Reinforcement & Punishment in Operant Conditioning

In this article I'm discussing reinforcement and punishment as it relates to the training method of operant conditioning. To achieve a dog which willingly wants to work with the trainer, we tend to think only 'positive' methods work the best, but keep in mind when dealing with this type of training positive means the addition of a stimulus; negative stands for the subtraction of a stimulus.

In regards to the tools available in operant conditioning, there can be a total of four contexts:

  • Positive Reinforcement is the addition of a favorable stimulus after a desired behavior has occurred. E.g., a treat or toy is presented for good behavior.

  • Negative Reinforcement is the subtraction of an undesirable stimulus after desired behavior has occurred. E.g., a dog on leash acts calmly - or displays some other form of obedience - and the owner takes the leash off. A leash itself is a negative reinforcer since it keeps the dog from moving freely where he wants to go.

  • Positive Punishment is the addition of an undesirable stimulus at the onset of undesirable behavior. E.g., a shock collar or electric fence.

  • Negative Punishment is the removal of a desired stimulus after undesirable behavior has occurred. E.g., a family friend comes to visit and upon entering the house begins petting the dog, but the dog becomes too excited so the friend ceases giving attention to the dog until she settles.
While the most 'upbeat' form discussed here is positive reinforcement, the other methods have their place, too. The only form of training I don't condone is positive punishment. It's a "quick fix" which actually teaches a dog to become fearful and untrusting, since he's not sure when he'll get shocked, hit or yelled at next. Instead of focusing on what a dog is doing "wrong," why not work with him to encourage what he's doing right?


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