Category: Positive Reinforcement

The Girl with the Paper Hat

The Girl with the Paper Hat

Hat made out of folded newspaper

This post has been updated and re-released here

Once upon a time there was a girl who decided to teach her dog some tricks. She figured out that if she gave her dog something he liked after he did something she liked, he was liable to do the thing again. So she taught him some simple tricks using food and playing with toys as reinforcement.

She and the dog had so much fun that she found as she went along that he didn’t need to be reinforced with goodies as often; he started finding playing training games with her very fun in itself. But she still used food and play, especially with new stuff or very difficult things. He liked earning his “pay” and she liked giving it to him.

It didn’t occur to her to tell the dog what to do in words, since she knew he didn’t speak English like she did. But things worked out because he could almost always discern from context and her gestures what she wanted to work on.

She had a little platform the she used to teach him to pivot in a circle. He would put his front feet on the platform and walk around with his back feet and rotate. He got very good at this and soon could spin in both directions. As soon as he saw the platform he would run over to it and start to spin, although she could ask him to stop with a hand signal.

One day she decided she’d like to teach him a new trick using the little platform. She wanted him to sit on it. She got out the platform and he ran over and immediately started spinning. She laughed and signaled for him to stop and he did.

With gestures she got him up on the platform with all four feet within a few minutes, and it was easy from there to get him to sit.

sable colored dog has her front feet on an inverted yellow plastic basin, preparing to spin her rear end aroundThe next time they played training games with the platform, he ran over again and started to spin. But she indicated to him that she wanted him to get up on it and sit, and he soon did. Each time they trained, he spun less and sat faster, until one day he ran in and sat on the platform. She told him how smart he was and gave him a cookie.

Over the next couple of weeks she had him do lots of things on top of the platform, and didn’t ask him to spin. He would always run to the platform and sit on it to start.

Then she asked him to start spinning again. They worked on both things equally. After a little awkwardness at the beginning, he always figured out what she wanted.

One day she set out to train and got the platform out. Her dog ran in and then stood stock still next to the platform and looked straight at her. He seemed to be asking, “What are we going to do today?” She realized it would be nice for him if he knew which thing she wanted him to do that day, rather than always having to figure it out by trial and error.

She thought about it and realized she could create some way to let him know which trick she wanted to work on. She made herself a silly hat out of newspaper. From then on, every time she wanted him to get all the way on the platform, she wore the paper hat. When she wanted to work on spinning and pivots, she didn’t wear the hat.

It took only a few sessions for him to catch on, and thereafter he would immediately offer the right starting behavior depending on whether she was wearing the hat or not.

Question: What did the girl create with the hat?

Answer: A cue.

What’s the Point?

OK, I’m a little obsessed with cues. But I would really like to share my (admittedly limited) understanding with those who are newer at this than I am.

  • First, all sorts of things can be cues. If you don’t create a deliberate, explicit one, dogs will usually figure out what you want from contexual cues. Before the girl started using the paper hat, there were still lots of cues for the dog. But they were fluid and not systematically organized.
  • You might not even know what a dog’s cue actually is! Lots of times when we think the dog understands a verbal cue, they are cuing off something else entirely. Try this: put your dog in front of her crate (if you use one), point, and say, “Purple cow!” Some other time, get your dog in front of the crate, don’t point, but just look at it, and say, “Daddy long legs!” Dogs notice contextual cues brilliantly, and most will get into the crate in this situation. If you had proofed the living daylights out of your crate cue and had complete stimulus control over it, as long as those two phrases aren’t your real cues, the “proper” response would be for the dog to stand and look at you, waiting for further instruction because he knew you had spouted nonsense. But almost no one puts crate or mat behaviors on stimulus control, so most dogs who are conditioned to like their crates will leap in at the slightest hint that that might be reinforceable right now.
  • Conversely, think of a situation in which you always, without fail, ask your dog to sit (with or without a verbal cue). Get them in that situation and give your verbal for down, stand, or another behavior and see what happens. If you have worked very hard with your dog on the distinction between your verbal cues, your dog might do fine. But most will have a bit of hard time.
  • Finally, cues in training or the real world don’t have to be quick words or movements. The “Open” sign that stays lit up all day in a store window is a cue that says that you can go in the store and shop for a while. When you’re at a club, the music going on is a duration cue for people to dance. Most people stop when the music goes off. You don’t have to, but it’s more fun (reinforcing) to dance while the music is on. So a paper hat, left on, can be a cue that a certain type of training is going to happen and a certain family of behaviors will likely be reinforced.

Here is Summer in a situation where the contextual cues and something called the matching law conspire to make her fail to respond correctly to a verbal cue. (Stay tuned for Part 2 on the Matching Law.)

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Having clear cues is a way to be fair to your dog. Remember, a cue is an indication that a certain behavior, set of behaviors, or behavior chain, is likely to be reinforced. Having unclear ones defeats the purpose. Help your dog by being very clear about it!

Coming Up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2014




“Respect” Is SO Last Year

“Respect” Is SO Last Year

Shhh, don’t tell anyone!!

I don’t know for sure, but I kind of think my dogs don’t “respect” me. But that’s OK.  Dogs probably don’t do “respect” anyway. It’s a human concept, and it depends on human cognition and social mores. When people say their dog respects them, it is usually a euphemism. It means that through their actions they have caused the dog to be intimidated or afraid.  Wary, at the very least. I think that’s how “respect” generally translates into animal behavior. One can usually see it in the “respectful” dogs’ demeanors.

I don’t bother with respect. I don’t even think about it anymore except when other people bring it up. But I would venture to say that my dogs rely on me. They look to me for guidance in new situations. They enjoy the structure I put to our lives. And I hope they trust me. That’s what leadership looks like at my house.

Respect and authority are irrelevant when one of us naturally has the greater cognitive skills, the keys to the cabinets, cars, and house, and the opposable thumbs. Why should humans be worried about having the respect of a creature that is dependent on us?

What if, instead, we humans used our big brains to figure out ways for dogs and humans to both get lots of what they want, and have an enriching life together? What if, instead of focusing on respect, we could get an animal that was joyfully cooperative?

Eileen is seated on a short stool and Clara is lying on the floor. They are looking into each other's eyes. There are some training props on the floor.
Clara and Eileen having fun training. Clara is learning to put something in a container.

If you’d like to see dogs trained without concern for establishing any kind of authority over them, with the goals of building practical life skills and having the training experience be the most fun possible for all participants, take a look at today’s video. It is called, “Imagine…”

It’s not perfect, but that’s part of the point. It shows what a B-level amateur trainer with mediocre mechanical skills and difficulties raising criteria can accomplish in a multiple dog household. (Of course with the help of some great teachers, in real life and online.)

So for those of you who are ready to consider a much more fun and less stressful way to interact with your dogs, dare to dream. For those of you who already know the secret: enjoy!

More Information

Some of the clips came from how-to or demo videos I have published. They are:

A Secret for Training Two Dogs Step by step instructions for training multiple dogs, with video examples. The secret is to realize that the harder job belongs to the dog that is “waiting,” not the active dog.

Get Out Of My Face! Teaching an Incompatible Behavior  How I taught Clara to perform a default down whenever I bent over, instead of mugging my face.

Teaching a Dog to Back Up without Using Body Pressure  A brief post and video tutorial using the method where a dog goes into a channel between objects and you mark when it backs out. I made this movie after watching the truly awful methods commonly used for teaching dogs to back up, and because I was unable to find another video demonstrating this particular low stress method to jump-start shaping backing up.

7 Great Reasons For Flirt Pole Play Discusses the ground rules for flirt pole play and some of its many benefits.

The Right Word Work on verbal cue discrimination, using the principles of reduced error learning.  The goal is separate release words for my three dogs, a very handy skill. 

What Dog Training Really Taught Me is also relevant: how I figured out that I was being unfair to my dogs before I started to understand behavior science.

And check out this lovely blog post that is related in spirit to what I am showing here: “What If” by Lori Nanan over at Your Pit Bull and You. Can you believe it? Pit bulls don’t need to be dominated either!

Copyright 2014 Eileen Anderson 

How I Count Out Training Treats for Three Dogs

How I Count Out Training Treats for Three Dogs

Thanks, Susan and associates!
Train us or just feed us!

When questioned about possible weight problems from training with food, we R+ trainers always say something like, “No problem! Just subtract the training calories from your dogs’ daily meals and it will work out!”

For me, that’s not as easy as it sounds.

Am I the only one for whom this is a problem? Sometimes I wonder before I publish these kinds of things exactly how many people are as compulsive as I am have situations similar to mine. But then I figure that the world is a big place, so perhaps this will help somebody out there.

Here’s my situation:

  • I have three dogs who vary in size, who all love to be trained;
  • I want everybody to have approximately the same number of reps in training;
  • I hate counting kibble; and
  • I don’t want to use all the dogs’ kibble for training.

And here’s is a graphic representation of the problem:

For each doggie meal, Clara gets a generous 1/2 cup, Summer gets 1/3 cup, and Zani gets 1/4 cup.

Clara's, Summer's, and Zani's meals
Clara’s, Summer’s, and Zani’s meals

So let’s say I want to take out 30 pieces of kibble from each for training. That will generally  let each dog work on one to three behaviors.

Look what happens to their meals:

Clara's, Summer's, and Zani's meals after training treats removed
Clara’s, Summer’s, and Zani’s meals after training treats removed

Poor Zani! It only puts a dent in Clara’s meal, it leaves a halfway decent amount for Summer, but Zani is left with less than half of her meal! That bugs me! One of the reasons I virtually always feed my dogs before training is that I don’t want them working on an empty stomach. And Zani may be littler, but it’s not fair taking away such a bigger percentage of her food!

But on the other hand, if I take away less of her meal, she gets fewer training reps than the other two.

And here I am still counting kibble.

Two-Part Solution

I finally figured out what to do.

1) Switch Zani to smaller kibble. I shopped around and found a comparable kibble with smaller, but not tiny bites. It’s nice for carrying around in my pocket for training treats, too. Here’s what their meals look like now, with approximately 30 pieces removed for training.

Clara's, Summer's, and Zani's Meals Adjusted
Clara’s, Summer’s, and Zani’s meals, training treats removed, after Zani’s food switch

So Zani has the same number of training reps as the others, but still has the majority of her meal intact. (Now Summer is the one who looks a little cheated, but I’m going to say this is the best I can do for now.)

2) Weigh the kibble, don’t count it. I don’t mind giving a plug for my trusty Oxo kitchen scale here. I switch it to grams for weighing kibble, since I can get a little more precision that way. Believe it or not, that’s 30 pieces of Zani’s new kibble on the scale. For me, weighing is a lot quicker than counting.

Weighing kibble
Weighing kibble on kitchen scale

Everybody’s different. Some people would never consider switching a dog’s food just to change kibble size. But this solution works for me because I tend to switch my dogs’ kibble around every once in a while anyway, just to make sure they are getting a variety of the lesser nutrients. So that doesn’t bother me. Plus none of mine has any particular digestive issues (knock on wood).

On days when I don’t plan any training, I can switch Zani back to the old kibble, or switch the other dogs to hers if I want. (Another consideration is whether the foods have a similar calorie count per volume or weight. Mine worked out to be close enough without any extra tinkering necessary.)

Sorry this doesn’t offer anything to the raw feeders, who have a whole different set of challenges.

I would love to hear from some folks with a bigger spread in their dogs’ weights. What do you all do?

Coming Up:

  • BarkBusters: Myths about Barking
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • Thesholds: The Movie!
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Summer Punches It

Summer Punches It

Targeting a plate with élan
Summer targets the plate so hard that her muzzle slips upwards. And look, her mouth stays closed!

I have learned a lot in the last three months. Yes, that’s how long it has taken for me to get Summer’s target behavior where I really wanted it.

Back in September I published a post about the many ways I had messed up Summer’s target behavior. I had lived with it a long time, but it really became a problem when I tried to use a target for distance behaviors because Summer kept biting it and trying to bring it to me.

So I decided to fix it “in public” and published a post with my training plan to fix the problems.

Here is the result!

What Happened

I made a few changes to the training plan along the way, but not all that many.

My training tracker spreadsheet first had the following columns:

  • date
  • criterion
  • number of reps
  • number of correct reps
  • correct reps as percent
  • goal percentage
  • comments

One of the first things I learned was that Summer was not the only one making correct and incorrect behaviors. I was sometimes marking the incorrect response! So I added two columns, one for my number of correct reps, and the other to express that as a percent. That made me clean up my act in a hurry, and pretty soon I was no longer marking incorrect behavior except once in a blue moon.

I also added a column for a moving average, to smooth out some of the noise in the graph and show the trends better. And just because I’m a nerd and I like that sort of thing.

Recall that one of the worst (out of six) problems we had was Summer’s biting the target, because of our retrieve work before we got target on cue.

I had picked a new hand position so as to change the picture completely for Summer, but my choice, which made it appear that I was holding a treat in my fingers, elicited even more teeth and biting from Summer at the beginning. (So ironic, since Summer is not at all a mouthy dog.)

After the first few sessions I came close to changing my hand position again because of all the teeth. But I decided to take the challenge and keep it. I really liked the touches I was getting from her.

Really, this was the hardest part and took the most time. It took a little more than a month of practicing only with my hand to get rid of the teeth. But I’m really glad I stuck with the new hand position because started getting much, much firmer and nicer touches from Summer than I ever had before.

After we got the hand touch, I tried transitioning to a target stick and that was disastrous. Bite city. The stick was a cue for the retrieve work we used to do. So I thought of an object that I could hold that she couldn’t bite. How about the back of a plastic plate?

Putting the spoon against the plate made it less tempting to bite
Putting the spoon against the plate made it less tempting to bite

So we did many reps with a plastic plate with a piece of blue painter’s tape on it. A good Internet friend points out that blue tape is nicely  visible to dogs. After about a month of that, I brought my target stick back out (it also has tape on it), and held it flat on the back of the plate. By making an interim step (splitting), I was able to transition her to the stick without having teeth. This was a huge step, and a good one towards my practical goal of being able to send Summer to a freestanding target stick to touch.

Where We Are Now

Over the weekend I tested Summer on hand, plate, and target stick touches and we got 100% correct! Not only that, but her touches have still nice and firm and she is eager to do it. No more drive bys for sure.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

You can see from the graph that I lifted from my tracking document that there are several dips in performance; those correspond to places where I raised criteria. But even counting those dips, her overall average was 86%. Keep in mind that my goal for percentage correct before proceeding each time was 95%, not the 80% that trainers typically shoot for before moving forward. You can see in the graph that we stayed on each step longer than we would have had to if that were our goal. It worked for Summer and me because neither of us minds repetition.

This graph covers 1,012 correct repetitions. Yes, you read that right. About 1,000 reps. Let that be a lesson. Try to train it right the first time!

Final Notes on Criteria and Method

I ended up changing one criterion from my original training plan. I had specified that I wanted Summer’s mouth to be closed. But  I got visually confused when I saw her approach with an open mouth, then close it just before the touch. I decided that was her business whether she wanted to leave her mouth open, as long as she touched my hand or the object with her nose/muzzle and not her teeth. This worked out for us.

I wrote in my previous post that I wanted to avoid negative punishment if possible. I did end up doing it a few times. Sometimes we would get in this loop where she would do an unacceptable touch and when she tried again, one of the undesirable behaviors would pop immediately back in. So a few times when I got a bite or felt teeth, I not only didn’t give her the treat, I pulled my hand back and paused, with a little break in the action. This was always followed by a correct response from Summer. The penalty did seem to communicate very well that I wanted touches and not bites. I probably did it fewer than 10 times in our 1,000 reps.

At the time it seemed more kind than letting her try over and over again without getting reinforced (extinction). A more skilled trainer probably wouldn’t have had to do either (and certainly wouldn’t have taken 1,000 reps!)

Notes about Future Steps

What’s left, following the Training Levels, is a foot touch (her nose to my foot), then touching a Post-it or piece of tape on the wall, with the final goal of pushing a cabinet door closed.

I don’t anticipate a problem with the foot touch, but the wall thing will be a challenge because we have done lots of wall touches with her paw. But I know how to be patient, and so does Summer.

Some final tasks will be a duration touch, mixing up Zen and target cues, and finally distinguishing target and retrieve cues. And of course I’ll need to generalize every one of these things and take them on the road.

Thanks for reading! I would love to hear more retraining stories. I’m not the only one, am I?

By the way, now that it’s done, here is the whole series in one place:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Teaching A Dog to Back Up

Teaching A Dog to Back Up

Would you like to see how to teach a dog to back up without walking into them? Today I’m featuring a video I made about that in 2011 that is quite popular on YouTube, but that I have never shown here.

A brown and white rat terrier is looking eagerly up at her human
Rat terrier Kaci says, “Train me!”

The video features the “channel” technique to teach backing up. You build a little channel out of furniture or household items, get your dog to go to the front of it by throwing a treat up there, then capture (click/treat) their backing up when they back out. This is only a good technique if your dog doesn’t mind small spaces. (Wait until you see my little demo dog! Kaci the rat terrier is fearless and very “in the game.”)

Continue reading “Teaching A Dog to Back Up”
Sharing the Blog

Sharing the Blog


Every once in a while someone asks me if it’s OK to share one of my posts or videos, or perhaps link to them from their webpage. How polite of them to ask!

And, um, the answer is YES! If you want to, please link. If you are moved to, please share.

I decided to write this invitation since I deliberately do not plead with people to share my stuff, to sign up to follow the blog, or to Like my FaceBook page. Those options are there for those who want them, but I promote them almost not at all.

It occurred to me, since people ask, that people may not really know that I would love my stuff to be shared around. So here is an invitation.

Pressure Tactics

I write a lot about negative reinforcement. One of the reasons, I admit, is that I personally hate pressure, nagging, and attempts to influence my behavior, especially by self-interested people. A good friend says of me, “You’ll get along just fine with Eileen as long as you don’t try to get her to do something she doesn’t want to do.” I have a huge opposition reflex.

Applying pressure on the web is easy. You know those pop up windows that either prompt or actually require you to put in your email address before you can see some content? That, my friends, is classic negative reinforcement. Even without the annoying window, it can be R-, if the reader feels pressure to sign up for something or share personal information or take any particular action in order to get to something that interests them.

Here’s one that popped up while I was reading the first few paragraphs of an article. I decided it wasn’t worth it. Even though they gave an option to bypass the window, I decided I didn’t like them anymore.

A pop up window that came up multiple times while I was glancing at an article

Here’s one that appeared after I scanned an SEO company and decided I wasn’t interested and was heading for the button to close the window.

A popup that appears when you try to leave this website
A pop up that appears when you try to leave this website without signing up for their services

After that I really wasn’t interested!

You won’t see popups on my blog or FaceBook page, as long as I am in control. (I can’t imagine a situation where I would lose that control, but I tend to avoid absolute statements. Especially regarding FaceBook!) And as long as I have the means, and the online providers don’t change the rules, you won’t see ads or anything else you have to click away on my blog or YouTube channel.

I do have empathy and respect for people who earn their living, or part of it, through providing online products and resources. I understand that the basic marketing principle is to provide some information for free, develop an email list, and use it to sell the product. Lots of folks are very generous with their information, and it’s fair to promote their goods or services that have a price tag as well. But just FYI, you marketers out there, I personally don’t respond well to:

  • Popups that appear before I can see anything at all on the website;
  • Popups that appear when I’ve spent 30 seconds on a website just trying to get the sense of it;
  • Popups that appear repeatedly after I close them;
  • And popups that appear when I try to leave.

It’s so ham-handed. I can make my own decisions, thank-you-very-much. Buh-bye.

I will certainly sign up for someone’s email list on occasion if they take a low pressure approach and put a signup box on the page somewhere, or if a popup comes up after I click to say I’m interested. And I have been known to pay for an ebook or other resource from someone after I sign up for their email distribution list. I’m not looking for a free lunch. I just want to make decisions on the merits that I perceive, not because someone got pushy.

There’s a difference between making it easy to buy something and hard not to.

My, this turned into a little bit of a rant, didn’t it?

Spreading the Word

So given all that, I’m an unlikely candidate for a proselyte, but that just goes to show you never know where life will take you.

One of my big motivations for writing is to share the message about training as free from force, pain, and pressure as we possibly can. Sure, I have an ego. I’m a writer. I want to be read. But I have an additional motivation. I want to share good training practices with the people who are teetering on the edge of what methods to use and are tired of battling with their dogs. I also want to reach those who always knew that was the way they wanted to go and support them. Anyone who wants to listen. I get huge positive reinforcement when people respond to my posts, riff off them, and spread them around.

So, I’m saying to you: if you think my stuff is helpful, I would LOVE it if you share it.

One of the main ways that a website, including a blog, gets ranked highly on Google is if other sites link to it. And sites that rank highly on Google get on the first page of results. For instance, wouldn’t you love it if this site came up high in the results if someone is searching on terms related to shock collars?  I would.

What to Share

Share whatever you like the most, feel the best about, and whatever you think will help spread the word about training without pressure and pain.

In the menu at the top of the blog, there are four menu items that lead to topical pages, but I will link them here as well:

But there are lots of posts that don’t fit into those categories. Along the sidebar there is a search box where you can look up an old favorite; a list of the currently most popular posts; and an archive where you can view older posts  by date.

How to Share It

At the bottom of each post and page is a panel that says “Share this:” with lots of sharing options. Feel free to pick one and click it! And if you have your own website or blog, feel free to link to any posts here that you like. You can highlight the URL at the top of your browser, copy it, and paste it to share.

How to Follow the Blog

In case you didn’t know of these options:

  • If you want WordPress to send you an email every time I publish a post, click “Follow Blog via Email” in the sidebar at the left.
  • If you want to follow me on Twitter, click here, then click Follow. I am not very active there, but I do tweet every new post and the occasional post from someone else.
  • If you want to get an announcement of each post on FaceBook, you can Like my FaceBook page.
  • If you want to follow via RSS, click on the RSS link in the sidebar.

Other Favorites

Just to share the love a little, here are my current top four favorite posts from other folks. Feel free to share them, too! (Note that I am breaking a cardinal rule here, and may be shooting myself in the foot by sending you off somewhere else right at this crucial moment. But hey, these are GREAT posts.)

Thank you, most of all, for reading!

And for sharing if you choose to.

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Summer Learns An Alternative to Being the Fun Police

Summer Learns An Alternative to Being the Fun Police

Sweet little Summer
Sweet little Summer

I have mentioned before that my dog Summer is reactive. Reactive has come to refer to a dog who reacts strongly (and inappropriately in the human’s view), usually with an aggressive display, to some specific triggers. Some of Summer’s triggers are strange dogs (in some settings), strange men (in even more settings), delivery trucks, certain noises other dogs make, and rowdy play on the part of her housemates. The latter earns her the moniker of a “Fun Police” dog. She tries to stop the other dogs when they do things that bother her, and she is not very nice about it.

Continue reading “Summer Learns An Alternative to Being the Fun Police”
But if You Use Negative Reinforcement Aren’t You Also Using Positive Punishment?

But if You Use Negative Reinforcement Aren’t You Also Using Positive Punishment?

Minus plus

Surprisingly, no. Not necessarily.

You could actually get my answer to this question by reading this other post: Only If The Behavior Decreases!  But of course I’m writing some more anyway.

This issue was a big stumbling block for me when I first started studying operant learning. If negative reinforcement requires for an aversive to be removed, then it had to get there in the first place, right? That’s only logical. So whenever it appeared, there must have been punishment, right? I used to argue about this in my head all the time. But the answer is no, it doesn’t follow that there necessarily was punishment. There absolutely could have been, but it is not logically necessary after all. Here’s why.

Positive punishment: Something is added after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening less often.

Look at the second half of the definition. I’ve harped on this before, largely because I need a lot of reminding myself. The definition of punishment (and reinforcement also) is recursive. We can only know if punishment has occurred by traveling to the future. If the behavior didn’t decrease, there was no punishment.

Aversives, Negative Reinforcement, and Positive Punishment

Employing an aversive and using negative reinforcement do not mean one is also positively punishing a behavior. I have this from the words of Susan Friedman, PhD, in one of her lectures in her Living and Learning with Animals Professional Course. For punishment to have occurred, a behavior must decrease in frequency. That’s the definition. And if one is in a negative reinforcement scenario, the behavior the animal is performing at the onset of the aversive could very well be randomized, because that is not the focus of the training. The animal may not always be doing the same thing when the aversive (e.g. shock,  pinch, pressure, nagging, or appearance of scary monster) starts.


R- collage 2
Some typical implements and examples of negative reinforcement. Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons (cat o’ nine tails; man scratching), Alan Cleaver (alarm clock), Eileen Anderson (shock collar and stuffed dog with tight leash)

If I decided to teach my sensitive dog Zani to back up by consistently walking into her whenever we were both in a certain hallway (note: I don’t teach backing up that way), her behavior of coming into that hallway when I was there would definitely decrease. Coming into the hallway with me would have been positively punished.

But let’s say in another training scenario I play a mildly aversive noise whenever I want Zani to come get on her mat in the kitchen, and the noise stays on until she gets there. The mat is a “safe place” and getting on it turns off the noise. (Again, I would not do this.) Zani could be anywhere in the house when the noise starts. Her behavior at the onset is randomized, so nothing gets punished. But if I started doing it consistently when she was sitting in a particular chair, she would likely stop getting in that chair.

Since we humans fall into patterns so easily, it is very easy for positive punishment to start happening when we regularly use an aversive. But the point is that it does not have to happen.

Let’s face it, people use noxious stimuli all the time without behavior decreasing. That’s one of the many problems with trying to use positive punishment: unless the noxious stimulus is strong enough (and well timed enough, and several other criteria), the original behavior may maintain its strength.


So does this mean that negative reinforcement is OK? No. An aversive is an aversive. Just because there is no positive punishment going on doesn’t mean that the training is humane.

If you wanted to reword the question in the title, you could say, “But if you use negative reinforcement aren’t you also using an aversive, just like in positive punishment?” As long as it is recognized that the aversive is used in a different way, the answer is yes.

But the funny thing is, I’ve heard the relationship between the two processes that use aversives used to make two opposite claims, neither of them true in my opinion.

First is the claim implicit in the title. It usually goes like this:

If you use negative reinforcement, therefore you are using positive punishment, so neeter neeter neeter.

I have dealt with that one above.

The second claim goes like this:

Yes, you can have negative reinforcement without positive punishment. And that’s the GOOD kind of negative reinforcement. As long as there is not positive punishment going on,  negative reinforcement can actually be kind of nice.

Excuse me? The existence or non-existence of concomitant positive punishment is irrelevant to how aversive a stimulus is. It is possible to train with a shock collar using a negative reinforcement protocol, for instance.   Again, as long as the point at which the shock is turned on is fairly random with regard to the dog’s behavior, you may not necessarily see a decrease in a behavior as a result of the commencement of the shock.

Negative reinforcement is only one notch up from positive punishment on the Humane Hierarchy, and for good reason.  It always involves an aversive, and employs escape and avoidance, pure and simple. So don’t anybody dare use my argument above showing that there is not necessarily positive punishment in order to say that negative reinforcement is OK.

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Leaving the Scene: Clarifying the Science of Negative Reinforcement

Leaving the Scene: Clarifying the Science of Negative Reinforcement

Hares escape a lot (if they are lucky)
Hares escape a lot (if they are lucky) — Photo credit, Wikimedia Commons

Negative reinforcement is really, really easy to get mixed up about. Recently I read something that quite bothered me until I did a little research and figured it out. I’d like to share what I learned with you. What I’m talking about is this:

When I take my dog away from the thing he is concerned about, I am adding distance. Therefore this is positive reinforcement.

This is contrary to what you would read in most learning theory books, but it has its own seductive logic. We are primed to associate the word “add” with positive reinforcement (or positive punishment).  I love puzzles and problems, so I decided to do my best to tease out what, exactly, the problem with this statement is.

I  actually found two problems:

  • One is the confusion between positive and negative reinforcement.
  • The other is the focus on the word “distance” rather than the aversive thing itself.

Positive and Negative Reinforcement in Training

First, a review of definitions.

In positive reinforcement, the consequence of a behavior is the appearance of, or an increase in the intensity of, a stimulus. This stimulus, called a positive reinforcer, is ordinarily something the individual seeks out.–Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior, 7th edition

The stimulus can be lots of things. An object (food or toy), an event (door opening). The dog learns that performing a certain behavior (e.g. sitting), makes this thing available. If it is a desirable thing in that context, the dog sits more often.

In negative reinforcement, a behavior is strengthened by the removal, or a decrease in the intensity of, a stimulus. This stimulus, called a negative reinforcer, is ordinarily something the individual tries to escape or avoid.–Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior, 7th edition

Again, it can be an object (snake) or event (fire alarm ringing). The dog learns that performing a certain behavior makes the thing stop or retreat, or lets him get away from it. If the thing is aversive for the dog in that context, the behavior that makes it go away will increase.

The positive and negative reinforcement processes are pretty different. But there are a handful of situations where it may be hard to tell one from the other. But usually, you can do that by identifying the antecedent. If the antecedent is the presence of an aversive stimulus, and a behavior is increasing, you’ve got negative reinforcement.

There are some people who have claimed that there is not a large difference between the two types of reinforcement,** and there are others who use that point of view to excuse the use of aversive stimuli in training, or do mental gymnastics to convert such use to positive reinforcement.  But luckily a well-known behaviorist has tackled those claims.


Here is one of the “strained” examples and how one well known behaviorist approaches it. It has been argued that turning off an electric shock in response to an animal’s behavior is actually “adding a shock free environment,” (and that adding makes it positive reinforcement).  That argument has been neatly dismantled by Dr. Murray Sidman.

He reminds us that a positive reinforcer must be something the animal is willing to work (perform behavior) to get. And if you take the bad thing (in this case, shock) out of the picture, a “shock free” environment is meaningless and can’t even be defined, much less worked for.

Let’s apply that method as a litmus test to some other examples. Let’s take out the “icky” thing and see what we have left.

These examples involve either negative or positive reinforcement or both.

• First, food. If you remove the drive of hunger (relieving the state of hunger can be negative reinforcement), is food a positive reinforcer? Yes. Anyone who owns a dog or eats dessert knows that. And I’ve written a whole post about it. You don’t have to be hungry to enjoy and be willing to work for food. Eating food can be both negative and positive reinforcement. (But as I pointed out in my previous post, experiments indicate that the positive reinforcement process is more powerful.)

• Now, how about using an umbrella to protect oneself from the rain? There is an unpleasant condition (getting rained on), you perform the behavior of obtaining an umbrella and opening it over your head, and you escape the rain. This is in most textbooks as a classic example of negative reinforcement. What happens if we say that using the umbrella is really positive reinforcement because you are adding the state of “freedom from rain” or even “dryness”? Let’s follow Dr. Sidman’s lead and take away the rain or other unpleasant weather. Would the behavior of opening an umbrella over your head get reinforced by the “addition” of a dry condition?  No. Carrying around and opening an umbrella is a tiresome, expensive behavior. We wouldn’t do it to add something so ill-defined and meaningless.

A black scorpion -- photo credit, Wikimedia Commons
A black scorpion — photo credit, Wikimedia Commons

• So now to tackle the scenario in the subject. Escaping scary things. Let’s say you are phobic of scorpions. If you accidentally get close to one, it is a great relief to leave the area and go somewhere that you believe is scorpion-free. You escape the scorpion. Now, remove scorpions from the picture. Completely. Not just that scorpion, or even scorpions in general, but the threat or mildest hint of scorpions. They don’t exist. What does a scorpion-free environment look like? Well, anything, right?  As long as there are no scorpions. And is it a positive reinforcer? Well, for starters, we can’t even describe it.  Anytime you start thinking of the environment you ran to as reinforcing, it’s because you are comparing it to one with scorpions or some other scary thing.

The Huge Variety of “Scorpion-Free” Environments

A scorpion free environment
A scorpion free environment — photo credit, Wikimedia Commons

Your scorpion free environment could range from freezing to firestorms to 200 mph winds to vacuum to a 70 degree Sunday afternoon,  and all could be scorpion free. That makes the “scorpion-free” environment impossible to nail down to define.

Not only that, but Sidman points out that the environment could be changing.  As long as it doesn’t have a scorpion in it, it qualifies as scorpion free. But reinforcers generally need to sit still. A piece of meat doesn’t usually morph into a paperclip, nor does a book turn into a clock. If they did, they would lose their reinforcing qualities for hungry people or bookworms respectively.

Reinforcers are definable and describable. I don’t believe a “scorpion-free environment” is.  Compare that to the simple description of a scorpion (ick). That’s very concrete. And to the clear action of becoming aware of the scorpion and getting away from it. The scorpion is extremely well defined. And many people (including me) can’t get away from them fast enough.

Can Distance Itself be a Reinforcer or Punisher?

Here is the second problem. Even if you are in the camp that believes that any negative reinforcement situation can be equally argued to be positive, there is still a big problem. Most of us have learned that using the word “add” is an indicator that positive reinforcement (or punishment) is at play. Something is added to the environment after a behavior that in the future leads to the increase (or decrease) of the behavior.

So at first reading, the idea of adding distance or space from something scary sounds at least similar to positive reinforcement. You are adding something (maybe). But let’s go back to Sidman’s exercise. If you take the aversive, scary thing out, what you are “adding” is nothing at all. If you are standing at the 50-yard line in a football field and move to the 20-yard line, what have you added? The distance or space are meaningless except as escapes from the aversive.

So here’s the important part. It is not distance that is being added or removed.  Distance is an abstraction, not a stimulus. It is the aversive or reinforcer that is being added or removed. Distance is merely a description of the escape (or approach) process. The aversive is the scary monster. Only it can be removed or added. Controlling one’s distance from it is just a way of describing the mechanism of the appearance/disappearance of the aversive.

Also, it is a trick of wording. If you wanted, instead of “adding” distance you could say you were “removing” proximity. Focusing on distance is a red herring. And it neatly removes the real aversive from the picture.

I wrote the following in jest, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that what I have written for the other quadrants is exactly parallel to the claims about adding distance being positive reinforcement. It’s just that the other quadrants are easier to understand, so it’s easier to be aware of flawed logic.


These are the results if we treat distance as the focus. They are obviously untrue. That’s because the aversives and reinforcers are not “distance.” They are the scary monster, the cookie, and the stick. If you talk about “adding distance” what happens to the actual thing we are trying to get away from? It falls out of the equation.

So did this help at all? Does it make sense? Hope so!

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube


I should mention that there has been a movement for some time to do away with the distinctions between positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment. This is mostly because of the few challenging cases, and because the processes of reinforcement and punishment are difficult enough to discuss and explain without the plusses and minuses. But it is not usually argued that there is no difference between adding and subtracting at all. I’m working on a summary of that research, so stay tuned. But in the meantime–you will still see the plusses and minuses in any learning theory book.


Only if the Behavior Decreases!

Only if the Behavior Decreases!

This post is paired with “Only if the Behavior Increases!”

You knew I would get around to talking about punishment, right?

Cricket demand barking
Cricket demand barking. I reinforced this for years. But not by yelling.

Q: If you yell at your dog when she barks, is that positive punishment?

A: Only if the barking decreases over time. (And how often does THAT happen?)

So the answer is, “Not usually.” Or honestly, “Almost never.”

Positive punishment is the presentation of a stimulus following a behavior that decreases the strength of the behavior.

Positive punishment is not merely doing something a dog doesn’t like after they do something you don’t like. Again, we must look at the consequences, just like with reinforcement.

What usually happens in the barking scenario, if we are honest about it, is that the barking is interrupted. This has nothing to do with whether punishment is happening or not, however. Punishment depends on future behavior. We’re looking for that decrease. So if your dog barks Every. Single. Time. the doorbell rings even though you yell at her Every, Single. Time–no punishment is going on there since she is just as barky the next time. (And you know she’s likely practicing it when you’re not there too, right?)

I’m serious about the most common outcome in the barking situation being that there was no punishment.  How often have you heard someone say, “I yelled at my dog after he barked, and he barks a whole lot less now! Now I only have to yell every once in a while to keep him from barking at all!”


If we only had to yell a couple of times to get a behavior to stop, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.

I’ve read that yelling is even less effective with birds. Apparently, some screaming parrots think human yelling is quite a lot of fun!

What Is It, Then?

In all seriousness though, am I saying that therefore yelling is intrinsically great and harmless and OK? Of course not. For some dogs, it’s very aversive. And if a behavior is not changing, you can’t hide behind that and say it’s OK since there is no P+. That’s still no excuse to hurt, intimidate, or scare your dogs. Many of the ineffective uses of aversives we see come down to plain abuse, not punishment or negative reinforcement.

On the other hand, a yell can be neutral, or it can be a great thing. And some rough and tumble dogs living in noisy households think nothing of yelling. They don’t even notice.

And for dogs who are initially bothered by yelling, that can be changed. When I’m startled, I tend to yell, “Hey!” I’m a pretty quiet person and have a quiet household and yelling “Hey”  used to scare a couple of my dogs. So I took some time earlier this year to classically condition it, just as I conditioned Clara to have a positive response to other dogs barking.  I would take a dog out of earshot of the others, yell “Hey,” a few times, and pay up each time with a nice treat. I built up in intensity. After each dog had a few turns over a few days, I did it with all three together, then we took it to real life. Now they know that if I lose it and yell, it’s “yippie!” time. My yelling is a predictor of a treat. The yelling is similar to the sound of a can opener, a dish being scraped, or supper being measured out.  I did the conditioning because I’m human, and I absolutely do not want my dogs to be scared of me.

So I have to smile when people insist that yelling is positive punishment. Not in my household it ain’t!

Some people include “angry” tones of voice when conditioning their dogs to respond to their names, and I think this is brilliant. (Just don’t start out that way! Do a few thousand repetitions with a nice voice first. Check out the “Classical Conditioning” section of this post if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) So even if the human is tired and cranky when they call their dog or speak to him, the dog still associates their name with great stuff.


I was inspired to write these two posts after I had left out consequences when discussing reinforcement for the umpteenth time. Just a friendly reminder to myself–and all you out there–to pay attention to future consequences, and remember to include them when we even think about reinforcement and punishment. It’s not just about what we do. It’s about what happens after that.

This is not nitpicking. This is the guts of the science.

Go back and check out the other post in this pair:  “Only if the Behavior Increases!”

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

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