The Dog Decides What Is Reinforcing

“The dog decides what is reinforcing.” Positive reinforcement trainers frequently say that to their human students.  What they mean is that people can easily be mistaken about whether something constitutes reinforcement. For instance, we may think praising or petting our dogs are reinforcers, but if they do not cause behavior to increase or maintain, they are not.

Dogs don’t sit down and make cognitive “decisions” about reinforcers; that’s just a semantic shortcut. But their subsequent behavior is what tells us whether something is a reinforcer or not. If you give your dog a piece of chicken each time she sits and she sits more, yep, that chicken is reinforcing. If instead you give her a few gentle taps on the head when she sits and she doesn’t sit more, or only sits a little more, then that tap is not a reinforcer, or is a very weak one. She might even sit less, in which case the head tap is punishing.

It’s not only newbies who need this reminder. It’s very easy to get it stuck in one’s head that something ought to be a good reinforcer. Sometimes it takes a while for our powers of observation to kick in and tell us, for example, that no, popcorn is just not reinforcing for this particular dog.

The way we tell whether something is reinforcing is to look for an increase in the relevant behavior.

Dogs Summer and Clara have determined that broccoli is not reinforcing and might be aversive.
It’s pretty obvious that broccoli stems are not potential reinforcers for either of these dogs

The Dog Decides Whether “Special” Collars are Aversive

Some trainers who use aversive methods, particularly prong and shock collars, are starting to use a similar phrase with the result of further muddying the waters about aversives. Just to be sure, let’s review the meaning of aversive stimuli, or aversives.

Paul Chance, in Learning and Behavior, 7th edition, defines aversives as:

Stimuli the animal would avoid, given the option.

"The Dog Decides." Photo shows a brown dog being sprayed with water from a garden hose. Her mouth is open, tail is up, and she is very happy.
A spray of water would not be aversive for Summer

That’s a straightforward definition. But I have now started to read remarks from trainers who use prong and shock collars seeking to defend their use by saying that “the dog defines what is aversive.”


That is true. But the implication that such collars can work without being aversive is dead wrong.

Shock and prong collars work via positive punishment and negative reinforcement. They can be used to punish unwanted behavior (positive punishment). They can also be used to coerce desirable behavior (negative reinforcement). If you need a brush-up on this terminology, check out my post: Operant Learning Illustrated by Examples. To counter some of the common BS about aversive use, you can also check this post out: It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!

So yes indeed. The dog decides what is aversive. And just as with reinforcement, the way we determine whether something is aversive is to see if it changed behavior, in this case via positive punishment or negative reinforcement. We also may see fallout from the use of aversives. 

If the dog “decides” that a shock or prong collar is not aversive, that collar will not work to change behavior. It’s as simple as that.

Why Bother with These Definitions?

People write about this stuff a lot on Internet articles, comment sections, and discussion groups. I read a fair amount of it. I have a drive to clarify things and an urge to get people using a common terminology. I personally learn a lot by writing about it. I also want to persuade people, in an up-front and honest way, to consider and perform more humane training.

I’m aware of the research that says that even rational arguments can backfire and make people more entrenched in their beliefs. I frequently consider whether I should even write these pieces. But the people who are dedicated to using aversive tools are not my audience. The thousands reading on the sidelines going, “Hmmmm” are.

I get positive feedback from those people. I also get lots of positive feedback from trainers who use my articles to help explain concepts to their students who are learning about positive reinforcement-based training in real life. That feedback, knowing that my articles are useful in the sense that I intend them, is positive reinforcement for me. So I continue.

Related Posts

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

12 thoughts on “The Dog Decides What Is Reinforcing

  1. I just love the different flavors of betrayal on the faces of your dogs who have been reinforced with broccoli. I know that I’ve struggled with “why don’t you find this reinforcing?!” a lot with Nala, particularly with play and tugging. Many trainers and articles make it sound like you can just click and offer a tug toy instead of a treat, but even though Nala really enjoys tugging, it just isn’t that simple for us. Fortunately, she will play with a toy even when I have food on me, so I can use toys for play breaks when we train. Still, figuring out how to use play as a reinforcer is an ongoing adventure for us, and may always be, so I find the advice “just reinforce with play instead of food!” advice frustrating and disingenuous whenever it is given.

    I always enjoy these posts for the way that they clearly express what usually takes me a very long time to say, so thank you for continuing to do them! I’ve definitely seen dogs for whom a prong collar did not seem to be particularly aversive–at least, it wasn’t fulfilling its purpose, since the dog in question was dragging its owner across the street to meet my dog and I. But even that isn’t quite true–the dog may have found it aversive initially, but developed a punishment callous. Or he found it aversive, but not more aversive than he found greeting and playing with other dogs delightful–and of course he was reinforced for pulling by greeting my dog and bouncing around with her. And the dog’s demeanor was frantic and overaroused, which could easily have been a by-product of finding the collar uncomfortable (or just a by-product of opposition reflex). So, as you say, the reality of behavior just isn’t as simple as our semantic shortcuts at all (in fact, it’s much more interesting! For which I am grateful).

    1. Really good points about competing reinforcers and punishers, Meghan! There’s room for all the nuance we can comprehend I think!

      I’ve long been frustrated with the “play as reinforcer” assumptions. One thing that worked for one dog (Zani) was incorporating training into a play session rather than the other way around. I reinforced with a thrown container of food after agility sequences for years, so if I suddenly tried throwing a toy I got bigtime disappointment and a ceasing of the session. But Zani does love to play, so I got the idea of playing tug with her in the backyard, and **then** cueing an agility behavior and rewarding with the tug. Worked great. I haven’t gotten to the point of actually teaching her new behaviors that way, but we can certainly practice and hone. And it builds enthusiasm. Thanks for the comment!

  2. I think you’re doing a great job on educating people and I support you in your efforts. Just wanted to put that out there. Take care and keep up the good work!

  3. La preuve par 9 ! Bravo Eileen ! Your articles are of crucial importance to agnostic people in the matter of dog training, like I was. And also to those who left their beliefs behind to consider science instead. They may be few, but they count ten times more.
    It’s almost impossible to win against beliefs, but there are cases.
    I’m happy if this reply is a reinforcer for you, because I’d like to read many more. Seriously.

    1. Oh yes, Josephine! It certainly does act as a reinforcer! Thanks so much. Love hearing from you, as always.

  4. Keep up the good work! It’s not easy putting your two cents out there in the internet jungle. So we continue to need brave, smart, calm people like you. Thanks as always

  5. Thank you Eileen for your great posts. You always bring clarity, humility and honesty to subjects that others can muddle, twist and misconstrue. When I want to really understand a dog training topic I turn to your posts. You do such great work in teaching us and helping us to understand. You are a real and valued friend to people and their dogs.

  6. Hello Eileen. I stumbled onto this post looking for answers about my dog Charlie, an 11 month old yellow lab mix. I have to admit, it seems that I know much less about training dogs than I originally thought. I’m pretty sure I have made mistakes over the last 7 months that I’ve had Charlie. Now I have a playful, energetic, fun, loving dog that gets aggressive (barking, growling, lip raising) when meeting new people. I’ve tried pet store obedience courses with little results. I am looking for a better trainer so I went to the web for some research. Was that a mistake! So many opinions from shock collars to medication to just throwing on a metal muzzle on him for the rest of his life. How can I know the best way to train my best friend? It is getting to the point that I had a small moment of regret the other day. I do not want to give up on my Charlie. Any suggestions?

    1. Hi Karen,

      My apologies for not responding sooner. I’m so glad you had the instincts not to use the shock collar. A very common occurrence when a shock collar is used for aggression or over the top behavior is that the dog associates the shock with the person and gets even more scared or worried about people. This actually increases the chances of aggression.

      Rowdy behavior is not at all uncommon in adolescent labs. So know that you are not alone. Here’s my best idea for some help:

      The Pet Professional Guild has trainers all over the world who are knowledgeable about behavior issues and pledge not to train through hurting or scaring the dog. You can take a look at their directory or even call their hotline for a trainer referral in your area.

      They will be very open about the techniques they use. Always ask any trainer you talk to what the consequences are if the dog gets it right, and what the consequences are if the dog gets it wrong. If you talk to someone who is vague about their methods (this won’t happen from the PPG list, but if you find someone elsewhere) walk the other way. This usually takes the form of talking about being the alpha or being a good leader or commanding respect. This means they don’t know the nuances of good training and they are going to use force. It’s also a warning sign if they make a point that they don’t use food. That is pretty much a guarantee that they will train your dog using pressure, force, or intimidation.

      Good luck, and again I’m sorry about my tardy response.

Comments are closed.

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson All Rights Reserved By accessing this site you agree to the Terms of Service.
Terms of Service: You may view and link to this content. You may share it by posting the URL. Scraping and/or copying and pasting content from this site on other sites or publications without written permission is forbidden.
%d bloggers like this: