That One Leftover Negatively Reinforced Behavior

It took only four pieces of kibble to fix a problem I’ve had for about eight years.

Long ago, I sought to stop using body pressure to move my dogs around in space. This was a conscious and serious effort. For me, and for my dogs, using body pressure was not a benign endeavor. You can see two of my very early YouTube videos about it. Negative vs. Positive Reinforcement and Teaching a Dog to Back Up without Using Body Pressure.

Maybe it’s because I have had a fair number of scaredy or sensitive dogs, but I have seen the fallout of using body pressure so frequently. And I don’t want my person to be something a dog avoids! I want them to be comfortable with me, to approach me, to move into my space, and not flinch or flee if I move gently into theirs. I want them to have pleasant associations with my physical presence.

But from the title, you can see I didn’t completely succeed. There was one last behavior I taught with R-.

I’m not talking about the accidental ways R- creeps into our lives with our dogs and even into our training. That probably still happens sometimes without my knowing it. And I’m not talking about things like letting a dog leave a training session, which may be a planned choice but still represents a mistake on my part. I’m talking about a deliberate choice I made to apply pressure to get an escape behavior. Yes, reader, I did it.

How We Got There: Arranging Dogs on the Bed

Clara didn’t get “sleeping in the bed” privileges until she was almost two years old. That didn’t have to do with her behavior. It was the reality of having a household with four dogs, one of whom (Summer) really wanted to take out another (Cricket). I had a size 300 crate on my bed for Summer, Cricket and Zani were loose on the bed, and I didn’t have room for Clara the hulk. She slept as she had from the first night in my house, in a crate on the floor right next to my place on the bed.

A large bed with a dog crate on top of it with a brown dog in the crate. There is a smaller black and white dog loose on the bed. There is a lump under the covers where another dog is lying.
Summer in the crate, Cricket up by the pillows, and Zani under the covers in the foreground

I dismantled that whole setup after Cricket died in 2013. I moved Summer’s crate to the floor (she still slept there most of the time). Clara got bed privileges and never left. I’ll never forget her first night. She planted herself right up against my leg and didn’t move all night. Anthropomorphizing just a little: she seemed incredulous at this development and stayed still as if not to blow the opportunity. She has never once gotten off the bed at night unless she was about to be sick.

The Unwanted Behavior

A black and tan dog rests her head on the bed covers and looks seriously at the camera
I’m pretty sure this photo from August 2013 was Clara’s first night getting to sleep on the bed

So what was Clara’s undesirable behavior on which I used negative reinforcement? Was she bullying other dogs? Being noisy? Trying to play or otherwise making trouble at night? No. It was that every night as I was getting ready to go to bed, she got in bed before me in my exact place. She got right up against my pillow and made herself comfortable right where I planned to sleep. Every. Single. Night.

So every night when I was ready to go to bed, I needed Clara to move.

Years before, in another context, a trainer I respected told me that while she let her dogs get on her bed and sleep with her if they liked, she never used treats on the bed. She said the bed was rewarding already and hanging out on the bed was a privilege. Also, she discouraged play on the bed because she wanted it to be a place for relaxation.

I took these words to heart, probably out of the context in which she originally meant them. No treats, no play on the bed. Check.

The result: I left myself with no potent positive reinforcement methods to move my dog. And it didn’t occur to me to try a hand target, for instance, and reinforce with petting and sweet talk. Or I could have made some other area on the bed extra enticing with fluffy blankets. Neither of these would probably have worked against “that special spot” but I wish I had at least tried.

How I Used Negative Reinforcement

Every night I made Clara move over by saying, “Move,” and nudging her or pushing into her space. I did this knowing it was not in concert with my ethics, but I couldn’t think of any alternatives. I wasn’t forceful about it, but R- is R-. You can get avoidance with a tiny stimulus. And in the typical progression of negative reinforcement, Clara started moving away earlier in my behavioral sequence, before I even said anything. All I had to do was walk toward my place on the bed and she leaped up and out of the way. (She never stopped getting there in the first place.)

I didn’t like this. It made me sad for my dog to see me coming and move away as if I had prodded her with a stick. That’s the thing about R-. I wasn’t even touching her at this point. I didn’t have to. She saw the precursor, which had become the (aversive) cue to move, and she moved. And the move was recognizable as a move away from something unpleasant. It didn’t have the look of a happy, positively reinforced behavior.

This has bothered me for freaking years: my beloved friend springing out of the way as if I were a danger to her.

What I’m Doing Now

Enter Lewis. Nothing like a new dog in your life to make you rethink things.

The first couple of nights, Lewis chose to sleep in a dog bed on the floor. Then he got up on the bed with Clara and me. Then he moved close to me and started to snuggle.

Then he decided he wanted Clara’s current place right next to my head and upper body. He is an ambitious little guy, and whatever Clara has, he wants. It was not OK with me for him to bump her out of her place, but Clara wasn’t assertive enough to stand her ground. I was going to have to move a dog around on the bed again.

So I thought about it for two seconds and decided the “No food on the bed” rule was going to go. I took the ridiculously easy option of grabbing four pieces of kibble from a jar, getting Lewis’ attention, and tossing two of them where I wanted him to go. Then I used the other two to bring Clara next to me (her usual spot) when he was out of the way. (Neither of them resource guards kibble.)

Instead of a dog looking up at me worriedly as I approached, I had two cheerful faces looking up at me. “Here come our last two treats of the day. Where are you going to toss them?”

One Other Change

Lewis’ arrival brought another change: my bed is now covered with chew items and toys. I see two Nylabones, a water buffalo horn, one of those hard tree roots, three stuffed toys, one unstuffed toy husk, and a piece of cardboard. Obviously, the “Bed is only for sleeping” rule has gone away as well. (All chews have risks; I’m not making recommendations for anyone else’s dogs.)

This means there are other forms of reinforcement available for Lewis besides comfort and cuddling. So when I direct him away from my spot, I’m not sending him to a desert. I toss the kibble toward one of his favorite items. He may settle there, or he may return to cuddle against my legs. His choice.

A white dog with red ears and red freckles is curled up on a colorful blanket
Lewis doesn’t look too unhappy with his “second choice”


No aversive is too small to be concerned about. I know of a dog who started growling and snapping at his owner when she brought out the Scotch tape to work on the “hide your face” trick. I know of another who became dangerously aggressive after his owner used a squirt bottle on him. I even know of one who started biting the family after being removed bodily from the couch, quite similar to my issue.

Clara has never been aggressive, lucky for me. The fallout for us was the avoidance. Her positive conditioned emotional response to me was damaged. Probably only in a small way, since there were so many pleasant experiences on the other side of the scale. But I really don’t want any of my dogs to see me coming and think, “OMG, better move!”

The Reason for This Post

I imagine I’ll get some horrified responses from fellow positive reinforcement-based trainers at my admission of recently using negative reinforcement to get a behavior. But this is not a new admission. Here’s a post where I listed situations in which I may have used it. I don’t condone it; in fact, I hate the insidiousness of it, and I always strive to figure out a better way. As I improve as a trainer, I can eradicate it and make things more fun for my dogs.

But I also expect the opposite reaction, that the issue is ridiculous and beneath consideration. “She wrote a whole post about how sad it was that her dog had to move over!” These readers may say my dogs need to toughen up or even that I am letting them dominate me.

But my reasons for the post are bigger than that one small behavior. One reason was to share that I took something too literally and didn’t think for myself. That is a mistake I make as a non-professional. I just don’t have the breadth of experience to avoid misapplying things as “rules.” The other, more practical reason for sharing is that I—and all of us—can always reconsider a training technique. Nothing should be below scrutiny.

I regret using my body as something to avoid.

Clara and Lewis

I’m glad Clara now gives me an eager look when I approach the bed at night, waiting for her pieces of kibble. (Kibble! That’s all it took!)

And Lewis doesn’t always vie for her place now. He waits next to the bed to see where I will throw his kibble. Sweet!

And the irony: Lewis is not a sensitive soul. I never tried it, but I’m pretty sure from other experiences that he wouldn’t have yielded to my body pressure at all. He is a master at getting suddenly limp and very heavy.

I’m glad for both of them I finally used my brain and stopped listening to a voice from long ago.

A white dog with red ears and red freckles is sitting on a maroon rug next to a bed, looking up at the camera
Lewis waiting for his directional kibble

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Copyright 2022 Eileen Anderson

15 thoughts on “That One Leftover Negatively Reinforced Behavior

  1. How lucky your dogs are that you give them s much consideration. You mentioned teaching to back-up without body pressure. Can you explain how you do that?

    1. Hi Marjorie!
      Thank you for your kind words!
      I’ve never written a post about the backing up, but I have a movie. What I show and describe is called the channel method, and here is my YouTube video that lays out the steps:

      I should mention that the channel method may still, depending on the dog, include a mild aversive; why would they back out of the channel if it was pleasant in there? But at least it is not body pressure.
      People have started teaching backing up with targeting, as in this great example by Hannah Branigan.

      Take care!


  2. Its really interesting how you misuse the terminology of positive and negative reinforcement. In training, “Positive = To give” and “Negative = to take away” it’s not good and bad reinforcement (respectively). And reinforcement is a response to a desired behavior and punishment is the response to an undesired behavior. When you say you gave a little push, that’s actually positive punishment, not negative reinforcement. You gave (positive) an action in response to an undesired (punishment) behavior. So while I get the point you’re trying to make, you’re not using the terminology correctly, you’re instead saying that positive= good and negative = bad, which just isnt the case.

    1. My goodness, you really think that I think positive = good and negative = bad? Here’s my post where I disabuse people of that notion. I often make the writer’s assumption, in error, that people are familiar with my other work. For my reading audience, there is rarely a reason for me to go into definitions of the contingent processes of operant learning, but perhaps I should have here. I’ll look my post over with that in mind. Anyway, check out the post linked above and the literally dozens of others I have written on the topic. You might particularly enjoy this one:

      Positive Punishment: 3 Ways You Might Use It by Accident

      And as for looking for positive punishment in my scenario—I wondered if someone would go down that road. That’s why I left this big fat hint. I think you missed it:

      And in the typical progression of negative reinforcement, Clara started moving away earlier in my behavioral sequence, before I even said anything. All I had to do was walk toward my place on the bed and she leaped up and out of the way. (She never stopped getting there in the first place.)

      Note the last sentence. The behavior of getting in my place on the bed didn’t decrease. She continued to do it every single night.

      Your error is a common one: concentrating on the environmental stimulus (my actions toward Clara) above all else and seeking to define the process at work solely by that. That’s backwards. We must start with the behavior to define the process. The behavior I was addressing, sitting in my place, didn’t decrease. If it had, we would have had positive punishment at work, and I would have included that in the post.

      One more post you might find interesting is this one:
      Don’t Be Callous: How Punishment Can Go Wrong

      It includes information about how and why mild aversive stimuli often don’t cause a decrease in the targeted behavior.


    2. Eileen used this term accurately. In this context, the definition of punishment means it decreases the incidence of the behaviour, reinforcement means the behaviour increases or stays the same.

      Whether it is reinforcement or punishment is defined by what happens subsequently, and whether the behaviour increases or decreases in the future.

      Easy mistake to make though Eadris, when you’re first navigating Skinner, so don’t beat yourself up, but maybe next time try not being so loud about it.

  3. I love this post. I like how you’ve encouraged us, the readers, to examine our interactions with and toward our dogs. I find it helpful to learn from your “mistake”, and then through that see how I may inadvertently be doing something similar with my dogs. Thank you for raising my awareness and for the reminder that even though we might not be “expert professionals”, we are experts at recognizing what works best for our dogs. Thank you Eileen.

  4. Great post! Something to really think about. Dogs get so easily chased away from their spots. I had the same ”problem” with one of my dogs. She loves my pillows and lies on them. Every night. I made her move by telling her to move and I even pushed her but it did not help. I had to rethink. So I began to sit on the other side of the bed and askel her to come to me, then I told her to wait until I got to bed and askel her to come again. Now after years she moves when I approach the bed. She moves, waits for me with a wagging tail and comes right back and I reward her with cuddles and one pillow. She seems fine and happy.

    1. That sounds much nicer! Great that you put some thought into it and don’t have to try to push her anymore.

  5. This was such a lovely read, thank you. I love the fact that like all of us, you are human and not perfect, but you always strive to do better with your animals.

    It’s interesting that Lewis triggered you to think differently. I’m finding with each new donkey, I’m learning and changing as well.

    It’s great how our animals help us be better trainers and humans when we have their best interests at heart.

    1. Yes, nothing like another animal to put us back into ultra-learning mode! That’s what it’s been like with Lewis. This is just a tiny example. My life is upside-down now, but I try to keep in mind that so is his.

  6. I’m going to look at how I move my dogs around. A lot of it is me ignoring the issue until I’m frustrated so mostly this will be training me. Thanks for posting this and making me think!

    1. Heather, that’s what I’ve found, too: how much of it is training myself. Thanks for your kind words!

  7. I don’t think anyone could or should possibly fault you. You used what you knew at the time to solve a problem, but you re-evaluated and found a non-aversive way instead. I think that’s wonderful that you felt it was important to stop the avoidance and wanted better for your dogs.

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