he avoids me and runs inside. Effectively, his ‘stand still’/’compliant’ behaviour was punished by being picked up.
        Positive punishment: Being lifted/the sensation of being elevated – caused the dog to cease to be compliant/be near me (in this situation).
        Negative punishment: Restriction of movement / removal of freedom – caused the dog to cease to be compliant/be near me (in this situation).
        Negative reinforcement: Removing the nasty picking up lady – when the dog runs away from me, the potential of being picked up is removed, and so the running away is reinforced.

        Of course, different dogs will be different. Something being aversive or appetitive itself doesn’t mean that any quadrant of conditioning is being applied, you’re right.

        I guess Dunbar’s big thing is pet owners, and getting through to them. Explaining quadrants, while we can debate how useful/relevant/sexy they are, are undoubtedly complex, and for a typical pet owner, they mostly just want to know /what/ to do. One of the things Dunbar said that I’d always remember (in paraphrased form): “Instead of talking about training dogs with a client, just train the dog!”

        However, obviously, as I’m not ‘just’ a pet owner, I enjoy posts like this for the complexities associated. 😉

        And thanks for checking out my blog. 🙂

        1. Hah. Regarding the behavior change being part of the definition: I forgot that in part of my last comment. Oops! About jail. It’s only P+ and/or P- if the behavior that got the person there changes in the future. Which from what I hear of the study of criminal justice, doesn’t happen near as often as one would want.

          Need to go make an edit about my omission, in case someone reading the comments doesn’t make it down this far!

          I have enjoyed this discussion!

  5. I think that what is missed is that it’s not so much negative reinforcement (removing pressure to get what you want), but that it’s really positive punishment to DECREASE the unwanted behavior.

    In the example of holding onto Zani, you held her (and maybe even tightened up and increased the pressure), until she stopped moving. That was applied +P to stop the wiggling.

    Walking into space to get a dog (or a person) to move somewhere else is actually +P to stop a different behavior.

    Annoying but true. :/

    1. I agree, but only in part. One of the hallmarks of negative reinforcement is duration of the aversive. While the onset of the aversive can punish, duration of the aversive is used to get behavior (reinforce). (A great explanation of the duration aspect can be found in Jean Donaldson’s webinar on The Pitfalls of Negative Reinforcement. A better example of P+ in the holding example would be if I had given Zani a sudden, quick, squeeze, or a shake (heaven forbid). I did neither. I maintained my hold (that had already existed–had I been punishing her before she started to move?) So while in the holding example I would agree that there could be an element of P+ if at some point I tightened my hold, R- is the stronger quadrant because Zani had to take action (being still is a behavior) to escape being held. Relaxing her body was negatively reinforced by being put down.

      Some scholars (Dr. Murray Sidman) say that P+ and R- are always paired, and you can’t have one without the other. Other scholars (Dr. Susan Friedman) state that you can have R- without P+ if no behavior diminishes. I’m more in agreement with her, and have some examples in this post. I’m going to amend that post however just to add Sidman’s view. Seems only fair since he is such a big name in the use of aversives. And again, I do agree that one could argue for an element of P+ in the holding example.

      I can’t really agree on the walking into space one. Body pressure is classic negative reinforcement (just as herding is). Again, we have a duration aversive. Look how long it goes on. If there was punishment, what was punished? Their body position? Being on the porch? Being on the first step? If I were punishing being on the porch, their running back into the house would be an acceptable outcome. But I wasn’t punishing being on the porch (and I can guarantee that that action of mine did not diminish their being on the porch in the future), I was getting the behavior of going down the stairs. Or, if they did not become more responsive to the pressure in the future, I was just applying an aversive with no future change in behavior. (I ran that movie by several experts before publishing, by the way, since I wanted to be sure myself that I was using terminology correctly!)

      The pressure thing is the basis of much horse training, as you probably know. Apply pressure until the animal performs a certain behavior to escape it, and if the training is successful, the animal will respond to much lighter pressure or even a pressureless cue in the future.

      Thanks for the comment. Love quadrants discussions!

  6. I love the quadrants. I find it VERY helpful to think about them…interestingly mostly with people.

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