Category: Punishment

Positive and Negative Reinforcement by Jack Michael: A Misconstrued Article

Positive and Negative Reinforcement by Jack Michael: A Misconstrued Article

Thank you to the readers who helped me with this paper. Any mistakes are my own.

Some terminology in behavior science is notoriously hard to get one’s head around. One of these terms is negative reinforcement. Not only is this learning process itself a challenge to understand, but the terminology itself is counterintuitive. Behavior scientists specialize in training, teaching, and learning, so naturally, if a term from their own field trips people up, they are going to analyze the problem. The terminology for negative reinforcement has already been changed once, in the 1950s to early 1960s. There has been more discussion since then. This post is about the article that started the more recent discussion, and how it is often misunderstood in the animal training community.

In 1975, psychologist Dr. Jack Michael published an article named, “Positive and negative reinforcement, a distinction that is no longer necessary; or a better way to talk about bad things” in the journal Behaviorism.

This journal article is widely mischaracterized, in my opinion. It is commonly quoted by people who use aversives in training and seek to minimize that when discussing or defending their methods. And certainly, the title sounds very promising for just that purpose. But only if you ignore the last phrase about “bad things.”

Some people claim the article says that the distinction between the learning processes of negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement doesn’t exist or is immaterial. They say that the difference between positive and negative reinforcement is blurred and can’t always be determined. Some say that Dr. Michael dismisses all the possible reasons for maintaining a distinction between the two. This is false (see page 43 in the paper).

Michael’s paper centers on better ways to make descriptions of and determinations about the contingent processes of operant learning. The claim that Michael states that there is little difference between positive and negative reinforcement is false. This claim misrepresents both the focus and the conclusions of the article. Note again the last part of the title: “A better way to talk about bad things.” 

In the article, Michael asks whether we need to make the distinction between what we call positive and negative reinforcement. His final answer is yes, that we need the distinction. He concludes, “We need to make the distinction in order to have a name for the bad things in our world.” (page 43)

Dr. Michael is concerned about terminology on two fronts:

  1. He wants to get rid of positive/negative and present/remove in the descriptions for different types of reinforcement.
  2. He wants to find a better nomenclature to indicate when an aversive is involved.

He proposes a solution, which I will describe below.

There are four major parts to the paper: a history of the usage of the terms for reinforcement and punishment, a critique of the current terminology, a section that explores whether we need the distinction or not (his answer: yes), and a proposed solution. I’ll summarize each briefly. The following four sections are headed with the subtitles used in the paper.

1. A Brief History of the Distinction Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement

This section comprises 75% of the paper and is devoted to a retrospective of the usage of the terms for reinforcement and punishment, starting with Skinner in 1938. As some people know, what Skinner initially called “negative reinforcement” is what we now call punishment.

A textbook published in 1950 by Keller and Schoenfeld (1950) used different terminology, and in 1953 Skinner reversed his usage of the terms in his own textbook, defining them as we know them today. There was a period of transition—Michael mentions that it had to have been especially tough for the students who attended courses at the same time that employed different textbooks—and by the 1960s Skinner’s revised usage, what we use today, was in common use.

I am not going into detail here, but Dr. Michael did. Eight and a half of the eleven pages of the article are dedicated to the changes in definitions and usages of the terms and the resultant confusion. This is a major focus of the article and a major part of his criticism of the use of “positive” and “negative” with regard to reinforcement.

2. What is Wrong with the Present Usage?

In this section, Michael says, “Since 1953 there must have been thousands of man-hours spent in the attempt to prevent the learner of behavioral terminology from equating [negative reinforcement] with punishment…”

Even though I am not credentialed in that field, I know what he means. I have spent many hours myself figuring out the processes of operant learning, with bonus time on negative reinforcement, and many hours as well trying to pass on my basic understanding to others. Reinforcement, punishment, and the plusses and minuses can be confusing, especially since almost all the words used have other meanings or common metaphorical uses.

Michael goes on to describe another problem that includes semantics, in this often-quoted section:

Another difficulty with current usages is that the critical distinction between positive and negative reinforcement depends upon being able to distinguish stimulus changes which are presentations from those which are removals or withdrawals, and these latter terms are not very satisfactory descriptions of changes. The circumstances under which we have a tendency to say “present” certainly seem to differ from those where we say “remove” in vernacular usage, but some of these differences are irrelevant to a science of behavior, and there are a number of circumstances where the distinction is not easily made.

Michael, 1975, p. 40

Note that he is not saying that it’s difficult to detect the differences between aversive and appetitive stimuli. The issue he objects to is the use of the terminology of presenting and removing stimuli.

…In other words, from the point of view of the behaving organism presentations and removals are both simply types of environmental changes. If they differ, the difference must not be based upon the variables controlling the person who causes the change.

Michael, 1975, p. 40

This section merits careful reading. His major objections to the concepts of “presenting” and “removing” are that they focus unnecessarily on the actions of the environment or a third party and that they have societal and linguistic baggage (e.g., he mentions that removal can sound negative). He says what is really important to the subject organism is simply that something changed, and it is the point of view of the subject that we should be concerned about describing. We don’t need to talk about adding or removing stimuli, we need to describe bad changes and good changes from the standpoint of the subject. (Michael uses the terminology of “bad” and “good” throughout the article, which is also a deviation from standard practice.)

In other words, it appears that “present” and “remove” are abbreviations that can sometimes stand in place of a more complete description of both the pre-change and  post-change condition. The abbreviation is usually possible in the case of unconditioned reinforcements, although even here it must always be possible to infer the characteristics of both pre- and post-change conditions if we are to imply behavioral significance.

Michael, 1975, p. 41

An interesting point: he states “present” and “remove” are incomplete descriptions. He is not arguing to ignore the nature of the circumstances the organism finds itself in. He is arguing against shorthand. He is arguing that we need to describe the state of the environment and the nature of the change more accurately in order to determine the learning process in play.

There is much more in this section about presentations and removals not being specific enough for scientific usage, and it is in this section one really gets a sense of Dr. Michael’s concerns.

He also addresses an argument that has been going on for a long time in behavior science. It goes like this:

You can’t tell the difference between positive and negative reinforcement if you train using food because you don’t know if you are adding food or removing hunger.

Various people

Experts in the field discuss this question earnestly and with goodwill. But you will also see it glibly thrown into arguments by trainers who seek to mask their use of aversives (it’s is a favorite among force trainers). I humbly offer my own study of this question, but here’s a surprise. Dr. Michael addresses this very situation in his paper.

When we say that we present a food pellet to the rat the listener can always assume that the pre-change condition is one in which no food is available. We could say that we remove the “no-food” condition, but then the behaviorally important aspect of the change would remain to be described. When we say that we terminate a 50 volt electric shock, the subsequent “no-shock” condition can generally go without further description, but if it were described alone little information would be provided.

Michael, 1975, p. 41

He is saying that only one description is typically accurate in a particular situation because the other one fails to describe crucial parts of the situation. Again, he is arguing that we need to analyze the reinforcement situation with information about the environment before and after the change, not by focusing on one stimulus and whether someone “presented” or “removed” it. What is happening from the animal’s point of view? Is it a “good” change or a “bad” change, and does it involve a bad thing (aversive)?

3. Why Do We Bother?

In this section of the paper, Michael examines possible differences between negative and positive reinforcement and discusses whether each particular aspect could or should be the reason we need to make a distinction.

As we find ourselves applying behavioral analysis to more and more complex human situations we find it increasingly difficult to distinguish between presenting and removing, or we find an increasing number of situations that seem to involve both. A fairly common response to this situation is to avoid making the distinction, and simply refer to the relevant environmental change as “reinforcement,” without attempting to determine whether a positive reinforcer is being presented or a negative removed. One might well ask, then, why we bother making the distinction even in those cases where it can easily be made.

Michael, 1975, p. 41

If your goal is to generally minimize fallout of the use of negative reinforcement, you can cherrypick the above paragraph without continuing and make it look like Michael is saying the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement is unnecessary. On the contrary, this is the section where he specifically rejects that interpretation. He considers four reasons for making the distinction. He discounts the first three as follows.

  1. Are the (behavioral) strengthening effects of R+ and R- different? He answers that they are not any more different than the differences between different forms of R+.
  2. Do R+ and R-  involve different physiological structures or processes? He doesn’t think trying to make this distinction is a good idea in view of the changing field, but he leaves room for future research. This article was published in 1975, before most of the current discoveries that showed exactly that: that different physiological processes are likely involved (Overall, 2013, p. 69). 
  3. Should we keep the current terminology so as to warn people only to use “positive,” not “negative”? He appears to be asking whether we should actually appeal to the double meaning of positive. Again he answers no, that we shouldn’t base a scientific definition on a social distinction. (Note that in using the term “social distinction” he is referring to the words “positive” and “negative,” not to the actual learning processes.)

So he rejects three reasons for making the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement. Then, in a section that is rarely quoted, he goes on to answer his original question in the affirmative, saying that we do need a way to distinguish the difference. He says:

The layman frequently finds it necessary to identify an environmental event or condition as one which he doesn’t like, which he attempts to escape, or avoid. He may refer to such an event as “bad” (without the moral implications of this term), “undesirable,” “unfavorable,” etc., and he also has “punishment” to use as a contrast with “reward.” A science of behavior also needs a way of identifying such events.

Michael, 1975, p. 42

And finally:

We need to make the distinction in order to have a name for the bad things in our world…

Michael, 1975, p. 43

He is arguing that we need the distinction between what is currently called negative and positive reinforcement so as to be able to specify when a “bad thing” is involved. So it is incongruous that this paper is cited in support of arguments to blur and erase the use of aversives.

4. The Solution

Michael spends so much time focusing on confusing terminology in the paper that it is strange he doesn’t devote more space to making his solution clear.

But here is what he wrote.

So, the solution to our terminological problem is to refer to the good things as reinforcers and reinforcement and call the bad things punishers and punishment. One set of terms refers to changes which have a strengthening effect on the preceding behavior; the other to changes which have a weakening effect. The distinction between two types of reinforcement, based in turn upon the distinction between presentation and removal simply can be dropped.

Michael, 1975, p. 44, bold added by Eileen

The last sentence of that quotation can also be taken out of context in a misleading way. A hasty reader, or one with an agenda, can claim Michael is saying that there is no difference between the learning processes we call R+ and R-. But he has already said that we need to specify when there is a bad thing involved. He is arguing not to base the distinction on the terminology of presentation and removal. 

Finally he writes:

The arguments set forth above convinced me about 6 years ago to stop making the distinction between negative and positive reinforcement and to refer to the bad things as punishers and punishment.

Michael, 1975, p. 44

That is the way he achieves his goals of getting rid of the terminology of presentations and removals and finding a better way to describe the “bad things.”

It’s a shame that Dr. Michael doesn’t give some examples of applying his terminology. But I would suggest a couple of examples, following his lead. Both of these are what we would now call negative reinforcement.

  1. In a shock experiment with the goal of increasing behavior, the learning process could be called using reinforcement with the punisher of shock.
  2. In an escape protocol where an animal’s behavior is reinforced by giving them more distance from a scary thing, the learning process involved could be called using reinforcement with the punisher of a feared stimulus.

It seems clunky at first, but once you realize a bad thing (“punisher”) can be involved in reinforcement in only one way, escape/avoidance, it falls into place.

Dr. Michael makes it clear that we need to stipulate when there is a bad thing included as part of the learning process. He also states that what we call negative reinforcement includes a bad thing, and presents a cogent argument that the differences between what we currently call R+ and R- are important and are distinct from each other in real-life situations.


In 2013 (yes, I’ve been working on this post for seven years), I tried to contact Dr. Michael to ask for some examples of how he applied his terminology: how and when he made the distinction that a punisher was involved. I reached his wife, who said he was not able to discuss such things any longer due to dementia. He passed away this year: November 13, 2020.

Dr. Michael’s paper prompted several others in the same vein, questioning the terminology of “positive” and “negative” with regard to reinforcement. In my reading, the arguments had some of the same flavor but were not exactly the same. I’ve included those articles in the references below. My arguments above apply to Michael’s 1975 article alone.

These papers usually get a footnote in behavior science textbooks, but the standard nomenclature hasn’t changed to reflect the ideas put forth, which Michael himself later noted (Michael, 2005). I recently heard a behavior analyst being interviewed in a podcast voice a similar concern with “presentations and removals.” She mentioned that in her work it is most important to observe whether behavior is under aversive or appetitive control, and those are the classifications she uses.

And permit me one moment of editorializing: I don’t know any trainers who don’t use negative reinforcement. Even the kindly act of letting an animal leave or take a break from a difficult procedure means that R- is a planned part of a training plan. Most of us would agree that allowing escape is less intrusive than flooding, but we also try mightily to train with enough skill that the animal doesn’t want to leave in the first place. So my aim here is not to preach purity, although I try to avoid the use of R- in every possible way. My argument is with people who are disingenuous about their use, and who cherrypick quotes from this paper to attempt to obfuscate the contingent processes of operant learning.

Rest in peace, Dr. Michael, and I hope my efforts here have done this famous paper justice.


Baron, A., & Galizio, M. (2005). Positive and negative reinforcement: Should the distinction be preserved?. The Behavior Analyst28(2), 85-98. 

Baron, A., & Galizio, M. (2006). The distinction between positive and negative reinforcement: Use with care. The Behavior Analyst29(1), 141-151. 

Chase, P. N. (2006). Teaching the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement. The Behavior Analyst29(1), 113. 

Iwata, B. A. (2006). On the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement. The behavior analyst29(1), 121. 

Keller, F. S., & Schoenfeld, W. N. (1950). Principles of psychology: A systematic text in the science of behavior.

Lattal, K. A., & Lattal, A. D. (2006). And Yet…: Further comments on distinguishing positive and negative reinforcement. The Behavior Analyst29(1), 129.

Michael, J. (2006). Comment on Baron and Galizio (2005). The Behavior Analyst29(1), 117. 

Michael, J. (1975). Positive and negative reinforcement, a distinction that is no longer necessary; or a better way to talk about bad things. Behaviorism3(1), 33-44.

Nakajima, S. (2006). Speculation and Explicit Identification as Judgmental Standards for Positive or Negative Reinforcement: A Comment on. The Behavior Analyst29(2), 269. 

Overall, K. (2013). Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats. Elsevier Health Sciences.

Sidman The Distinction Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement: Some Additional Considerations

Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: an experimental analysis.

Photo Credit

Skinner Box diagram credit Wikimedia Commons.

Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson

All That’s Unpleasant Does Not Punish

All That’s Unpleasant Does Not Punish

I’ve written a lot about the behavior science definitions of reinforcement and punishment. That’s because they can trip us up so easily. Something can be attractive, but not always reinforce behavior. Something can be unpleasant, but not serve to decrease behavior even when it looks like it should. This story is about a natural consequence that seemed like it would decrease behavior but didn’t.

Continue reading “All That’s Unpleasant Does Not Punish”
Corrections Are Punishment (If They Work)

Corrections Are Punishment (If They Work)

Correction is a term used in certain segments of the dog training world. It commonly applies to jerking the dog’s leash (also called a “leash correction). Sometimes “correction” refers to other physical things people might do to a dog.

Trainers who use corrections do such things when a dog is performing an undesirable behavior. For example, they will perform a “leash correction” when a dog is pulling on the leash, is in the wrong position, or is not focused on the handler. The magnitude of a leash correction can range from a twitch of the leash to jerking hard enough to lift the dog partially off the ground or knock him off balance.

Continue reading “Corrections Are Punishment (If They Work)”
Speeding Tickets: Negative or Positive Punishment?

Speeding Tickets: Negative or Positive Punishment?

Speeding tickets are commonly used as an example in learning theory textbooks. But I’m going to disagree with the typical classification because of my own experience. Here’s a true story.

When I was about 20, I was driving in my hometown. I was home from college and driving down my own street. I think I was going about 45. I think the speed limit was 35. I don’t remember why I was speeding. I didn’t commonly drive fast. But that day I did.

Continue reading “Speeding Tickets: Negative or Positive Punishment?”
Positive Punishment: 3 Ways You Might Use It By Accident

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 learning theory, 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.

Continue reading “Positive Punishment: 3 Ways You Might Use It By Accident”
Why Prong Collars Hurt

Why Prong Collars Hurt

Please see additional note at the bottom of the post.

14 inch prong collar

Prong collars, also called pinch collars, are metal chain collars for dogs that include links of prongs whose ends press into the dog’s neck.

When a dog pulls on leash, moves out of position, Continue reading “Why Prong Collars Hurt”

Don’t Be Callous: How Punishment Can Go Wrong

Don’t Be Callous: How Punishment Can Go Wrong

This post includes discussion of animal experimentation from the 1950s and 1960s using shock. It is unpleasant to contemplate. But to me, it makes it even worse that the knowledge gained by those studies is not widely known. Studying that literature gives one a window on how punishment works. I hope you will read on.

The studies I cite are all included in current behavior science textbooks, and my descriptions are in accord with the textbooks’ conclusions. The conclusions are different from the common assumptions about punishment. 

Graph shows typical response to mild-to-moderate punishment. X axis represents sessions over time. Y axis is the suppression ratio. There is a drop in the behavior immediately after the aversive is applied, but the behavior gradually returns to its former level.
This is a typical response to application of a mild-to-moderate aversive. I created this graph because 1) I don’t have rights to the ones in textbooks, and 2) standard behavior change graphs are difficult to interpret if you are unfamiliar with them. I made a different type of graph, but what I have represented is the same response you see in the textbooks and research papers. The X-axis represents sessions over time. The Y-axis shows the ratio of behavioral decrease. The shape of the graph roughly correlates to the frequency of the behavior and shows that the suppression of behavior was only temporary.

I’ve written a lot about making humane choices in training and about the fallout that accompanies aversive methods. But the immediate risk of hurting, scaring, or bothering your dog is not the only problem with using aversives. It turns out that using positive punishment is tricky.

In the term positive punishment, positive doesn’t mean “good” or “upbeat.” In behavior science, it means the type of punishment in which something is added and a behavior decreases. The added thing is something the animal wants to avoid. If every time your dog sat you shocked her, played a painfully loud noise, or threw something at her, your dog would likely not sit as often.  Those things I mentioned would act as “aversive stimuli.” If the dog sat less after that, then punishment would have occurred.

There is another type of punishment called negative punishment. It consists of removing something the dog wants when they do something undesirable. I’m not discussing that type of punishment in this post. For the rest of the post, when I refer to punishment, I am referring to positive punishment.

The Punishment Callus

Some trainers and behavior professionals warn about something called the punishment callus. A punishment callus is not a physical callus. It is one name for the way that animals (including humans) can develop a tolerance for an aversive stimulus. When that tolerance is developed, that stimulus does not decrease behavior. It is not an effective punisher. The animal has become habituated to punishment.

This is not just a piece of folklore. It has been demonstrated repeatedly in studies, and it happens way more often than we realize in real life. I’m going to describe some of the research.

Reinforcement First

The first thing that happens in most punishment experiments is that the animal is taught a behavior using positive reinforcement. The pigeon learns to peck a disk to get some grain. The rat learns to press a lever or run down a chute to get food. There will be dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of repetitions. Then, after the behavior is strong, the researchers introduce punishment. This is usually in the form of shock. The shock is generally contingent on the animal touching the food or performing the behavior that gets access to the food.

At first glance, this seems weird, not to mention wildly unfair. Why would they be starting off a punishment study with reinforcement? Then why would they punish the same behavior?

Think about it a little and it makes sense. You can’t use punishment if you don’t have a behavior to punish. Reinforcement is what makes behaviors robust. You can’t measure the effects of unpleasant stimuli on a behavior unless you have a strong, consistent behavior to begin with.

In some studies, they cease the reinforcement after the punishment starts. In others, the reinforcement continues. In these experiments, the animals and birds get shocked for trying to get their food in the same way they learned to get it through many repetitions of positive reinforcement.

But this is not at all unique to lab experiments. A hard lesson here is that we do the same thing when we set out to punish a behavior. Animals behave because they get something of value (or are able to escape something icky). The behavior that the dog is performing that annoys us is there because it has been reinforced. It didn’t just appear out of the blue. So if we start to punish it, the animal is going to go through the same experience that the lab animals did. “Wait! This used to get me good stuff. Now something bad happens!” And punishment and reinforcement may happen together in real life, just as in some of the studies.

How We Imagine Punishment to Work

I think most of us have an image of punishment that goes something like this:

The dog has developed a behavior we find annoying. Let’s say he’s knocking over the trash can and going through the trash. The next time Fido does that, we catch him in the act. We sternly tell him, “No! Bad dog!” Or we hit him or throw something. (I hope it’s obvious I’m not recommending this.) The next time he does it, we do the same thing. In our minds, we have addressed the problem. In our mental image, the dog doesn’t do it anymore.

But. It. Doesn’t. Work. That. Way.

Real life and science agree on this. It’s much harder than that to get rid of a reinforced behavior.

Punishment Intensity

Many studies show that the effectiveness of a punishing stimulus correlates to its intensity (Boe and Church 1967).   The higher the intensity, the more the behavior decreases. Very high-intensity punishment correlates to long-term suppression.

Skinner was one of the first to discover that low-intensity punishment was ineffective. He taught rats to press a bar to get food. Then he discontinued the food and started to slap the rats’ paws when they pressed the bar. For about a day, the rats whose paws got slapped pressed the bar less than a control group. Then they caught up. Even though they were getting slapped, they pressed the bar just as often as the control rats (Skinner 1938). Other early punishment studies also used mild punishment, and for a while, it was assumed that all effects of punishment were very temporary (Skinner 1953). This was determined to be incorrect in later studies with higher intensity aversives.

Dog owners who try to use low-level punishment are faced with an immediate problem. Ironically, this situation usually comes from a desire to be kind. Many people do not feel comfortable doing anything to hurt or startle their dogs, but these are the methods they have been told to use. So they figure that they should start with a very low-intensity action. They’ll yell just loud enough to get the dog to stop. They’ll jerk the dog’s collar just enough to interrupt the pulling on leash. They’ll set the shock collar to the lowest setting.

But if a behavior is valuable enough to a dog (i.e., it gets reliably reinforced), a mild punishment will barely put a dent in it. It may interrupt the behavior at the moment and suppress it for a short time, and people are fooled into thinking it will continue to be effective. But it almost certainly won’t.

So the next thing the humans do when the dog performs the behavior is to raise the level of the punishment a bit. They yell louder, jerk harder, or turn up the dial on the shock collar.

Lather, rinse, repeat. If this pattern continues, the humans are successfully performing desensitization to punishment. The desensitization can continue up to extremely high levels of punishment. That is the punishment callus, and it has been excruciatingly well documented in the literature.

Miller’s Rats

In one study (Miller 1960), hungry rats were trained to run down a walled alleyway to get a moist pellet of food at the other end. The rats repeated this behavior many times as they got acclimated to the setup. Each rat’s speed of running down the alley was recorded as they gained fluency. The behavior of running down the alley was reinforced by access to food. This continued (without punishment) until the researchers determined that the rats had reached their maximum speed.

A shock mechanism was then initiated so the rats’ feet would get shocked when they touched the moist food. The rats were divided into two groups. They were referred to as the Gradual group and the Sudden group, indicating the way the shock was introduced. The Gradual group started with a shock of 125 Volts, which caused virtually no change in behavior. The shock was raised in each subsequent session. The rats’ speed slowed down somewhat each time the shock was raised. Then it recovered and leveled off as they got accustomed to the new intensity. The shock was raised in nine increments up to 335 Volts.

The rats in the Sudden group didn’t experience the gradual shocks. Their first introduction to the shock was at 335 Volts. Their movement down the alley slowed drastically. Often they would not touch the food.

In the last 140 trials (5 trials each for 28 rats total) the results were telling. Out of 70 trials at 335 Volts for the rats in the Gradual group, only 3 trials resulted in the rat not going all the way to the food. In the Sudden group at the same voltage, 43 trials, more than half resulted in the rat not going all the way to the food.

To repeat: These two groups of rats responded differently to shocks of the same high voltage due to how the shock was introduced.

Now take careful note of the differences in their behavior:

The [subjects] in the Gradual group flinched and sometimes squealed but remained at the goal and continued to eat. Those in the Sudden group seemed much more disturbed, lurching violently back, running away and crouching a distance from the goal (Miller 1960).

There’s the clincher. At 335 Volts, some rats were still approaching the food and eating while getting shocked. In other words, those behaviors were not effectively punished. For the other rats, the behaviors were definitely punished–and the rats were traumatized.

So there you have it. Two of the most common outcomes of using punishment are:

  • a spiral of ever-increasing punishment intensity that the animal learns to tolerate; or
  • a shut-down animal.

This information has been available for 50 years. Yet aversive techniques are still casually recommended to pet owners with no education in behavior science, no exposure to the mechanical skills involved, and most important, no clue of the harm to the animal.

Punishment meme

The Resilience of Behavior

One of the things I finally “got” about punishment as I studied the graphs in these studies is that complete cessation of a behavior is rare. Again, our mental image of the results of punishment is incorrect. In the Miller experiment, the traumatized rats in the Sudden group did sometimes approach and eat the food despite intense punishment. The rats in the Gradual group consistently did so.

The rats in the Gradual group correspond to dogs who are trained with gradually increasing punishment. They acclimate and the behavior continues. They get a punishment callus. The rats in the Sudden group probably resemble the heavily punished dogs I describe in my post Shut-Down Dogs, Part 2. 

One more thing about the graphs. When punishment is initiated or taken to a higher level, there is an immediate drop-off in behavior. It’s usually of short duration. The rate of behavior generally rises back up again.  This is what I modeled in the diagram above. You can see a bunch of these graphs in the Azrin study linked below.

Increasing the punishment intensity seems to have the same general effect as the initial addition of punishment. In both instances, the new punishment intensity produces a large suppression at the moment of changeover, with substantial recovery after continued exposure to this new intensity. Only at severe intensities of punishment has further increase failed to produce an abrupt decrease in responding (Azrin 1960).

One of the tragedies of this pattern in dog training is that the drop-off causes the human to believe the punishment is working. Raising the level of the punishment is reinforcing to the human.

The deliberate use of positive punishment as a training method is already ruled out of consideration for most positive reinforcement-based trainers. This is because of humane concerns and punishment’s known fallout. But I believe it is also important for us to know how difficult it would be to use effectively and that it does not work the way most of us imagine it to. We can see habituation to punishment all around us once we learn of its existence. My takeaway from the studies is how vastly superior and straightforward it is to build behavior in our pets than to try to squash it down.

Note: Please don’t quote this article to claim “punishment doesn’t work.” High-intensity punishment does work. But it has unacceptable side effects that can destroy our dogs’ happiness and wellbeing, not to mention their bonds with us.


Azrin, Nathan H. (1960). Effects of punishment intensity during variable‐interval reinforcement. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 3(2), 123-142.

Boe, E. E., & Church, R. M. (1967). Permanent effects of punishment during extinction. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 63(3), 486-492.

Miller, Neal E. (1960). Learning resistance to pain and fear: Effects of overlearning, exposure, and rewarded exposure in context. Journal of Experimental Psychology 60(3), 137-145.

Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: an experimental analysis. Appleton-Century. New York.

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. Simon and Schuster.

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

Using Annoying or Scary Sounds for Dog Training

Using Annoying or Scary Sounds for Dog Training

Let’s pretend you saw an ad for a new dog training product. It read something like this:

Introducing the Noise-Aided Obedience Device (NOD)! Never have trouble with your dog again. When you jerk or flap the lead attached to your dog’s collar or harness to punish him or to force him into the correct position, the device adds a noise that makes the leash jerking or flapping extra unpleasant. You can get instant compliance! That is, for some dogs. Some won’t be bothered by the noise or will get used to it. Some noise-sensitive dogs will be so traumatized you may never get them out from under the bed again. But for the majority of dogs, the “NOD” makes the leash correction just a bit worse. And for you as the trainer it feels great! You are actually DOING something about your dog’s naughty behavior.

Add an auditory aversive to the physical one! Buy the NOD (along with my DVD and special gear) today!

Actual Products on the Market

The ad is fake but unfortunately, the products are real. A reader introduced me to two different products that operate as I described above. Both attach to or are part of the dog’s gear. These are mechanical, not electronic. (There are electronic devices that work similarly as well.) One makes a zipping noise and one rings like a bell. They make these noises when the handler shakes, pulls, or jerks the leash. But the creators of these products don’t describe them the way I did above. Instead, they use words and phrases like the following:

  • Gentle method
  • Sound-based training
  • Gets the dog’s attention
  • Strengthens your dog’s concentration abilities
  • Technologically superior
  • Helps dogs understand cause and effect
  • Kind training method
  • Helps the dog focus
  • Helps you guide your dog to the correct position
  • Dog learns to pay attention to you
  • Enables communication with the dog
  • Hastens the learning process

The soft marketing language for both products strongly implies that there is something intrinsic to the sound that causes the dog to become obedient. It supposedly allows some kind of special communication between the owner and dog. Also, they don’t explain exactly what you do to operate the product. This neatly skirts the real consequences being used: the trainer is performing actions that cause physical pressure, commotion, and noise. When these devices work, they work by helping to annoy, startle, or scare the dog into compliance.

Word cloud
Misleading marketing language for a device that makes a noise when the leash is flapped or jerked

No Free Lunch

This type of product marketing, common in the dog training world, masks the actual consequences used to attempt to change dogs’ behavior. The focus is on the “special” sound. This draws attention away from the leash jerking or flapping and the commotion close to the dog’s ears. Even though the noises are probably unpleasant for most dogs, they are not necessarily the main source of discomfort. And make no mistake: it is discomfort that is driving the behavior change. The sound isn’t magically making the dog feel great for correct choices.

Even though it is a favorite marketing claim, a neutral stimulus can’t be used (without conditioning) to change a dog’s behavior. Here’s a previous post on that: “It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!” To change behavior you generally need either an appetitive stimulus (for example, food) or an aversive stimulus (for example, shock). You can also use stimuli that have been conditioned to predict these things. An example of a typical predictor of an appetitive stimulus would be a clicker.  An example of a predictor of an aversive stimulus would be the warning beep used on some shock collars.

The odd thing is that the noises these particular products make do not fit neatly into a category. The sounds and sensations they make may be intrinsically aversive or not, depending on the dog. The one thing that is certain is that they are not used as predictors. Thus, the claims about their special communication functions are off the mark.

The noise happens at the same time as the leash motion. Not before. The sounds can’t be used as warnings. They are about as communicative as throwing sand at someone you are already yelling at.

Turn Off the Sound

It can be hard to find a video that shows the methods. Makers of these types of products generally display “before and after” type videos. To see the device in action, you often need to buy a DVD. But if you look hard enough, you can usually find a couple of short examples of the actual process.

If you have a question about such a product, try to find a video of it in use. (If you can’t find one, that tells you something as well.)  If you do find such a video, watch with the sound turned off. In general, that will show you the actions and actual consequences being used to train the dog. Watch the body language of the dog as well, and heed the edits. It’s pretty common to edit or switch the camera angle immediately after a “correction” is made so the dog’s response is not visible.


IMG_3331I’ve written before about trainer Jean Donaldson’s idea of encouraging dog owners to ask for transparency from prospective trainers. My fabricated “ad” above was an example of what transparency could look like regarding one of these sound annoyance devices. To continue in that vein, here is how an honest trainer who used such a device might answer Ms. Donaldson’s questions.

  • What exactly will happen to my dog when she gets it right? I will stop the annoying movements and sounds. Sometimes I will also praise her, and in some cases I will give her food.
  • What exactly will happen to my dog when she gets it wrong? I will flap or jerk the leash, and my product will additionally make a noise close to her head.
  • Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose? Yes. Leash walking and other behaviors can be taught using food, toys, play, or other things the dog likes and wants. These are less invasive since there is little chance of scaring or hurting the dog. That type of training is generally enjoyable for the dog when done well. I should also note that using an irritating stimulus such as my product can cause redirected aggression towards the handler, i.e., the dog could bite you.  Also, the use of my product could be permanently damaging to a sound-sensitive dog. Finally, the responses to sound by individual dogs vary. So some dogs will habituate to the noise and stop responding.

The above answers depend on very basic behavior analysis and what we know about the negative effects of aversive use. If you actually ask these questions and get non-specific answers about communication and focus and getting the dog’s attention instead, that should tell you what you need to know.

The devices I saw were not magically communicative or innovative in any way. It’s sad that such things are still being marketed and that their producers do not describe how they really work.

A big thanks to Vicky Carne, publisher of Dog Coach Videos, who brought these types of products to my attention.

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

Accidental Punishment

Accidental Punishment

The various outcomes of our shaping sessions, punishment notwithstanding
Can you guess which dog got accidentally punished during a shaping session?

I charged straight into a positive punishment scenario by accident recently.

I’ve been somewhat in the training doldrums lately, probably because I am putting so much energy into finishing my book. I have several training activities that I fall back on when I don’t have much energy. They are fairly unchallenging for me (read: I can’t mess them up too badly) but still fun for the dogs. Even those have been hard to do lately.

But the other day I had some time and energy and decided to play a shaping game with each dog. We don’t shape that often, but they all enjoy it, and it gives their minds a good challenge.

Two of the dogs, Summer and Zani, used to have a default backing up behavior that they would offer in excess whenever I set up shaping games. This was my fault: my shaping setup resembled my backing up setup too much. They had similar setting factors, if you want to get technical about it.  I managed to get the dogs unstuck a while back with some carefully arranged object interaction sessions. (It’s easier to get the idea to go forward instead of backward if there is something to go forward **to**.)

So I decided to set up an object interaction session again. I set out a target stick, a plastic lidded box, and a laundry basket with a plastic dumbbell in it. I put the plastic box on top of one of their mats so it wouldn’t skid around.  I had an idea of a behavior for each dog, but was also willing to decide on the fly if someone did something unexpected.

Clara’s Shaping Session

Clara’s session was easy. The dumbbell in the laundry basket was for her: she loves to pick things up. I stood about 15 feet from the array of objects and it took Clara only a few clicks/treats to get over there. I stayed at a distance. This helps the dogs learn that the reinforcement zone is not always right on me, and also sets me up to practice my treat tossing.

It didn’t take much to get Clara over to the basket and looking in. The basket wanted to skid on the floor so I did go over there and brace it, at which time Clara was happy to put her two front feet in. Then I shaped her into picking up the dumbbell. This is normally very easy, but it was a slight challenge with her front end in the basket and back end out. A good time was had by all.

Summer’s Shaping Session

Summer is my super-duper shaper, which is interesting since she is my crossover dog. Crossover dogs are often reluctant to offer behaviors, but what can I say? Summer got over it. And turned out to be a creative genius when it came to thinking up stuff to do. But this session didn’t require a virtuoso performance. I shaped her to go to the target stick, which I had put behind the other stuff. She still got to it in a minimum of clicks. I needed to make more of a challenge, so I put the stick in the laundry basket with the dumbbell. She needed to hop in the basket to nudge the stick, and that she did. She’s great about getting in things.

Zani’s Shaping Session: Punishment Happened!

You knew it would be Zani, right? My easy dog/problem child.

So I had intended the plastic box for her. She’s done quite a bit of perch work and enjoys it. No big deal. We messed around a bit: she investigated the target stick and the laundry basket. Finally she noticed the box. She was directly facing me, with the box between us, and put her two front feet up on it. Yay! Click, toss the treat. Then she got on again! Ditto. On the third time, I had a sudden thought to treat in position rather than tossing the treat to reset her. So as she was placing her feet on the box, I charged right over there straight at her. She’s my pressure sensitive dog. She backed off the box in shock and scooted backwards, though she did collect the treat I had hastily thrown.

I retreated back to my area, but would she approach the box again? Nooooo. So I quickly went back to rewarding other behaviors. About 15 treats later, she was willing to go to the box again. I didn’t charge at her. It took about 5 more treats to get her putting her feet on the box.

Wanta Play Behavior Analysis?

Four quadrants of operant conditioning
Four processes of operant conditioning

OK, here we go. We could do at least two different analyses, because not only did a behavior decrease with positive punishment, but a behavior increased/maintained as a result of my aversive high speed approach too! I’ll leave that one as an exercise for interested commenters. Let’s go over the punishment.

We always start with the behavior that changed. What was it? Zani putting her feet on the box. Increase or decrease? Decrease. Can we identify why? Pretty sure it was my running full tilt at her. Why did she put her feet on the box in the first place? We were having a shaping session and there was a box there. So the ABC looks like this:

  • A. Antecedent: There’s a lidded box on the floor
  • B. Behavior: Zani puts her two front feet on top of the box
  • C. Consequence: Eileen abruptly runs straight at her
  • Prediction: Zani putting her feet on the box will decrease

Did the behavior decrease? Oh yeah it did! Zani loves to get on things and has been reinforced plenty for it. She had just gotten in the groove of offering “box” behaviors but stopped offering them after I charged at her and didn’t interact with the box again for quite a while. That’s a decrease. There was also a decrease in her behavior in general. She got tentative and ever so slightly shut down after my barging into her space.

Why is it called “positive” punishment? Remember that positive and negative in operant learning terminology refer to whether a stimulus is added or taken away. In this case Eileen charging at Zani was an added stimulus.

So How Bad Was It?

Positive punishment is the learning process that we pretty much try to avoid at all costs. So how hard should I be knocking my head against the wall?

As usual, we ask the dog, and we do this by observing her response. Did we see side effects? Referring to the list on my post “7 Effects of Punishment,” we probably got small doses of # 1, avoidance, and #4, apathy. It remains to be seen whether we will see any avoidance of me outside of training, but I could easily see her getting sensitized about my approaching her. During the session I saw a decrease in behavior from her in general, which could fit under #4. Luckily, this was only over a brief period. Zani started offering behaviors again, and then was getting back on the box willingly (i.e., no pressure from me) within about two minutes. Susan Friedman points out that when an animal has a large reinforcement history and “trust account,” the animal can typically handle life’s little unpleasantnesses well. So this probably wasn’t a horrendous tragedy.

On the other hand, I have worked very hard to pair my approaching and entering Zani’s space with good stuff since she is sensitive to body pressure. We play games where I invite her to enter my own space as well, especially when I am standing up directly facing her. That’s just hard for her, polite little dog that she is. So chalking up another “Eileen is a boorish clod and she scares me sometimes” experience was not ideal. Even just that one time may set us back just a bit in the work I do to make her comfortable with me. In other words, there is a good chance that there is some fallout of the avoidance type, though it may be subtle.

The side effects of punishment listed are generally overt behaviors. There’s also the basic issue that it can scare or hurt an animal. Whatever the animal’s behavioral response, that’s not a good thing.

So how to think about this? I don’t think being alarmist is helpful. Yes, I punished my dog, but it’s over and done with and wasn’t a tragedy (even from Zani’s point of view, I’m pretty sure, which is the one that counts). But neither do I think this is the kind of thing to brush off.  It set us back just a little bit. Zani might be a little extra wary with me in certain situations for a while. I’ll have to work that much harder to make approaching her in various ways into a happy thing.

Accidentally running up in my dog’s face is not something most people would design as a deliberate punishment. People who do use positive punishment in training would probably be amused that I am even classifying it as such. But one of my points is that even such a benign-sounding action can have fallout. Why use punishment to decrease one behavior when it will simultaneously create problems with others? You are left always trying to fill a leaky jug.

And Zani, though sensitive, has a pretty solid temperament and is used to my ways. What if I had been working with a fearful dog or even one who was new to me? A mishap like this could have meant a setback of days or weeks.

Anyone want to share their own accidents? I’m not asking for true confessions about deliberate aversive use. Plenty of us have those in our histories. Let’s talk about that another time. I’m more interested in the boo-boos. I bet I’m not the only one….

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Copyright 2015 Eileen Anderson

But It Worked for My Dog!!

But It Worked for My Dog!!

Worked for who?
For whom did it work, again?

What happens when someone shares a “success” story about training with aversives? Here’s my response to a commenter who did so on one of my previous posts.

A Parable

Once there was a woman named Reva who had a serious health condition that needed intervention. Her intexagog was inflamed and could rupture any day. Reva looked up intexagog specialists in the phone book. She found Dr. Bleppo, who had an ad that was both slick and reassuring, and picked him. She made an appointment. He was a likable guy and radiated competence. He said sure, he could fix her intexagog right up and she would be fine again.

Reva scheduled surgery. It seemed to go well. Her intexagog was fine, she was out of pain, and resumed her normal life. She started having mood swings but didn’t put that together with the surgery. She thought maybe she had always experienced those and just didn’t remember correctly.

Whenever the subject of intexagogitis came up in discussion Reva always recommended the doctor who had operated on her. She heard some murmurings that maybe there were problems with his methods. She always responded, “But my operation was a great success!” Her friend Hector started having trouble with his intexagog, and she gave Dr. Bleppo a glowing reference. Hector contacted Dr. Bleppo on her recommendation.

But a few months after the surgery Reva found out from another specialist that the method Dr. Bleppo had used had an 80% rate of undesirable side effects. These had been well documented for years and the evidence the new doctor gave her was very strong. The side effects ranged greatly in intensity, from things like occasional tingling in the fingers to depression to damage of other body organs to death. They could appear immediately after the surgery or years later, especially if one maintained the after-surgery protocol Dr. Bleppo had recommended. The doctor hadn’t told her of any of this on the front end, just assured her of his experience and told her he could make her well again.

Even though Reva was one of the lucky ones—at this point she had only the mood changes to deal with—she felt betrayed. And now she knew that she might experience some of the other side effects later. She considered filing a complaint with the medical board, since Dr. Bleppo had acted wrongly in not informing her of these side effects and risks, or telling her of alternatives.

Hector had also gotten surgery from Dr. Bleppo, so Reva told him what she had learned. He reacted with hostility when she told him this news. He hadn’t experienced any side effects (yet). Hector continued to talk about what a wonderful, dedicated surgeon Dr. Bleppo was to all who would listen, and would bring up his own successful surgery as proof.

Dog Trainers

The world of dog training is rife with Dr. Bleppos. We don’t have a regulatory board to go to if they don’t inform us of the possible consequences of their actions, nor if they ruin our dogs with harsh methods. Most of us will move on to another trainer, but we may still not have the necessary information to assess trainers.

Training that depends on aversive methods such as prong or shock collars, intimidation, throwing things, loud noises or sprays of water or more noxious substances, personal pressure, or flooding (not letting the dog escape from a scary, painful, or uncomfortable situation) has risks. The possible fallout from these methods has been known and studied for decades and on many species. My posts 7 Effects of Punishment and Fallout from the Use of Aversives delineate the types of problems that commonly accompany the use of aversives. The latter post includes references to research. But the Trainer Bleppos either don’t know about the problems, they dis the science, or they actively keep this information from their clients.

Dog Owners

The world of dog training is also full of Hectors. Many of us have been Hector at some point. When dog owners make a financial and emotional investment in something, we want it to work. Generally, if there is any way possible to see it as working, we will do so. So the Hectors of the dog training world predictably pipe up in any discussion that is critical of aversive methods and give the example of their dog being fine.

Some dogs may be fine, or close to it. Someone with more ability to read dog body language than the person posting would likely see the behavioral responses to the use of aversives, but they might be subtle and the commenter can’t see them. Plus many dogs are very resilient and forgiving of humans. We have bred them to be.

So I can never say to a commenter who relates a punishment success story that her individual experience is wrong and her dog is not fine. Sometimes I will suspect that the commenter lacks the knowledge for a comparative assessment, or the punitive methods used might have been at a low level or she might have a robust dog. But it is not a good argument to deny someone’s experience.

What I can say, and am saying now, is that sharing such an experience does not prove the method’s safety and is very damaging. Behind the one dog who seems OK are strewn many dogs who may not recover from damage due to punitive training. I know that sounds overly dramatic, but most of the positive reinforcement based trainers I know go around picking up the pieces for those dogs and their owners. So holding up the token survivor is sadly misleading.


There are some common misunderstandings whenever I bring up the problems with aversive use. I want to address a few before the comments start rolling in, grin. Whenever someone submits a comment on my blog supporting or recommending the use of aversives, I counter it. This is not because I am completely pure in my training, nor because I think aversives don’t work, nor because I think dogs should live completely sheltered lives. It’s because aversive success stories give people permission and encouragement to use aversives. Many people are searching for this permission. I’m not going to provide it here.

On the other hand, I don’t think people should hide such usage. I’m in favor of honesty, and honesty includes delineating the drawbacks and risks of aversive use, especially when describing an apparent success. If something is noxious enough to prompt avoidance, it’s probably noxious enough to create side effects. I addressed this in my last post, Natural vs. Contrived Negative Reinforcement, with an example of what might happen when one uses a mildly aversive stimulus repeatedly in a training scenario.

Example: My Own Aversive Use

Here’s an example of how I talk about the implementation of an aversive. As part of loose leash training, I taught all of my dogs to yield to leash pressure with a combination of negative and positive reinforcement. I pulled gently on the leash, and when they responded by lessening the pressure (moving towards the tension), I marked and rewarded with food. But the initial reinforcer was the lessening of the pressure. The food may have reinforced something afterward, and perhaps helped support the generally positive response my dogs have to training. But leash pressure is aversive, and using it to train employs negative reinforcement (if there is a behavior change and the dog learns to respond to the pressure).

Now, having a dog that will yield to gentle pressure is very handy. And teaching it is not usually likely to prompt a whole lot of redirected aggression or other dramatic side effects (with most dogs). Certainly not as problematical as something that hurts or pinches or applies heavy pressure. But when I look back on the videos I took of that training, I can tell that it was just not fun for my dogs in the way most of our other training was, even though good food treats were involved.  This exercise put a damper on their enjoyment of training, and possibly a damper on their relationship with me. Why let that happen if I don’t have to?

So what if I were to recommend that protocol?  There would be people reading about it who had dogs who might suffer more from such an exercise, dogs who perhaps don’t have the huge positive reinforcement history with their owners that mine do. People who have fearful dogs who are just now getting used to being handled at all and are sensitive to proximity? There is possible fallout, even with such a “mild” aversive. So you will never see me tout its success or urge others to try it. Instead, if asked about my own experience, I’ll urge caution and describe the drawbacks.

Not every positive reinforcement method is right for every dog either, of course. And some include aversives accidentally in the way they are applied. Still, that’s different from systematically and repeatedly using an unpleasant stimulus to get or suppress behavior.

To My Commenter

I’m glad your dog did OK after you used a trainer from a national franchise. I can tell he is a beloved family member and you care for him very much. I have a suggestion: there are at least two trainers in your area who use positive reinforcement-based methods and have pledged never to hurt dogs in the name of training. They can be found by searching for trainers at your location on this list:  Membership list of the Pet Professional Guild. Both of them offer fun classes like agility and clicker training. Take your dog to such a class, just for fun. See how he likes it. Hopefully, it will be a new and enjoyable experience for both of you.

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Graphic credit: The sad dog cartoon is free clipart from clipartpanda.com. Thanks! 

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015

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