What is Positive Reinforcement?

January 15, 2010

Positive Reinforcement refers to a training philosophy where the goal is to enhance the human-animal bond through enrichment activities and reward-based training sessions.  It involves the use of classical and operant conditioning, basic learning theory, and a lot of fun thrown in for good measure!

But positive reinforcement is not new in the dog training world, it’s just not been popular, much to the amazement of professional trainers and behaviorists who have seen so  much success with it.

Here’s a quick overview about positive reinforcement, what it is, and what it isn’t.


Training is, essentially, about consequences. Dogs will always do what works for them and they learn what works through trial and error. The more a behavior yields the results they are hoping for, the more they will demonstrate that behavior. This is very simple cause and effect.

In the training world, there are 4 basic types of consequences:

  1. Positive reinforcement: good things start. Dogs want this to happen.
  2. Negative punishment: good things stop. Dogs try to avoid this from happening.
  3. Positive punishment: bad things start. Dogs try to avoid this from happening.
  4. Negative reinforcement: bad things stop. Dogs want this to happen, but there are other consequences for the trainer’s actions.

For example, when teaching a dog to sit, it is common to issue them a treat once their butt hits the ground. They learn that putting their butts on the ground makes good things happen, ie, they receive a treat. This is an example of positive reinforcement.

If you’re playing with your dog and he accidentally bites you, a loud “ouch” and immediately stopping the play teaches him that biting is not a desirable behavior. Even though it was an accident on his part, it led to a good thing ending (the play stopped) so he will make sure if he wants to continue to play that he doesn’t bite.

These are the two techniques that trainers committed to positive reinforcement will use – the starting and stopping of good things to motivate the dog to behave in a desired manner.

Other trainers – those without a foundation in behavior and learning theory – rely on the next two techniques more than the first two. They teach the dog to start and stop bad things through their behavior.

Positive punishment is pretty simple – basic punishment of undesirable behaviors. This might be spanking a dog, rubbing his nose in an accident in the house, shocking him with an electronic collar, jerking his leash…the list is endless.

An example of negative reinforcement is the use of prong collars. Despite what some trainers will tell you, prong collars are uncomfortable for dogs. Combining them with leash “corrections” can be incredibly painful. Using a prong collar to teach a dog to walk nicely really only teaches them how to walk to avoid the pain and discomfort of the prongs. The dog wants the bad thing – pain and discomfort – to stop, so he adjusts his walking behavior until the pain is at a more tolerable level.

We know that this particular technique doesn’t work however, for a very simple reason. It’s doesn’t teach the dog what behavior you WANT, it only distracts him into walking to avoid pain. If you try to walk him on a standard collar and leash, his pulling behavior will resume.


Most people assume that positive reinforcement only uses food to motivate the dog. This is not the case at all; anything that a dog derives pleasure from can be used as a reinforcer in training. This might include:

  • Food
  • Play with other dogs
  • Attention from people – cuddling, affection, etc
  • Play with people – tug, chase, fetch, etc

Some people say their dog isn’t food motivated, but ALL dogs are motivated by food – they do get hungry after all!  Sometimes the case is simply that the people haven’t found the right treat to motivate the dog to perform the desired behavior.  When all else fails though, a dog’s daily allotment of food/kibble can be issued bit by bit as training rewards and you can train your dog through an entire meal!


Donaldson, Jean. The Culture Clash. 2nd ed. Berkeley: James & Kenneth, 2005.

2 Responses to “What is Positive Reinforcement?”

  1. Mom Says:

    New site looks great! Lots of good info…Good job!


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