Reinforcement vs. Punishment in Training

There are many types of styles of training and many professionals cannot agree on what type is best. There are two base styles: Punishment and Reinforcement. Punishment involves decreasing the frequency of a behaviour while reinforcement is increasing or maintaining the frequency of a behaviour that you like. Both base types have a negative and a positive form.


Positive Reinforcement is adding a positive stimulus (such as a treat or praise) to increase a new desirable behaviour or maintain a current one. For most pet parents, this is the most common type of training suggested and personally this the one I most support. It is also called ‘reward-based’ training. In my opinion, training should always be a positive experience so your animal looks forward to the many mini-obedience sessions.


Negative Reinforcement is removing a negative stimulus in order to have the animal associate the experience with the positive feeling of relief. Typically this is when someone asks them repeatedly to do something they don’t like, but they begrudgingly do it to get peace from being bothered.


Positive Punishment is adding a negative stimulus such as scolding or a prong collar in order to decrease the frequency of a bad behaviour. This is typically suggested only for ‘unruly’ or ‘aggressive’ dogs.


Negative Punishment is removing a positive stimulus to decrease a behaviour. This is frequently demonstrated as ‘removing a privilege’ such as sleeping on the bed or going to work with a pet parent.


Dogs learn through simple associations. One common method of training is clicker training. Clicker training uses a distinct and consistent noise to mark a desired behavior in real time and then immediately follows that signal with a motivating reward. Because animals associate the noise with the reward, they learn rapidly if you time the clicker correctly to the ideal behaviour.


Clicker training is also traditionally paired with behaviour shaping. For example, if you are teaching them to sit, you initially click and reward when they lower their rear. When they understand that, you then reward when they lower it further. Eventually you progress to the final version of the behaviour which in this case would be rear on the ground and eye contact.


For a more complex trick, behaviour shaping is more complicated. For example, with the command ‘bow’ you have to teach them ‘stand’ first. Try initiating the command from a ‘sit’ position because standing is a natural stance. Once the dog grasps that then you can gently place your arm under their lower belly and lower a treat from their nose to between their front paws. When their body begins to move downwards, click and reward. They may initially try a ‘lay down’ when you remove your arm for the first time. Luckily ‘bow’ is a natural play behaviour in well-socialized dogs so with a bit of practice, they will soon be impressing everyone with their manners.


Copyright of Birch Animal Wellness, 2021

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