The Words “Positive” and “Negative” in Dog Training

We often see or hear the words “positive” and “negative” when investigating methods for training our dogs. Positive methods, positive reinforcement, negative methods, negative reinforcement, negative punishment, are all phrases that are used, but what do they really mean?

The meaning of positive and negative are often misunderstood as applied to dog training. This is because many people associate these words with their emotional definitions. Often, when we think of the word positive, we think of something good. When we think of the word negative, we think of something bad. But as they apply to dog training, and specifically to operant conditioning, the words “positive” and “negative” are meant in their mathematical sense. Positive meaning the addition of something, and negative meaning the removal of something.

When talking about operant conditioning, we are talking about modifying or producing a behavior through reinforcement or punishment. Reinforcement, is a reward that immediately follows a behavior, thus increasing the likelihood of that behavior occurring again. Punishment, is a consequence that immediately follows a behavior, thus decreasing the likelihood of that behavior occurring again. Both reinforcement and punishment, can be positive (added), or negative (removed).

An example of a behavior we might reinforce, is getting a dog to sit. We can employ either positive or negative reinforcement to produce that behavior. Using positive reinforcement, we could lure the dog to sit by raising a treat above the dog’s head. As the dog raises its head to follow the treat, it sits, and we reinforce the sit by giving the dog the treat. Using negative reinforcement, we could put a collar and a leash on the dog, apply upward pressure on the collar and downward pressure on the dog’s rear. As a result of the pressure, the dog sits, and we reinforce the sit by removing the pressure.

An example of a behavior we may want to correct or punish, is a dog running out in front of us while on leash. Using positive punishment, we can give the dog a quick leash pop, causing pain or discomfort for that behavior. Or, using negative punishment, we can simply change the direction in which we are walking, and thereby remove the thing the dog was running towards.

So when thinking about the words “positive” and “negative” in training, think “addition” and “subtraction”, not “good” and “bad”.