But “Purely Positive” is a LIE!

This remark has been hurled at me. How about you?

I certainly don’t call myself “purely positive” or particularly like the term. But here it comes at me, predictable as clockwork, anyway.

The reason this keeps happening is in the “short version” below. I also talk about why I don’t care for the term. But that’s not quite the whole story. The “long version” covers why we might not want to estrange ourselves completely from the goal of positive reinforcement training.

The Short Version

“Purely positive,” or sometimes, “all positive,” are terms most often used as epithets by force trainers to refer to trainers who avoid force and aversives.  They are used as a straw men in arguments.

A Straw Man is a misrepresentation of an opponent’s argument that is usually laughably extreme and easy to disprove. That’s its purpose. The person who creates the Straw Man can knock it down and play like they have disproved their opponent’s actual argument.

Here is an example of a Straw Man. Judith runs a landscaping business.

Closeup of pink petunias--soft, bright pink flowers dark centers and large petals
Pink Petunias or Straw Man?

Judith: “The pink petunias withered up and died back early this year. I guess they are more attractive to certain pests or maybe it’s because they came from a different supplier and just weren’t as healthy to start with. Since the pure red ones did so much better I guess I’ll use red next year whenever possible.”

Cindy: “What have you got against pink? If you stop using pink flowers of any kind you’ll lose customers! Whoever heard of a landscaper who doesn’t use pink? That’s ridiculous!”

Cindy recast Judith’s concerns about a problem specific to pink petunias, as a global, irrational objection to all pink flowers. Note that Cindy could have argued logically against Judith’s actual reasons. She could have said, “That didn’t look like a pest-borne problem,” or “But you ordered other plants from that supplier that did just fine,” or “I read that this was an especially bad year for the Pink Petunia Bug but they emerge on a seven year cycle. Pink petunias will probably do fine next year.”   These statements would have addressed what Judith actually said and they might have had a good discussion. Instead, Cindy instantly morphed Judith’s statement into something else, then acted as if Judith were being extremely unreasonable.

People generally construct Straw Men when they have a dearth of logical arguments. Once in a while they have an honest misunderstanding. If that happens, the person who built the Straw Man can be gently presented with one’s real point of view and a discussion of its true merits and faults may ensue. But sometimes Straw Men are constructed by people who just want to win at all costs, the truth be damned, or are used consciously by people who know that what they are saying is untrue. When someone does that, it’s generally the case that they are not going to listen to your true point of view or play by the rules of polite conduct in an argument.

The reason that bringing up “purely positive” is a Straw Man is that virtually no one is claiming to be a 100% positive reinforcement trainer.

I’m sure not, but I’ve been reamed up one side and down the other for supposedly claiming to be “all positive.” The person got a real kick out of “proving” that all positive wasn’t possible, when that wasn’t even relevant to our discussion and certainly not to my training.

If someone starts ranting about “Purely Positive Zealots” at this point I will only go one round in a discussion, then quit. I seek to be calm in the face of their misrepresentation. Whatever I write will be done with others who may be reading in mind. Then I’m out. There’s no point in having a discussion with someone who is clinging to irrelevancies, not to mention mocking me.

Nomenclature Problems

Large plus sign in black on a white backgroundAs has been pointed out by many trainers, since the operant learning nomenclature uses “positive” in a mathematical sense and it can apply both to reinforcement and punishment, the waters get muddy immediately if one calls oneself (or is called) a “positive trainer.” In operant learning, positive just means you add something as a consequence to a behavior, and it can be a good something or a bad something. So there are both positive reinforcement and positive punishment under the umbrella of positive. Oops! And we’ve left negative punishment, the type that does not involve applying an aversive, by the wayside.

The term “positive trainer” is not even close to accurate.

Even though like most other people I do fall into using the term sometimes as a shorthand, I think calling ourselves “positive” anything is a bad idea. It muddies the waters. It adds a glamour to a term that we need to be un-glamourizing. “Positive” has, and needs to have, a specific, quasi-mathematical meaning.

The Longer Version, Or, What if it Were Possible After All?

However. It’s more complicated than what I wrote above.

The problem with saying, “Hey, ‘purely positive’ is a myth and an insult” and leaving it at that is that it erases it as a beautiful paradigm. It implies that one must use something farther down the Humane Hierarchy than positive reinforcement to train an animal successfully. We don’t want to imply that, do we?

I’ve discussed before that research has shown that animals do not need to make mistakes to learn a behavior. Although this is counterintuitive to us, they do not have to know “what is wrong” to know what is right. Also, punishment (including negative punishment) is not necessary to teach a behavior well, or to “prepare an animal for real life,” or toughen the animal up. I wrote a whole post about that too.

I think that those of us who are aiming for the positive reinforcement paradigm are the ones who are in the best position to know exactly how much success we are having. We are confronted with real life every day with our animals and know when we’re not using positive reinforcement exclusively and are grown up enough to be honest about it. The force avoiding trainers I know are extremely willing to identify and classify every training technique they use. For instance, when they are using negative punishment or extinction, they will say so, and they will define the terms for those who don’t understand.

Then there’s the fact that we live with our dogs. Negative reinforcement is probably a daily occurrence in most households with dogs (think spatial issues; body blocking; momentary leash pressure). My opinion is that a person would have to have godlike foresight to be able to avoid every situation in which it could occur. And believe me, I work to avoid it!

A tan dog with a black muzzle and black tail is running very fast
Clara’s recall was trained with positive reinforcement

The important thing is that I can’t think of a time when aiming for a method more centered on positive reinforcement (or an intervention even less intrusive) has harmed my training. It has helped numerous times. It helps me and my dogs for me to think about the ways I teach things and get creative about training behaviors without negative punishment or negative reinforcement (or positive punishment of course) when possible. I know for me it is easy to get set in my ways, and something really nice can emerge when I apply myself to thinking about a familiar behavior as if it is the first time I’ve taught it.

Aiming to train without punishment at all (including without negative punishment) and without negative reinforcement is a beautiful goal and I don’t think we need to be apologizing for that.

This post is part of a series:

Coming up:

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