16 Sep

As dog trainers who follow the LIMA ‘Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive’ protocol, we prefer using specific approaches to train dogs that prioritize their well-being. We adhere to a humane training hierarchy that many modern, professional dog training organizations endorse.

Over the past four decades, dog training has come a long way, moving away from old-fashioned and potentially harmful methods. Before we dive into some key terms, like reinforcers, aversives, stimulus, behavior, and consequences, let’s talk about the guiding principles of modern dog training. We use something called operant conditioning, which sorts behaviors into four categories, one of which is positive punishment. This category involves discouraging behaviors by applying unpleasant things. However, as we explore these terms in more detail, it becomes clear that there are kinder and more effective ways to shape a dog’s behavior, ensuring a positive and enjoyable training experience for both the dog and their owner.

While there might be different opinions on how to train dogs, including methods endorsed by some TV personalities, we’ve chosen to focus on approaches that avoid outdated and potentially harmful techniques, especially those falling under positive punishment.

Now, diving deep into the quadrants of operant conditioning might be more detail than most dog owners are interested in, but it’s important to understand why we’ve chosen our approach.

By grasping these basic concepts and the operant conditioning quadrants, we can approach dog training with clarity and empathy.

  • Reinforcers are like rewards that encourage good behaviors, while aversives discourage unwanted actions.
  • Stimulus refers to the cues in a dog’s environment that trigger behavior, while behavior covers everything a dog does.
  • The outcomes, whether positive or negative, determine if a behavior is likely to be repeated or avoided.

As we explore these ideas further, you’ll discover the methods and tools that empower trainers to build healthy relationships with their furry friends, emphasizing positive reinforcement and ethical practices, steering clear of older methods that could harm our four-legged companions.

Understanding how your dog behaves and why they do what they do is a crucial part of building a strong bond and effective communication. In the world of dog training, there are a few key terms that can help demystify your pup’s actions and make training more successful. Let’s take a closer look at these terms: stimulus, behavior, and consequence. By grasping these concepts, you’ll be better equipped to navigate the world of dog training and foster a positive relationship with your furry companion.


Stimulus: This is anything that happens before your dog does something. It can affect whether your dog does that thing or not.

Behavior: Behavior is what your dog does that you can see. It can be influenced by what happens after.

Behaviors have consequences. Think of a consequence as the “result” of a doing a behavior. It can be a good consequence or a bad one. For example, when your dog does something good and you give them treats or praise, they are more likely to do it again. But if they do something you don’t like, and there are punishments or corrections, they are less likely to do it again.

Consequence: This is what happens after your dog does something. It can affect whether they do it again in the future or not.

There are four possible consequences that can occur when your dog reacts or responds to a stimulus. These consequences either increase or decrease the likelihood of a behavior being repeated and make up the four different quadrants of operant conditioning:

  • Positive reinforcement (R+) — a desirable stimulus is added to increase the frequency of a behavior (i.e. a dog sits and receives a reward)
  • Negative Reinforcement (R-) — an uncomfortable (aversive) stimulus is removed to increase the frequency of a behavior (i.e. pressure on a leash is applied until the dog stops pulling; at that point, the release of the pressure serves as the reward for and therefore reinforces the non-pulling behavior)
  • Positive Punishment (P+) — an uncomfortable (aversive) stimulus is added to reduce the frequency of a behavior (i.e. kneeing a dog for jumping up, using a shock collar to get the dog to stop barking)
  • Negative Punishment (P-) — a desirable stimulus is removed to reduce the frequency of a behavior (i.e. withholding a dog’s dinner for a couple seconds if every time we go to set it down, the dog lunges for it)

Understanding the four quadrants of operant conditioning can be an essential tool for dog owners, trainers, and anyone interested in animal behavior. But, behavior is behavior whether it’s human or animal so this can apply to children, significant others, coworkers and even to yourself. 

Think of positive and negative like math terms:

+  Positive means addition. You are adding a stimulus

— Negative means subtraction. You are subtracting (or removing) a stimulus

Please note: Positive DOES NOT mean good and Negative DOES NOT mean bad. It is not good reinforcement and bad punishment. This is a common mistake that we hear often.

Reinforcement and Punishment

Reinforcement: The application or removal of a stimulus to INCREASE (+) the occurrence of a behavior.

Punishment: The application or removal of a stimulus to DECREASE (—)  the occurrence of a behavior.

A helpful way to remember the difference between punishment and reinforcement is to think of them as thumbs up or thumbs down.

Punishment is like a “thumbs down” — it decreases the likelihood of a behavior being repeated in the future. 

Reinforcement is like an “thumbs up” — it increases the likelihood of a behavior being repeated in the future. 

For example: You and your friend are considering seeing a movie. You open up the website to look at the reviews. If the movie you were considering has a bunch of negative reviews (thumbs down), it’s likely that you’ll be less likely to go see that movie (behavior decreases). On the other hand, if you see a lot of positive reviews (thumbs up), you’ll probably be more likely to go see that movie (behavior increases). So in this case, the positive reviews are acting as a form of reinforcement, while the negative reviews are acting as a form of punishment.

The negatives of positive punishment 

When you’re training your dog and things don’t seem to be working as they should, it can be tempting to use positive punishment methods. You can always find a ready supply of friends and family members (or social media) who are happy to tell you that you need to spray your dog in the face with lemon juice, spank or hit your dog, alpha roll, intimidate, and/or shock your dog into submission. These are very old school methods and are no longer used in modern, science-based, behavioral training.

Using aversive methods along with positive training has serious consequences. If you punish your dog for failing to perform a cue that you think he knows, you “poison” that cue. In other words, you give him a negative association with it. The cue becomes ambiguous; the dog doesn’t know if it predicts “good stuff” (a click and treat) or “bad stuff” (a punishment). This creates stress, and can turn a happy working dog into one whose tail starts to lower and enthusiasm starts to wane. This is called a poisoned cue and it is very difficult, if not impossible, to rehabilitate. 

When it comes to modern dog training, the use of positive punishment methods is a practice of the past that we strongly discourage. These outdated methods create stress and fear in your dog, ultimately eroding the trust and enthusiasm in your partnership. Instead, we advocate for science-based training rooted in positive reinforcement. This approach offers a wealth of creative possibilities to achieve the behavior you desire while maintaining a fear-free, pain-free, and intimidation-free relationship with your beloved pet. By instilling trust in your dog and becoming their compassionate leader, you pave the way for a better relationship between you and your dog.

Science-based training works. If you’re committed to it, we can show you a way to teach a retrieve without pinching your dog’s ear, teaching your dog to come or to stay within a boundary without using a shock collar.

With science-based training, we want you to instill trust in your dog. If you teach a dog to trust your decisions, it will look to you for leadership and ask you what to do when he is afraid, stressed or over-threshold.

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