Positives of Negatives & Negatives of Positives

Thanks to all who have commented so far in answer to the questions “Are you a 100 % positive trainer?” and “Would you sign a pledge to only use positive reinforcement and never use punishment?” I appreciate the thoughtful discussion that the questions have generated. I’ll jump in now, with the caveat that this topic deserves an all day seminar (at least) and I can’t begin to say all I’d like to in one post. I’ll start however, by summarizing some of my thoughts on the issue.

Let me start by saying that I consider myself to be an overwhelmingly “positive” trainer.  I would imagine that those who have seen me work would agree that I am a kind and gentle trainer, and primarily use positive reinforcement when working with dogs. That said, I’d never sign a pledge saying I’ll only “use positive reinforcement” in all my dealings with dogs. I wouldn’t consider it for a moment. Here’s why:

1. As most of us are well aware, the word “punishment” itself refers to two completely different concepts, depending on whether you are talking to the public or to professionals in animal training or psychology. I virtually never use the word when talking to the general public or a client, unless I define it first in operant conditioning terms. That’s because the public and generic dog owner usually defines “punishment” as something inherently aversive, and often as something involving pain or fear. But in operant terms, punishment simply means anything that decreases the frequency of a behavior, and that should be well understood by any professional group involved in dog training. If someone in the dog training field asked me to sign a pledge that I’d never use “punishment,” I’d assume they were aware of its precise meaning, and decline, being unable to say “I’d never do anything to decrease the frequency of a behavior.”

2. I love “Negative Punishment.” What? Trisha loves “negative” and “punishment?” Oh my, say it isn’t so. But remember: in learning theory terms, “negative” means to take something away and “punishment” means to decrease the frequency of a behavior. Period, that’s all. Nothing about aversive, or even “good” or “bad” for that matter.

Here’s an example: Say I’ve been working with a young dog for six months on sitting when asked. We’ve proofed the behavior in a million contexts, and Fido has gotten 10 gazillion pieces of chicken and 5 gazillion other times he’s got to run and play with another dog when he did as asked. Now we’re at home, there’s little going on, but Fido didn’t sit when I gave the cue. I’m as sure as one can be without speaking ‘dog” that there’s nothing physically bothering him, he just seems more interested in ignoring me and going somewhere else to sniff. I’ll take a piece of said chicken, let him sniff it and then withdraw it, saying, melodramatically, “Too bad…. ” and possibly, depending on the state of the chicken and my stomach, “Mmmm, this sure is good! Too bad you don’t get any.”

That’s “negative punishment:” I took something away (food) to decrease a behavior (ignoring my cue). I didn’t learn this technique until I’d been in the business for quite awhile, but I use it, in the right context, and have found it to be really and truly effective. (Leslie Nelson, for her great Reliable Recalls, uses a similar technique in which one dog ends up watching other dogs get treats when he didn’t come when called.) In the example above, once I’d withdrawn the food, I ask for a sit again, and then I’d back up so that my feet don’t get squished by the dog’s hindquarters hitting the ground. That’s how effective it is. I only use this once a dog has received positive reinforcement literally over and over and over again, and when I feel confident that he understands the exercise and is capable of performing it (not feeling poorly that day, not overwhelmed by a new environment, for example). But let’s be clear: it’s punishment, if you are going to use the term correctly.

3. What’s Positive for the Trainer may not be Positive for the Dog: As the opposite of “Punishment,” “Reinforcement,”is something that increases a behavior, period. If it’s “positive” (I’ll use +R here for Positive Reinforcement) then you have added something to the system, if it’s negative (-R), you’ve taken something away. In either case, you are looking for a behavior to increase. So how would you evaluate these  scenarios:

Scenario One is, regrettably, astoundingly common: A shy dog is greeted by a person, whether it’s a vet tech or a neighbor, with shrieks of joy and looming hugs and/or kisses to the nose. The person is being “positive” in their eyes, but the dog is being punished for its very existence, terrified as it is by the rude and overwhelming approach by the stranger. A perfect of example of +P to the dog  and +R to the human.

In Scenario Two, a trainer is waiting for a dog to raise it’s paw so that she can use +R and give it a treat, on her way to shaping a “high five.” The dog, having no clue what the trainer wants, tries sitting, circling, and lying down. The trainer stays still and quiet, an atypical posture for her, and turns her head away very slightly. She has just used +P to communicate to the dog, adding in an unnatural posture and an obvious turn of the head (obvious to the dog anyway) to decrease the frequency of the dog’s response in that context.

4. Positive Punishment (in which something is added to decrease the frequency of a behavior) isn’t always aversive. For example, after watching herding dogs influence the behavior of sheep without touching them, I took a page from their lesson plan and began using what I called “Body Blocks.”  For example, while teaching Stay, I’ll give a dog infinite quantities of treats for staying still when asked, but also move forward to block her movement if she starts to get up. “Taking the space” I’ve called it, and I’ve found it to be incredibly useful in helping dogs understand what you want. (This is similar to the Psych study one commenter noted, in which students were “trained” to perform a new behavior by either 1) only being told “Yes” when they did right, 2) only being told “No” when they did wrong or, 3) being told both “Yes” and “No.” The students who were told both what was right and what was wrong learned fastest.)

I realize that some people consider Body Blocks to be highly aversive to dogs, and don’t use them. One commenter noted that she never used Body Blocks, feeling that they were too aversive to use on her dogs. Two things come to mind here: one is that I’ve done Body Blocks on one or two dogs now (or maybe 5,000), and can tell you that they respond in a myriad of ways. Some field-bred Labradors seem to think it’s the best game in town, and try their best to beat you, eyes shining, until they figure out soon enough that something even better happens if they just stay still for a moment. They behave as though, if they could, they’d say “That was fun! Got any more cool games up your sleeve?” However, super soft dogs, let’s imagine a melty little Shetland Sheepdog, need a quiet little forward lean to be influenced, and if someone moved too fast and too abruptly they could indeed scare them. This is a perfect example of how important it is for a trainer to be able to ‘read’ a dog,  no matter what method they are using I would argue, and adjust their behavior based on the personality of the dog him or herself.

5. However, this does raise the question, the elephant in the room really, of using “aversives.” Are “Aversives” always bad? Ah, here’s where the rubber hits the road, isn’t it? We can all debate about what is +P and -P and +R and -R to our heart’s content, but isn’t the issue really “Is it ever acceptable to purposefully respond to a dog’s behavior with something that they perceive as aversive?” My own answer is another reason why I’d never sign a pledge to never use punishment, even as defined by the public. Life is just too complicated to be summed up in simple categories of black and white.

Do I think that we have a responsibility to be kind and gentle to our dogs? Yes.

Do I think that Positive Reinforcement is overwhelmingly the most effective method of training? Yes.

Do I use it 99.99% of the time? Yes.

Have I ever done something to a dog that I knew he would think was aversive to get him to stop doing something? Yes. Would I again? Yes.

Here’s an example:

When Willie first started working sheep, he had a bad habit of dashing into the flock and scattering them as if he was playing pool. Alisdair McRae, a brilliant trainer and teacher, explained that I simply had to prevent it from happening during the early stages of training, because there was nothing I could do that was more reinforcing to Willie. Not only did he get to watch the sheep bolt away (look what I can do!) and then chase them (wow is this fun!), he got to disperse the tension inside of his own body (and boy do I feel better!). So I set up practice after practice in which I was between him and the sheep, and just my presence was enough for him to stay back where he should when working. But once I had to move back away from the flock to begin short outruns, he began doing it again. We went back to working in closer, but every time I backed away far enough he’d eventually dash in, scatter the sheep and turn around, body relaxed, eyes shining, mouth open, having gotten the best reinforcement he could possibly get.

I began walking him away in response: you bolt in, session over. This helped a great deal, but not enough. Eventually, after several months of work, Willie charged in, for what I believed to be the simple joy of it. I responded a gruff voice (“Cut it out!”) and a fast and direct march toward him. I stopped a long way away but looked directly at him and said again, in no uncertain terms “You cut that out!” Willie, an extremely biddable dog, backed up and looked absolutely shocked . . . and didn’t do it again. He now has the most gorgeous outrun you can imagine, and he works right on balance 99.99% of the time.  Every once in a while, when he’s very tense, he’ll begin to dash in and I’ll say his name low and quiet, and he’ll curve back out again. Do I feel badly about raising my voice in that context years ago? No, not at all. Does that mean I use aversives often in training? Not at all. I quite literally never use them in any trick or “obedience” training, and primarily use +P and “Premack principle” methods to solve behavioral problems. (For example, Willie learned to lie down while working sheep because lying down on cue became the window to getting to work more.)

I’ll talk more next week about what’s critical to do or not do IF one is going to use punishment, but right now it’s time to go let Willie out to pee. No doubt relieving his bladder will be +R for him!

MEANWHLE, back on the farm: We’re pretty much at storm central here, being pummeled by ice and sleet at the same time that the politics of the area are swirling around in a social and legislative blizzard of epic proportions. (I’m right outside of Madison WI, and teach at the University, which is pretty much the eye of the storm here. FYI, for those of you out of the country, there is a huge political debate going on here, involving almost 70,000 protesters at our state capitol over the weekend. Enough said about that, except that everyone I’ve talked to agrees that the energy of the entire area is palpable, and not so much in a good way. I wonder if the dogs can sense it?)

Poor Willie injured his left foreleg again on Friday, darn. He’s been on leash restriction since then and he’s improving nicely, but not enough to let him off leash yet. If it’s not better in a day or so I’ll take him in to my sports medicine specialist vet. So Willie is bored and Sushi is disgusted–last week the warmer weather had her happily outside for hours at a time, now she’s sitting at the window slashing her tail. After I slide my way to the barn and feed the sheep we’ll do a bunch of trick training tonight a perfect time to exercise their brains instead of their bodies!

Here are some lovely clouds from a few mornings ago:


  1. Beth says

    There are times when an aversive is the best option for all involved.

    We had an old cat who passed on last January. She hated the dogs and either ignored or hissed at them. When we brought home the new kitten, my female Corgi (who was not raised with cats, but knew the old one) at first was terrified and hid, then became fascinated. Fascination led to stalking/chasing. The kitten would go under or behind the couch and Maddie would stare, transfixed, for half an hour at a time. Nothing would get her attention except waving food in front of her nose. She would only watch me long enough to get the food, then go back to her obsession. She already knew to look at me in response to her name, but she was deaf while this was going on and would not even come when she heard me go to get treats (anyone who has a Corgi knows this is a sure thing, but even that sound would not break her stare).

    I tried touching her, blocking her, and leashing her but nothing helped and the behavior seemed to be escalating. Body blocks helped if I could get between her and the kitten in time (I would body-block her backwards til she turned away and immediately reward and treat the turnaway), but frequently I could not.Finally, I resorted to the squirt bottle. I would say “Maddie, look!” in my bright-and-cheery voice. Maddie would not look and so Maddie got one squirt with the bottle. That startled her, she broke her stare and glanced at me at which I immediately said “Maddie! Good girl.”

    Twice. I squirted her twice, while immediately rewarding the ensuing look, and that was all it took to get her to pay attention and look at me when I asked her to. I was then able to continue training her to focus on me instead of the cat until we were able to extinguish the stalking/chasing behavior.

    Positive only was not working, and moreover was making life unsafe for the kitten, who of course also deserves a peaceful home.

    For a dog with a very high prey drive, getting them off a chase without an aversive can be quite difficult. This same dog once planted herself outside a hole where a chipmunk had gone to ground and would not even come when I waved cheese (her favorite) in front of her face. When the behavior the dog is engaged in is more rewarding than anything you can offer, I think sometimes an aversive is in order.

  2. Alexandra says

    Great discussion, very educational and I look forward to reading more. I got a chuckle out of your comments about Labradors and body blocks. I have a lab who pretty much lives by the philosophy that life is a contact sport. I *literally* have to body block him and brace for impact sometimes! When he was a puppy, he’d occasionally careen right off my shins and be completely unphased.

  3. says

    One of my friends is the dog trainer for our local police department K-9 corps. He does rely on positive reinforcement but he is quick to point out that what works with one dog might not be a template for all training.

    Dogs are individual just as people are individual. The dogs he trains are expensive imported Belgian Malinois (is that the plural?) and they must respond instantly in stressful situations. If a negative is required to teach the desired behavior, then he will use it. That makes more sense to me than committing one self to a pledge.

  4. says

    When I first started my journey to positive training, I wanted to be 100% positive. It didn’t take me long to realize that I could never be purely positive while providing some kind of feedback to my dogs. I may not be inflicting discomfort or pain (my personal interpretation of “negative” training), but they don’t always love my message, especially if I’m using a non-reward marker (NRM).

    Your post hits the nail on the head for me . . . in fact, I would be proud to be the kind of trainer you are (I’m always working to be better). I’ve watched some of your seminars on DVD, as well as a couple of your training DVDs, and the love the dogs have for you is clear. What more could a dog trainer want, especially when their training is effective?

    I read this blog religiously, and soak up ANY new material you have. Thank you for taking the time to write this blog, and for sharing with your many fans!

  5. says

    As a field lab owner let me tell you, they do think it’s a game, but I use them and find ways to win :-)

    I completely agree that reading a dog and knowing which path to take is the key to training.

    Not to hijack but subject but boy oh boy did I come on something odd when training that field lab today. I wanted to teach him to finish right (he has left mastered) and I realized something. He was watching my right hand to follow because I always treat with my right hand. When I used my left hand to lure with a treat he looked at my right as if to say, “Hey lady, I don’t know what you’re trying to pull but I know the treat is always in your right hand and that’s what i’m going to follow. ” With no treat in my right hand, and a treat in my left, it was very, very difficult to get him to follow the lure in my left hand and keep him from looking at my empty right hand.

    I stopped in shock and thought, “Oh my, I have trained him to follow ONLY my right hand!” I need help with this. Any suggestions?

  6. Josh says

    I think well used negative punishment (and potentially the accompanying extinction) is hugely underused by “positive” trainers. It’s most effective when the trainer has used, in your words, a gazillion pieces of chicken. More correctly stated it works best when the behavior is not on a ratio. Problems occur when most people are not using a gazillion pieces of chicken (they don’t reinforce enough) the behavior is essentially on a ratio, so withholding (removing opportunity for reinforcement) may seem to the dog to just be a unrewarded behavior within the established ratio and not really negative punishment. One way to get around this is to make a big production out of removing the reinforcement (like your “too bad” and Leslie Nelson’s examples).

    I love your example with Willy and his “pool playing.” I do have a question. Do you think you could have avoided the situation if you had started with placing yourself between Willy and the sheep – letting him work at correct distances from the beginning? Essentially preventing the pool playing behavior from ever even starting.

  7. trisha says

    Marie: Interesting problem! Hard to help without being there, so I’ll ask what I hope is a helpful question: Can you stop, go back a bit and treat him from both hands for awhile before trying to use your left as a lure?

    Josh: In answer to your good question, I did indeed start with me between Willie and the sheep (that’s how you always get started) and thought I wasn’t moving too fast when I tried to move back a bit. Basically, Alisdair was saying “not so fast…”, so I went backwards for a few months, then tried again to increase the distance. At some point you simply have to give the dog a chance to be right or wrong without you being there on ‘prevention.’

  8. Melissa says

    Bummer that I missed the discussion last week. Sometimes I think that categorising stimuli as positive or negative, aversive or rewarding is a bit troublesome. Take for example what I thought was a conditioned punisher I had taught my hare. He used to run around in the house a lot and chew objects he wasn’t meant to chew. If I saw him near said object I would call out “Oi” and if he didn’t leave it I would get up and shoo him away. Over time, he learnt to avoid being chased by leaving an object when I said “Oi”. He took it one step further and started ignoring those same objects. It would appear that he found being chased at least a little bit aversive seeing as he was working to avoid it happening, although he wasn’t behaving as though he found it frightening or painful. However, every now and then he’d be in a wicked mood and he would deliberately go and nuzzle at one of these forbidden objects, keeping an eye on me as he did. I would say “Oi!” and he would look at me, flip his ears mostly back and get ready to run. If I failed to get up to chase him, he would nose the forbidden object with much exaggeration, often picking it up in his teeth. That would get me, and I’d jump to my feet and he would assume the ready to run position again, then wait until I was really close before he dashed off. So I guess that it’s hard to classify. Overall the behaviour (chewing forbidden object) decreased, but at the same time, it actually increased in some small proportion of scenarios. I guess that in behaviour we are always talking about probabilities rather than absolutes, but I find it difficult to classify a stimulus that appears to switch from rewarding to aversive from moment to moment. In general, my hare doesn’t like to be touched and sometimes just looking at him is too much pressure and he has to escape. But if the circumstances are right he would take a good head rub over even fresh berries.

    Anyway, I’ve always considered pressure as a mildly aversive (or strongly aversive!) stimulus. I can’t help wondering why an animal would move to ease it if it wasn’t unpleasant to them in some way, even if that was just a vague sense of discomfort. For it to be effective, an animal has to be given the opportunity to have the pressure removed or lessened, right? If it’s not aversive, what is it? Kit the hare can tense up and relax as you so much as shift your weight. He pays so much attention to the balance of someone’s weight. If it’s forward, he’s ready to flee. I think it must be a state that he would rather not be in?

  9. says

    Trisha – thank you so much for this pragmatic and always-timely post. I agree with you completely that training and learning both occur along a continuum, and fixing ourselves to an endpoint of that continuum (either extreme, if you will) restricts our ability to adjust to every dog and situation as needed.

    Marie – I am not an expert – but have you taught nose-touches to an empty hand? Doing so is a fun game (and is a very reinforcing behavior in itself for many dogs and can be used as reinforcement to keep rate up at times in training).

    Once the empty hand target is trained on both hands, go back to your finish left and it will come together like a charm. Should only take a couple of sessions since it sounds like you are an astute trainer and your dog enjoys the work!

    Josh – love your question about the prevention. I’m not nearly so experienced but am a vastly positive trainer who also works stockdogs. I guess my perspective would be a little different. I think when I am working with an instinctive behavior (Border collie bred to control sheep), and particularly one with such extreme intrinsic reinforcement (busting up the sheep to relieve tension and get to chase) with animals who are all a whole LOT faster than I am (read: BCs and sheep = fast, Monique = slow and fat) a lot can be said for giving the reins to the dog a little sooner than I would in any obedience, agility, tracking, Rally or nosework scenario. It truly does seem we can give the dog just a smidge of trouble and bring out a great deal of responsibility/conscience surrounding these instinctive behaviors. Ultimately, being correctly at balance is VERY reinforcing to the dog once they get to feel it a few times, but they can’t feel it until it is induced without too much interference (physical presence) by the handler. Kind of a catch-22.

  10. says

    Yes Trish I will try that. I can’t believe it though. I have trained for a long time and always used my right hand 99.9% of the time and this is the very first time that a dog did this. Of course it had to be my dog. But really, it made me think that just maybe, we should be using both hands or changing it once in a while so a dog doesn’t expect it from one hand only and become a creature of habit. Because if there is anything I know, once something becomes a habit, its hard to break.

    Plus switching hands may make the treat even better because the game is always interesting because the treat isn’t in the same place all the time. Time for some experimenting maybe.

  11. Shaya says

    In training it is important to communicate clearly with a dog in a way that establishes a relationship based on trust. Communicating when you’re not happy is part of that. Dogs correct other dogs. Most people aren’t equipped to deliver corrections quickly enough and at the right intensity but dogs can understand verbal corrections. I think people run into problems by overusing corrections so they are no longer meaningful. But using verbal corrections sparingly can be much more effective than trying to shape an unwanted behavior into something else.

    We don’t train our dogs in a bubble. Often it’s not fair to the other people and animals around us to not end a particular behavior. In Beth’s example about the kitten the behavior needed to be stopped. If a dog is harming someone else than it is the owner’s responsibility to stop the dog at that moment and retrain or prevent the dog from being in that situation again and punishment of some sort may be the most effective way.

  12. says

    This entry was one of the most educational for me as I start up classes again. I have two people each taking one of my rescue dogs and I am taking Justus. I will keep all this in mind (yeah, right). What I really want to start doing is watching. I may not be at the level to remember +R and -R but I can start watching more critically. Thanks.

  13. Debby says

    I do think there is a time and place for positive punishment, never pain or fear, but adeversives. My rule is to use it for non-emotional behaviors, particulary self rewarding naughty behavior, with tempermentally sound dogs. Of course this doesn’t mean I don’t try positive reinforcement first or with it. Sometimes I think being clear is less frustrating for a dog. I consider NRM’s communication, but of course it is also negative punishment if the dog is expecting something better.

  14. Debby says

    Opps, didn’t read the new title, thought it was the same one up yesterday. Oh well. Great discussion.

  15. says

    I’ll have to stop back tomorrow to re-read and comment, I need to go do my night chores, and get the dogs bedded down, I didn’t realize it was so late! Eeep! Although we have an odd schedule, I do try to be somewhat consistent.

  16. says

    Loved the discusssion on herding. Yep, we humans are much slower. And the reward (working sheep in whatever fashion) is right there in front of the dog. It’s not like having treats in your mouth or a toy in your pocket that the dog cannot realistically get at – the sheep are RIGHT THERE! The dogs are putting pressure on the sheep to get them to do what they want – we have to put pressure (using blocking) to let the dogs know when they aren’t correct. Usually in herding training, the reward for the dog is working the sheep. You have to let go of the line or get out of the round pen at some point ;c).

  17. Laura says

    I agree with you 100% Trisha and I don’t use 100% lightly. I don’t believe it is possible to be 100% “positive”. I do believe we should never hurt or frighten our dogs. I also believe they are happier when they know the rules and sometimes that can only be accomplished by something that is considered “negative”. It is ridiculous to me to think we can communicate to a member of another species perfectly without some mild form of negativity. Look at how members of our own species are raised. Again I belive children should never be hurt or frightened but they certainly need discipline to become fantastic adults.

  18. jackie says

    Real world? We all get a teeny bit cross when our dog eats our favourite shoe/cream cake/boyfriend, and a sensitive dog will know that even if we try to hide it.

    Then there is my current use of cold and wet weather to improve my dogs housetraining – boy does he want to perform quickly so he can come back inside. (P-, I think?)

    And finally, my dog was starting on the obsessive leg licking problem again, so one evening to distract him I threw him a dog chew. And hit him on the head at precisely the right moment. P+, accidentally, but he hasn’t chewed his leg since so it saved him from a visit to the hated vets!

  19. Beth says

    I just wanted to add that I think the key is that most of the time, aversives work best when trying to immediately stop an unwanted behavior, but then it’s crucial to use positive training to replace the unwanted behavior with a desired behavior. In my case with the cat-chasing, I used the aversive to interrupt behavior/get attention, but then used praise and treats to teach the dog to look at me and gradually used that to wean her off of stalking the cat.

    The correction alone would not have helped in that particular case.

  20. says

    Thank you so much for taking the time to elaborate on this subject. It brings clarity to our definitions which can often be fuzzy and misunderstood. I’m glad that you further explained body blocks. My interpretation of them has always been much more physical, like when a dog tries to bolt through the door. I work with a lot of puppy mill survivors and, as in your example of the Sheltie, even a soft move forward can be a threat and will cause the dog to regress. That’s why I try to be as close to 100% positive as possible.

  21. Chrissy says

    I just wanted to comment on body blocking. When I took obedience classes with my young puppy, I would notice him breaking his stay and I’d take a small step forward, or lean slightly ahead naturally, to stop him from running to me. It worked quite well. He’s a fairly soft Aussie mix and would promptly sit back on his haunches when I did this. I was criticized by the instructor when she saw me do it. I was told it would discourage him from coming to me when called, and I was better to just walk directly over and physically place him back in a sit.

    It didn’t take me long to abandon that obedience school and look into positive training. A major part of my learning process was reading your books and I was so happy to see you recommend body blocking. I watched a clip you posted on this blog and it was just what I’d been doing! Since then I’ve been using it with great results, especially when it comes to stopping my dog from rushing out the door, or holding his stay….and he still comes wonderfully when called 😉

  22. says

    Now that I’ve got my chores done, I can sit for a bit. Phew. Hehe. I do use aversives, although not very often. I don’t need to for the most part, because I can usually redirect into alternate acceptable behavior, but when it comes to the cats, or something with potential to be dangerous, it’s more important in the grand scheme of things to be safe.

    I feel like a dog would certainly correct a dog if they did something wrong or rude, and it’s far more clear as to exactly what I expect if I let them know that something is unacceptable. I prefer to use the mildest aversive possible, and most times, a simple vocal reprimand is plenty for our dogs. The exception is when our two that don’t get along accidentally meet and start fighting, I’ll yell then and get them apart in any way possible. (That’s an ongoing issue that we’ve been struggling with bigtime, and I still haven’t figured out how to prevent the issue, so crate and rotate is the current solution, and hopefully someday I’ll figure out how to at least get them to a point where they can be within eyesight without attempting to kill each other.)

    I use body blocks all the time, and it’s pretty effective to keep them from breaking a Stay, or rushing out the door before I’ve had a chance to look and make sure they can go. Of course, getting to go outside is a huge reward, so the body block doesn’t seem to be too aversive, most like it just helps them remember the rules. And I’ve yelled at the dogs before when they were going off the deep end barking, though it doesn’t usually do much good, and I do try not to.

    I guess what I’m rambling on and on about is that we can’t expect every dog to respond to or dislike the same things, so using a ‘cookie cutter’ type of training isn’t going to work on all dogs. Just among our 4 dogs, one adores snuggling close over everything else, one would run herself to the ground for a chance to fetch a toy or ball, and two are most motivated by food.

  23. says

    When I have a ‘lucy goosey’ dog that is just bubbling with excitement and sometimes jumping, but knows basic commands, I stand close to the dog, cue the dog for the behavior I want, put my hands behind my back and wait until the dog settles down and then I treat. If the dog continues I use my ‘ahhh!’. A triple whammy of negatives. So I guess I am using a body block AND with holding a treat and attention until the dog settles down. So this is a double negative I guess. But boy oh boy is it effective. No game, no treat, no attention…until the dog settles down.

  24. Frances says

    Dogs own use of aversives is an interesting one. Sophy was a very mature 10 months old when I got Poppy, and was a huge help in teaching her not only good dog manners, but reinforcing my rules, too. Sophie does not like being trodden on, even by a small puppy, and made that very clear very quickly. Amongst other lessons, she also taught Poppy the meaning of “Settle Down” on the bed and in the car and the importance of taking turns politely, in a very direct terms that were much stronger than any I would have used!

    At the same time, there is a clear dividing line between an acceptable warning between dogs, and bullying or other upsetting behaviour – I am fortunate in that my two very rarely squabble, but when things do escalate to that level it is obvious that both find it very stressful. And most interventions by very high status dogs seem to be marked by their minimalism, and their careful politeness and courtesy. An interesting thought – in our dogs minds, do we humans rank ourselves with the pushy middle rank by using noisy, forceful, or simply rude aversives?

  25. em says

    Frances, I think that’s a great observation!!! Because Otis is a dogpark dog (we have a GREAT park locally), I’ve had the opportunity to observe lots of multi-dog social interactions. The most confident, secure dogs DO most often take a minimalist approach to interfering with the others, while very pushy types are seldom really respected by the others when push comes to shove. Otis shows no interest in bossing the other dogs 99% of the time-he doesn’t interfere in their play, try to take things from them, block their access to food or people, or do any of the status-asserting posturing that “dominant’ dogs are associated with. Yet when something scary happens, his dog buddies check it out from BEHIND the big dog. They watch him for a decision about how to react and follow his lead, as clear an indication of trust and respect in leadership as any I can think of.

    Yesterday, our typically winter-empty park was overrun by people searching for a token hidden as part of a local winter festival contest. Most of the dogs at the park pay no attention to people walking, running, skiing or playing frisbee golf in the park, but mooching around searching for something can come across as ‘suspicious’ behavior, and it is a guaranteed way to get a dog’s attention. One of the dogs in our group, a very sensitive and generally biddable young golden retriever chose to display one of her lingering training gaps…she can’t resist approaching people. She does it with an attitude of friendliness and curiosity, but if the person reacts badly or strangely, she can sometimes become frightened, at which point she may bark nervously at the person (while maintaining a safe distance…at least twenty yards), causing consternation all around. Anyhow, she was doing this yesterday and Otis, who has always treated her with extraordinary indulgence, dashed away from my side and toward the golden and the searcher. I hesitated. On the one hand, Otis is not generally allowed to approach the dogless at the park because I prefer that he not intimidate people or make them uncomfortable. I know that a sharp word would stop him in his tracks, but I didn’t give it because

    a) I was as close to certain as possible that Otis would not bark at, jump on, or otherwise hurt the woman.
    b)it is a posted and official off-leash dog area, and we are entitled to be there, off leash.
    c) the woman had already called out (prior to the barking), that she was unafraid and happy to meet the dogs
    d)a sharp command to stop can be more frightening to a person than the dog itself as they wonder why he is forbidden to come near them.

    The situation had the potential to end in bad feelings, and I had a moment’s doubt as Otis galumphed over to the barking golden, but he simply walked calmly to the lady, wuffled her gently for two seconds, and then shouldered suddenly the much calmer golden away from the visitor and back to our group. It was the behavior of a mature dog, acting on his own initiative in a leadership role. He used no punishing force or vocal reprimand with the golden, whom he typically treats as a much-indulged younger sister. Instead Otis addressed the situation directly, modelled appropriate behavior, and physically (but gently and playfully) blocked the golden away from the woman and steered her back to our group. Rather than seeming like a dog reprimanded, the relief in the golden’s face and posture was palpable.

    In his daily interactions with dogs, I’ve seen Otis growl a handful of times, pin an unruly adolescent once(after repeated calming signals and warnings) , charge, snap at or knock down a very inappropriate dog on perhaps three occasions. He is a dog, without hangups about training methodology or philosophy, but even so, Otis uses subtle body language, eye contact and space manipulation to accomplish 99.9% of his social interactions, saving physical checks and vocal threats for very unusual, serious situations. Even then, the prevailing atmosphere in the group afterward is not fear or tension, but relief that a stressful situation has been addressed and resolved. Though training non-food, non-toy, non-work-drivey Otis has been a true challenge for me, watching him in his own interactions with dogs has been a true education and I’m not ashamed to say that I work every day to be as effective a leader as my dog.

  26. Pike says

    Wow – I am too busy to come here for a while and look what interesting discussions I missed out on!

    Looks like everybody (incl. myself) strives to be as positively reinforcing as possible and that relatively few aversives are being used… This leaves me with a question: Is that an ideal you strive for or does this work all the time for everyone here?

    For me, there are at least two training categories: One is when I am in the formal and controlled process of teaching my dogs something – but then there are all the other informal training moments, ie. the rest of our lives with each other when my focus is not necessarily on them at all.

    And in the latter category, there have – unfortunately – been times when I lost my temper and yelled at my dogs, or leash jerked them when they caught me by surprise and did something scary. Not just aversive but abusive really, as it does not do anything but scare them in turn. Well, I only know one or two people who are too even keeled to ever lose it – but the vast majority of my friends and acquaintances is not that perfectly controlled all the times and I am wondering if folks here consider themselves being so overwhelmingly +R during the official training times or all the time?

  27. Kat says

    Em and Frances, First I have to say it’s too bad Ranger and Otis don’t live where they could hang out together they sound like two of a kind, calm, confident dogs with great canine social skills. Second, you’ve captured exactly what I see Ranger do in his interactions with other dogs that need reminding of their manners. He always begins with the least amount of intervention required and only escalates beyond that if the ill-mannered dog doesn’t listen. Two examples that come to mind are an extremely rude Great Dane and an ill-mannered American Bulldog. The Bulldog was an overgrown puppy and got a lot more lee way than the rude adult Dane. In both cases the other dog was intent on mounting Ranger despite his clear indication that this would not be tolerated. In both cases he began by calmly moving away when that didn’t work he did the jump and whirl so that he’d end up facing the other dog and offered them play bows. That didn’t work either and he escalated to short, deep, sharp bark–think parent telling a toddler “no.” And when that still wasn’t enough to make it clear that the other dog’s behavior was unwelcome and inappropriate he escalated further. With the Dane Ranger went to a full on hackles up threat display; the only time I have ever seen him do such a thing but this Dane had repeatedly followed him around the park crowding him against the fence and trying to mount him in an aggressive manner. The Dane went running back to his people and cowered behind them. With the young Bulldog Ranger escalated, finally, to a growl and a snap and when the Bulldog finally understood that his behavior hadn’t been welcome Ranger invited the bulldog to play and began teaching him more socially acceptable games.

    Time and again I see Ranger use the minimal correction necessary and never does he escalate beyond that unless the dog needing correction ignores the gentler warning(s). Most of the time he does no more than distract the other dog. Quite often a couple of dogs will be playing chase games and the chasee begins to feel overwhelmed as the chaser begins getting more aroused. Ranger will simply pass between them taking some of the pressure off the chasee and interrupting the focus of the chaser. More often than not that’s all it takes. Sometimes Ranger will herd the chaser away from the chasee but always in a playful non-threatening fashion.

    The most interesting canine intervention I ever saw was with a very ill-mannered terrier mix. This dog was a pint sized bully who never played fair, attacking when a dog was getting a drink or relieving their bladder or bowels, mercilessly tormenting puppies and generally making himself unpopular and unwelcome (and yes the humans did try to speak to the Terrier’s person but he had no interest in hearing what anyone else had to say). One day all the dogs apparently agreed on how to get the message across to the Terrier; whenever he came near all play would stop and he would be pointedly ignored. Even as a human I could feel the social pressure they were applying but the Terrier still didn’t get it and charged another dog. As he ran past Ranger one of Ranger’s great big paws lashed out and pinned the Terrier to the ground on his side, it’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen among dogs to the so called alpha roll. One paw pinning the Terrier and the other three on the ground Ranger looked nonchalantly around the park but every time the Terrier struggled a little more of Ranger’s weight shifted to the paw holding him down. When the Terrier mix eventually subsided Ranger let him up and without so much as a glance in his direction Ranger trotted off. After that a concentrated stare from Ranger was enough to reel the Terrier mix in. Unfortunately, Ranger wasn’t always there when the Terrier was and after the Terrier attacked a Shih Zhu resulting in enough damage to require veterinary services the Terrier was banned from all dog parks in the county.

  28. Susan says

    I can grasp the differences between positive and negative reinforcement, and positive and negative punishment, but “aversive” is a little bit slippery to me. In the case of Willie charging the sheep, isn’t being leashed and led away (negative punishment) also aversive, if what he really wanted more than anything was the freedom to charge the sheep? Why is saying “cut that out!” more aversive than that? Is it because of the emotional blow that a harsh comment delivers, as opposed to the more neutrally charged punishment that is delivered solely on a behavioral plane?
    I love the results of positive reinforcement training, especially Gimmel’s enthusiasm to figure out what’s being asked of her. She is 110 percent terrier, and it refines her compliance to also use negative punishment, like the leashing and leading away, when she blows off a well-understood request. There have also been times that I’ve gotten grumpy or impatient or angry, but those times are more about failures on my part and they haven’t taught her much beyond what my shortcomings are. I do think she has more freedom and is able to do more things with me knowing that indulging her terrier inclinations can result in the loss of those freedoms. I don’t think that purely reinforcement training would have the same power over her behavior without the balancing effect of knowing that being uncooperative comes at a cost. Does this mean I’m not a positive trainer? Or maybe just a less than effective one?

  29. Lyssa says

    Marie – with the issue of treating out of one hand. When I have a dog who starts to look at my hand for the treat, I start holding that hand (holding a treat) behind my back to help break treat focus & then go ahead and deliver from that hand. To prevent the dog from expecting a hand behind my bakc as part of the body signaling, I start leaving that hand by my side, but grabbing a treat out of treat pouch at my back for quick delivery. This works better once the dogs can start to handle a slight delay before treat delivery.

    Working indoors, I get the treats completely off my body as soon as possible, with a first transition to a treat cup the dog can see and then quickly to a treat cup out of sight. Seeing the treat cup for a while seems particularly helpful for those dogs who do not associate traditional rewards with humans to feel a bit more trusting the reward hasn’t completely dissapeared. At first I thought my timing was off but even with really good timing, seeing the treat cup for a bit while transitioning from having treats on my body seems to work well with these shelter dogs.

    Melissa -I’ve got house rabbits and have worked with a variety of prey animals, including horses. What you are dealing with is putting pressure on a prey animal’s “flight zone” and yes, it is adversive to the animal. It’s the foundation of most horse training, since the reward of almost everything for horses is the relief of pressure. It’s the basis of moving most prey animals, even individually since any halter is based on the relief of pressure (from the poll & face for any livestock instead of the flight zone.)

    Many of the house rabbits I’ve had over the years have turned “no” followed by gentle herding into a game, like your rabbit has. They escalate the behavior so can get a reaction. It’s pretty normal and it’s one of the reasons why “no” followed by herding is not effective for most rabbits. If the reaction doesn’t happen but they are expecting it, they may up the ante by biting the object while holding eye contact with you. The second I would moved to shoo them away, they binky (a common term for a happy jump, much like is seen in lambs), give a silly head shake (play communication in rabbits) and run off with more binkies.
    While the game is fun, a better option it to just block them off from the item/area. If the rabbit is biting an object you don’t want, but is not dangerous and you are not worried about (like a table leg around here) toss a favorite chew item (like a piece of apple branch) or a treat several feet away to distract them from the behavior. Be sure to wait a couple of bites before treating, since it will act as reinforcement if you time it the way you would for a dog.

    If you can increase the space to 10 feet or more (in stages) between the item to tossed treat area, then start tossing the treat when you see the rabbit even heading in the direction of the table leg. You can then deliver the treat if there is even a head turn towards the table leg. For some reason this works well for substitution. I’m not sure why, as it seems to be reverse clicker training. This has worked for my clicker trained rabbits. I think since the timing is off, there is no sound marker or hand delivery, and rewards seems to “rain from the sky” in a different place, the rabbit starts to hang around in that magic treat delivery area as a substitution. I then introduce treat searching in boxes with doors cut out, etc.

  30. Kim says

    I have horrible time with the quadrants. It’s sure to be a trouble spot for me when I sit for the CPDT. I have a question regarding one of the scenarios you gave, Trish.

    In Scenario Two you stated “The trainer stays still and quiet, an atypical posture for her, and turns her head away very slightly. She has just used +P to communicate to the dog, adding in an unnatural posture and an obvious turn of the head (obvious to the dog anyway) to decrease the frequency of the dog

  31. Melissa says

    Lyssa, an informative post on rabbit behaviour! Kit is a wild hare, though. He is much, much, much flightier than a regular domestic rabbit. I only wish I could reward him with a tossed treat! It would make life easier. But, if he’s not close enough to take it from my hand he’s too busy watching me to pay much attention to a little piece of strawberry I toss his way. What do you use for rabbit treats? I used to clicker train my domestic rabbit with dried cranberries, but my rabbit has a very sensitive digestive tract and the vet has banned all sugary or simple carbohydrate-rich treats.

    WRT dogs correcting dogs, it is often used as an excuse to use punishment on dogs, and I think that reasoning is flawed. A dog really only has aggression at their disposal to protect themselves and their interests. Having said that, I have the Ghandi of dogs in my house who has never shown his teeth. I was fascinated to watch him train an overly boisterous staffy pup into a more gentle play style with P-. She kept biting his face and hanging off his cheek and he just kept shaking her off and walking away. I thought at the time that I wouldn’t like to be as helpless as a dog that doesn’t use aggression. He clearly wasn’t enjoying her behaviour and I intervened once or twice to rescue him. Nonetheless, over a period of a few weeks I noticed that she had modified her play style to be more gentle. Much less face biting and so on. Of course, it’s possible other dogs had been contributing to the training with P+, but I would like to think that my canine Ghandi isn’t completely helpless because of his reluctance to use aggression. Certainly, my younger dog learnt over time to be more gentle with him, but they live together and are best pals. Everyone thinks the younger dog is the boss, but one time he went for Kivi’s Kong and Kivi just levelled a look at him and made a funny almost-growl and Erik just turned away, no hard feelings. I think that the relationships our dogs develop with each other are much more complex than we understand. I feel reluctant to take lessons from them.

  32. trisha says

    Kim: As a philosophy of science professor once told me, when I said I was confused by one of the readings, “Good for you! What you just read IS confusing, because the philosopher’s arguments are not clear.” You’re not the one who is messed up, it’s a fuzzy system to begin with: For example, IF one is focusing on “Going Stiff” or “Turning the Head” you can argue that something is being added and it’s “positive.” (That’s how I was thinking of it, “going stiff” is not a natural behavior and you have to do it actively, ie, “add” something.) IF, on the other and, you focus on the turn of the head as “taking away” attention (or even just ‘normal behavior), then it’s “negative.” This is just another example of how these quadrants can be confusing, and are not as black and white as sometimes we like to think. (And I think you might have come up with an interesting topic for another blog!)

  33. says

    This is a fantastic article, and I will be sharing it on the Truly dog friendly email group and facebook group. No trainer can claim to be 100% positive or to train with absolutely no punishement. First of all we are human, so 100% goes out the window because humans err. Seriously however, truly dog friendly trainers do use positive reinforcement and negative punishment. Personally, I try not to use positive punishment, but of course there are times when I have raised my voice or stated something in a more commanding tone. As for negative reinforcement, I think we all may use that inadvertantly. As trainers, hopefully we would not make the mistakes below, but we could make more subtle ones. As I said, we are only human.
    One example would be a dog who barks to come in from the rain. Owner lets him in.This happens a few times and the barking increases when the dog wants to come in, as he has generalized barking at door during rain to barking at door whenever he wants to come inside. Or maybe scratching at door. Letting the dog inside is taking away the stimulus (which appears to be aversive to him), and so reinforces his barking behavior. A more subtle example is the dog who jumps up for attention (or because of lack of attention). Owners then give dog attention by yelling or pushing dog off…but it is attention and reinforcing. And jumping escalates. Both are examples of negative reinforcement that also (unfortunately) reinforce the human’s behavior because the dog has been pushed off the human after jumping up or the barking has stopped temporarily. But that’s the issue–it’s temporary, and the behaviors actually increase.

    So no, I would not and could not honestly sign such a pledge. But I would sign a pledge stating I will not intentionally use pain, fear, intimidation or coercion to train a dog.

    Thank you so much for a great article!

  34. says

    What a wonderful post, Trisha! As evidence I submit that the comment thread alone is worth its weight in gold. You’ve brought clarity to a timely topic and given us some important concepts to consider.

    As one who has been in the positive training community for a while, I’ll admit to having felt a certain angst as I watched people I knew and respected try to terraform the moral high ground at their chosen end of the training continuum. I listened some’s words as they preached all positives but watched as they “Annh!”-ed their dogs into slithering sneakiness. I’ve watched e-collar trainers praise the consistency of their tool as their dogs trembled in confusion. Both sides had what I can only describe as a religious fervor.


  35. says

    Oops! Bumped the “Submit Comment” button by accient.

    As I see it, there are too many indiviual variables in dogs and poeple for any single system to work all the time. Success is built upon understanding:

    1) The principles of learning;
    2) The proclivites of the species and/or breed;
    3) The temperament of the individual;
    4) The limits of one’s own skill set; and
    5) The true heading of one’s ethical compass.

    Thanks again for contributing to each in this post, Trisha.


  36. Mary says

    Went to an awesome seminar given by Ken Ramirez on Saturday. Came home all enthused with new ideas about additional positive training tricks. Went to a herding lesson Sunday with Bruce Fogt (Sidney, OH) for the first time. Got some great food for thought about corrections (+P) in regards to training when working with instinctual behavior.

    For example, when your dog is running too fast, and you tell him to “lie down”, then “walk up”, then “lie down” AGAIN because he is still running too fast, you are giving him commands, i.e. not letting him know that he did something wrong. Plus you are creating a dog who just follows commands. In herding we want them to use their instinct, as well as follow commands. Therefore, if we correct the dog with “Hey” (or whatever aversive sound we use), and DON’T give a command, the dog knows he did something wrong, and tries something else, like slowing down. So he is thinking, still using instinct, instead of just following commands. (Of course if he knew the command for “slow down” you could use that, but I haven’t figured out how to teach that yet). This is very different than most other training situations where you need to re-direct them to what you WANT them to do. In herding the goal is to control sheep, and the dogs already want to do that. So you let them know when they are doing something wrong, and they use their instinct (along with your body movements) to figure out the right moves. And their reward is getting to move the sheep.

    I realized that as a novice shepherd, I sometimes give corrections out of frustration, and that Bruce gave corrections unemotionally. My dog seemed to sense that because normally he is very sensitive, but with Bruce, he didn’t shut down. In fact, in between outruns, he ran up to him and wagged his tail. Almost like he loved working with someone who knew how to communicate with him – even though he was using corrections.

    I’m still 99.9% a positive trainer, however. Trish, I’m curious about your take on training when working with instinctual behavior versus other behaviors.

  37. says

    I love this topic! Using a positive approach to training has opened my eyes to what can be perceived as negative from clients and their dogs!

    Positive training can be a hard sell to clients who have seen years of “good results” from more aversive methods of training. Demonstrating how consequence to non-compliance does happen when a motivator or attention is withheld, and that physical and verbal interference are rarely needed to gain control of a dog, is the first step on the road to training rehab.

    Then changing the general outlook or approach follows quickly. Simply asking the client to consider what they want the dog to do….not what they don’t want….can really help change the focus to positive training.

    Replacing looking for problems with looking for good behaviors the dog offers on his own is another eye opener for novice positive trainers.

    Finally not beating oneself up when emergency (pulling dog off of grandma) or management (pulling dog away from toxic spill in garage) dictates a more punishing outcome to gain safe and immediate control. Follow-up to these physical/verbal punishments by looking for long term solutions using positive training program to ensure Granny is safe and tighter management to negate exposure to auto fluids are then brought to light.

    Lets face it…living with other living creatures is not all goodness and light. We are only human and stuff happens. Utilizing positive approach to training and knowing punishment is not the final answer the few times it may be needed is what I strive to impart on my clients. The relationships that develop when the penny drops are wonderful to witness.

  38. Cara Shannon says

    Great post! I’m ashamed to say, I’m realizing that I’ve gotten very lazy about my use of the terms punishment and aversives and have slipped into some bad habits. tsk tsk.

  39. Jeanine says

    I think we need to remember people are imperfect too, and as Temple Grandin points out into one of her books, we never get to 100% perfection. I’d be happy to aim for being a 95-98 percent positive trainer, realizing that I will sometimes use aversives without realizing what I’m doing or — even after decades of training, can sometimes get too caught up in the moment. But I do try to anticipate situations and work out ways to train positively, and wouldn’t ever deliberately hurt a dog if there was an alternative (i.e. unpleasant vet procedures are going to continue if needed for overall quality of life, and I will continue being the one to restrain my dogs as long as the vet lets me., etc.).

    Re Jan and Belgian Malinois, I’ve had belgians for 15 years or so, and used to be a foster home for Mals. Going to aversives, etc. in their training, can backfire rapidly — and most people don’t realize how sensitive and easy you can be with a dog of their temperament. They love to work, but will work through pain, so everyone’s life becomes much easier if the only aversive for a mal becomes a disappointed look or a shocked “what are you doing?” . They need lots of consistency but belgians generally are smart, bond tightly to their people and adore working. They really do better with a light hand than a heavy one.

  40. says

    Oh how I’ve loved reading this!
    I have extremely high drive dogs that very occasionally need the addition of an aversive to change behavior. The situation that you outlined above is a perfect example of the type of thing I see occasionally with a high drive dog who’s doing what comes naturally. But as a cross-over trainer, I feel like a criminal on that rare occasion when I choose to call an end to a highly self-rewarding behavior with pressure or a sharp sound. My dog’s don’t appear any worse for the wear and the behavior instantly turns to something I can reward, but it leaves me feeling like a hypocrite, espousing the value of positive reinforcement training and then using a punishment. But the truth is that I don’t believe there is a 100% reward, 0% consequences situation that exists in nature and so it’s almost unnatural to try to create that existence for our dogs.

    I don’t find value in using punishment when teaching obedience behaviors or tricks or teaching any “behavior” to a dog. But there is the rare occasion when a certain natural behavior can be so rewarding for some dogs (chasing cats or other small critters comes to mind) that the addition of an appropriate (albeit adamant) “stop what you are doing right now!” signal, followed by a reward for stopping, can be mighty useful.

    I’m happy with my decision to have change over to using rewards to motivate my dogs. I very much like that I no longer use the aversive methods that I once did. I’m glad to be a cross-over trainer and I absolutely believe +R is a better way. But the idea that there is never, EVER an appropriate use for positive punishment is simply too absolute for me. It almost seems as if we may be “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

    That’s why I’m so glad to have read this, especially from someone that I admire so much.
    Thanks for this thoughtful post.

  41. chase owens says

    eating chicken in front of your dog is not negative punishment per the first example…. if she got the chicken from his mouth and ate it then it would be negative punishment. only thing chicken might function as is a SD or motivating operator signaling that now if the dog sits when asked that food could follow.

    and yes peeing, just like scratching, or taking medicine for a headache are all maintained by r-.

    very good food for the thought! I enjoy reading anything you write about

  42. Marjie Alonso says

    How have you stayed so sane?

    Thank you, as usual, for sharing your good brain and its excellent thoughts.

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