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Positive reinforcement training involves rewarding your dog for the things they do right. The reward could be a toy, a game, or a treat – whatever your dog wants to work for. To some people that sounds like a bribe, not training, and they want their dog to obey just because they should. But positive reinforcement training is neither a bribe nor a gimmick. It’s based on the science of animal learning, and it’s incredibly effective.

What is Operant Conditioning?

You may have heard of Pavlov and his dogs. When the dinner bell rang, the dogs salivated. They learned to associate the bell with the coming food, so even before their meal arrived, they were drooling with anticipation. This phenomenon is known as classical conditioning or associative learning. It happens with your dog all the time. For example, when your doorbell rings, your dog gets excited because they anticipate a visitor on the front stoop. They have learned to associate the ringing bell with people outside the door.

But classical conditioning happens involuntarily. What about all the active training you do with your dog? That’s where operant conditioning comes in. Also known as trial-and-error learning, this is when dogs learn to associate their behavior with its consequences. And dogs increase the frequency of behaviors with pleasant consequences and decrease the frequency of those with unpleasant consequences. So, if your dog barks at you while you’re on the phone and you give them a bone to keep them quiet, your dog is likely to bark again next time you take a call. The bone was a pleasant consequence. Or if your dog bothers the cat and the cat scratches their nose, they’ll think twice about bothering the cat in the future. The scratch was an unpleasant consequence.

Beagle sitting waiting for a treat being held above his head.
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The Four Quadrants of Operant Conditioning

Because consequences drive behavior, training is all about controlling the consequences of your dog’s actions to influence the behaviors they choose to express. But how does that work exactly? Well, operant conditioning works on two different dimensions. The first is whether you add something or remove something. For example, if you provide your dog with a treat, you’ve added something. That’s known as a positive. If you take away a toy, you’ve removed something. That’s known as a negative. Don’t think of it in terms of good or bad, just addition or subtraction.

The second dimension is whether the consequence increases the frequency of the behavior or decreases it. This is known as reinforcement (anything that makes the behavior more likely) and punishment (anything that makes the behavior less likely). Again, don’t think in terms of good or bad, but simply whether a given behavior becomes more or less common.

These two dimensions combine to form the four quadrants of operant conditioning. And you can use these quadrants to affect your dog’s behavior.

Positive Reinforcement

The first quadrant is the one you should focus on in your training: positive reinforcement. Remember positive means to add something and reinforcement means the behavior increases. By giving your dog something they love (the positive) when they sit, they’ll sit more often in the future (the reinforcement). This is also referred to as rewarding your dog.

Positive Punishment

The second quadrant is known as positive punishment. Although this is punishment in the familiar sense, remember what the terms mean in scientific lingo. You add something the dog dislikes (the positive), like a swat on the rump, to reduce the chances of them repeating that behavior in the future (the punishment).

Bull Terrier puppy sitting in the yard looking up.
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Negative Reinforcement

The third quadrant is called negative reinforcement. In this case you take something unpleasant away to make a behavior more frequent. That seems counterintuitive. But you probably do actions to avoid bad things all the time, like cleaning the kitchen to stop your spouse’s nagging. With dogs, think about pulling on a choke chain when the dog isn’t doing what you want. If you release the pressure (the negative) as soon as your dog complies, they’ll be more likely to do what you want next time (the reinforcement).

Negative Punishment

The final quadrant is called negative punishment and it should be the second option in your training tool belt. In this case, you remove something your dog likes (the negative) to decrease the frequency of a behavior (the punishment). Think about ignoring your dog when the dog jumps on you. You’re removing your attention, the thing your dog wants, to discourage them from jumping in the future.

Australian Shepherd puppy giving a high five outdoors.
©otsphoto -

Focus on Positive Reinforcement

Although dogs learn equally through all four quadrants, you don’t want to use them all equally. In fact, positive reinforcement trainers focus on only two quadrants: positive reinforcement and negative punishment. That means they deal with things dogs want, like treats, games, or attention, and they mostly deliver them or sometimes take them away. They don’t use unpleasant things that dogs find aversive such as you would use with positive punishment or negative reinforcement.

The use of aversives can have some negative effects. Thanks to the involuntary learning of classical conditioning, dogs trained with unpleasant actions often associate those aversives with the trainer and the training process. These dogs don’t look forward to learning, they don’t want to try new things, and their bond with their owner is eroded.

However, a focus on rewards not only influences dog behavior but teaches dogs to love training. Positive reinforcement is all about earning the good stuff. Without fear of doing the wrong thing, your dog can become an active participant in the training process. They’ll start trying new things, get plenty of mental exercise, and actively look for ways to earn rewards. Plus, instead of just learning what not to do, they learn what you expect in each situation. Finally, because of classical conditioning, your dog will associate you with the wonderful rewards you provide which strengthens your bond. And isn’t that a wonderful way to take advantage of science.

Related article: Agility Training Is Great for Anxious Dogs
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