Positive Punishment: 3 Ways You Might Use It By Accident

Positive reinforcement-based trainers never use positive punishment, right? At least we certainly try not to. But it can sneak into our training all the same.

Brown and white dog being grabbed by the collar in example of positive punishment
Collar grabs can be aversive

Punishment, in behavior analysis, means that a behavior decreases after the addition or removal of a stimulus. In positive punishment (the addition case), the stimulus is undesirable in some way. It gets added after the dog’s behavior, and that behavior decreases in the future. Some examples of that kind of stimulus would be kicking the dog, jerking its collar, shocking it, or startling it with a loud noise. You can see why positive reinforcement-based trainers seek not to use positive punishment.

In contrast, in negative punishment, the stimulus involved is desirable (appetitive). It gets taken away after the dog’s behavior, and that behavior decreases in the future. Examples of negative punishment are pulling the treat away from the dog’s mouth if she lunges for it, and leaving the room if a puppy plays too roughly. (Here are more examples of the processes of operant learning.)

In positive reinforcement-based training, we try to use only negative punishment. But even negative punishment can be unfair to the dog sometimes, as I explain in this post. Not only that, but it’s possible to slide straight into positive punishment inadvertently from negative punishment. Or sometimes we don’t notice a punishing stimulus that is having an effect.

Positive Punishment: A Note About the Definition

Just because something hurts doesn’t mean that it will punish behavior. It is possible to administer an unpleasant stimulus (repeatedly!) and have no behavior change. For instance, I give allergy shots to both my dogs once a week. They get a whole CC of fluid injected under the skin on the back of their necks. I can tell it doesn’t feel great. But from the very beginning, I have followed the shot with a little box of fabulous treats, different every week. I’ve tried to determine whether the shot acts as a punisher. I’ve watched for decreases in behavior that might result from the shot.  I’ve found no such decreases. The dogs come eagerly for their shots and take the position I ask and stay still. The shot event is happy overall, even though there is some brief pain involved. 

So, keep in mind the “second half” of the definition of punishment. A behavior must decrease. It’s not only that you did something icky to the dog. It had to have an effect on behavior over time. Positive punishment can actually be difficult to employ successfully. The unpleasant stimulus must be applied at the right magnitude, with good timing, and consistently.

Even with these caveats, I have seen accidental positive punishment happen several ways.

 Examples of Accidental Positive Punishment

It’s been a long time since I had to close my hand during “leave-it” practice with Zani

Side effects of “leave it.” Many trainers begin the training of “leave it” (a.k.a. “it’s your choice” or ” doggie Zen”) by holding a treat in their hand. Some start with the hand open; some start with the hand closed and work up to it being open. When the dog moves forward to take the treat, they close their hand. The goal of closing the hand is negative punishment. When the dog moves toward it, the treat (appetitive stimulus) disappears and becomes unavailable. If the training mechanics are good, lunging for the treat will decrease over time. But there is a danger of positive punishment here. If the dog is fast, then the trainer has to close her hand fast. (Most trainers recommend against pulling the hand away.) Suddenly closing your hand on a dog’s muzzle can be startling or unpleasant for the dog. If the behavior of lunging subsequently decreases, what happened? You may have used positive punishment rather than negative punishment.

Black and white rat terrier being reached for to be picked up
Cricket’s feelings about being reached for are pretty clear
  • Side effects of timeouts. The goal of a timeout is also negative punishment. This technique is used on puppies or rowdy dogs. When the dog does something undesirable, such as nipping, the human removes herself or the dog from the interaction.  That’s how the negative punishment works: the fun stops when the dog performs an undesirable behavior. (Sometimes the trainer will use a verbal marker to mark the naughty behavior so the relationship is clearer.) However, when one removes the dog, a couple other things happen before the dog is away from the fun. The human either needs to pick the dog up or guide him by the collar to the timeout location. But both of those actions are potentially aversive.[1]A third option is to call the dog, but most trainers don’t want to call the dog to a negative consequence.  Many dogs don’t like to be picked up. Many don’t like to be grabbed by their collars. So what can happen in those situations is positive punishment: a “noxious” stimulus is added. If the dog’s undesirable behavior decreases, it could be through positive rather than negative punishment. This possibility is one of the several reasons it’s good to condition puppies to enjoy being picked up and having their collars handled.
  • Side effects of “penalty yards.” One common technique for teaching loose-leash walking is often referred to as penalty yards. This method consists of instantly backing up when the dog begins to pull forward on the leash. (This move is usually paired with positively reinforcing the dog for walking by the trainer’s side.) The assumption behind this method is that forward motion is positively reinforcing (there is often a specific reinforcer ahead). So causing the dog to lose ground when they pull can constitute negative punishment. They get farther away from the exciting things up ahead. However, visualize the process. With negative punishment, as with all processes of operant learning, timing is important. What happens if you suddenly start walking backward when your dog is pulling forward? A jerk transmitted via the leash to the dog’s collar or harness. You will see experienced trainers use their arms as shock absorbers and seek to soften the change of direction. But they can’t go too slowly or the contingency between the dog pulling forward and the handler moving backward will be lost. Less experienced trainers likely won’t realize how hard this can be on the dog, especially if the trainer has earlier experience with training that includes deliberate collar “corrections.” So if the dog’s behavior of pulling decreases, it may be because of the loss of progress toward a goal. But it also could be that when they pull, it is soon followed by a jarring pull back on their collar.
  • What’s the Fallout?

    Positive punishment and negative reinforcement have fallout

    The examples I gave above don’t involve scaring, hitting, or kicking the dog. They don’t sound as bad as that. A hand snapping shut, a collar grab, or a leash jerk.  Not so terrible, right? Can even these milder sounding aversive stimuli create fallout? Oh, yes. If you snap your hand shut on a puppy’s snout, or right next to it, you can cause the puppy to be wary of hands. A very unfortunate lesson for a pup. Likewise with collar grabs: if you do them without conditioning first, you will create a dog who dodges away from humans. And while some dogs habituate to leash jerks, your next dog might be the one who shuts down from the jerk you create by moving backward. My pressure-sensitive dog got positively punished when I charged up at her to “help” change a prop setup.

    Of course, it’s not the theoretical change from “minus” to “plus” that creates a problem for the dog. It’s that when we set out to follow a training plan, we often fail to notice the dog’s response to different parts of it. We don’t see the dog saying, “Hey, you pinched my nose! I hate that!” We are probably concentrating on our own mechanics. So I could have written these cautions without any reference to learning theory, and just said, “Watch the dog!”. But then they would just be scattered incidents. Using learning theory helps me see the pattern so I can head off future problems.

    Some people claim to train without the use of aversives. That’s a goal of mine, as well, but unless we are vigilant, they can sneak in anyway. Just wait until I write a similar post about negative reinforcement. Evil grin.

    Have you ever used positive punishment by accident? I promise I won’t let anyone hassle you if you want to comment. These examples are super useful for all of us to be aware of.

    Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson


    1 A third option is to call the dog, but most trainers don’t want to call the dog to a negative consequence.

    16 thoughts on “Positive Punishment: 3 Ways You Might Use It By Accident

    1. Another very helpful article! I’ve often wondered about loose leash walking. I tried the “stand like a tree” method, when my dog pulled, but it made no difference either way (so, neither punishing nor rewarding; or do they cancel each other out?). The “walk back a few steps or in another direction” method is affording some progress — but I wonder how aversive it is (why does it work better than standing like a tree? Is it more punishing, or is the movement preferred to stillness?) The whole process makes me realize how several quadrants can be working simultaneously. I can’t believe that walking away from the direction my dog wants to go is ever neutral — as it’s by definition something she would never choose.

    2. My accidental P+: boundary training at the back door. A nose or a toe got pinched or bonked by the door, as access to outdoors was removed when dogs rush out prior to being released. 🙁

      1. Oh man! I bet that was…effective! Seriously, that’s a good caution. The door closing business certainly has its hazards. Thanks for commenting!

    3. I have carefully taught 4 dogs to heel wide with positive punishment. Due to arthritis, my left leg turns out, & I walk like half a duck. Any dog who heels tight gets stepped on. Repeatedly.
      They’re not stupid, so all the R+ in the world is never going to get me that wrapped-around-the-leg heeling I crave.
      And there go 6 or 7 points. Every. Single. Time.

      1. That is such a good example. Through no malice, no intention, you’ve modified that behavior against your own interests. Sorry, that must be frustrating! Thanks for sharing.

        1. I think this P+ is even more powerful because it is the ultimate variable reinforcer–completely random, I don’t even give off the subtle cues that one normally does when preparing to offer reinforcement; no groping for a clicker or tensing muscles before jerking on a leash.
          On another note, a useful management tool for avoiding #2 above is to use a slip lead & just lasso the dog. Most dogs don’t find it nearly as aversive as a collar grab, & the gimme slip leads that a lot of vets have fit easily in a pocket. Tying a knot in the lead will keep it from tightening to the choking point. I was a groomer for several years, & used to lasso dogs who were waving their teeth when I tried to remove them from their cages; it was both easier & safer than reaching in for them.

          1. Interesting about the lasso! I would never have thought of that. Although I teach all my dogs to put their heads through the loop of a slip lead (with a stopper). Very handy behavior, though. I remember how super impressed I was when I first saw someone do it rather than chasing down their dog and grabbing them and forcing the leash over their head!

    4. As always, great explanations, examples and food for thought. I think one I used to make with my dog was using petting, which she doesn’t find reinforcing at all. “Rewarding” her for coming by petting her was positively aversive and her recall decreased. Luckily sausage can do no wrong where she is concerned.

      1. Sausage for the win! I believe Patricia McConnell spoke of using a pat on the head as P+ with her dogs. Although it seemed more like an interrupter–they didn’t stop coming to her; they would just leave when she did it. Glad you switched to sausage!

    5. I was once training with a clients dog and when it did what I was looking for I praised, of course – but my loud “yes” was actually a positive punisher for that particular dog and to my dismay she cowered away. Mea culpa. (Of course I then did loads of CC stuff and she loved me saying “yes” soon after!)

    6. Hello guys,

      Thanks for sharing. I confess that I committed two of the three mentioned errors and unfortunately I need to change a lot to train my dog in the correct way.

      That’s what they say: sooner rather than later.

      I’ll start doing things the right way and even buy a book to learn more about it.

      Thanks again.

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