Dog Training And Problem Solving: What Is Positive vs. Negative Reinforcement And (Most Importantly) What Works?!

( photograph taken by Cindy Forest)

Occasionally I still confuse the terminology surrounding my profession. This is not a good admission: I'm not proud.

The truth? I know my facts. In my most recent book, Modern Dog Parenting, St. Martins Press, I have a long and detailed terminology chart with examples to highlight their meaning. Still, I make mistakes.

The good news is that no one needs to memorize these terms to be a loving dog mommy or dad. You can confuse terms, and your dog won't care. As the motto goes: It's not what you say it's what you do that matters.

Still, let's use today's blog to get it right. First I will start with a handy trick to remember what the terms mean, and then a quiz to help keep it straight. The answer cue will include the choices below.

a) Positive Reinforcement
b) Negative Reinforcement
c) Positive Punishment
d) Negative Punishment

Someone seeing the list for the first time might think: Reinforcement is good, punishment is bad, right? Positive should be good, negative is bad right? Well, not necessarily.

Here's a good memory trick.
+ Positive means you add something.
Similar to the math skills you learned in second grade, where 2 + 2= 4, positive always means adding something to the equation.
In dog training, you could add praise, treats or toys if you want to be a cheerful and fun-loving presence. But scary things can also be added, like a shout, a jab or a shock. Although these additions often hurt or frighten a dog, they're still considered positive because they add something that wasn't there before you stepped in to redirect their behavior.

- Negative means something gets removed. It's like a subtraction equation. You take something away. Maybe you remove a treat or your attention when your dog is annoying. Or if you're testing out a more assertive approach, you stop yelling or shocking your dog when he behaves; the "If you stop what you're doing I will stop hurting or scaring you" approach.

Reinforcement means to strengthen something. To reinforce a building you might add more screws or wood to keep it secure. In dog training, you reinforce a behavior to make it stronger and more reliable.

Punishment is just what is sounds like; it's the opposite of reinforcement. You punish a behavior to make it disappear.

So let's tie it all together with a handy definition of each.
A) Positive Reinforcement- Giving (positive) your dog something she likes to encourage her to repeat a behavior (reinforcing it).
B) Negative Reinforcement- Removing (negative) an unpleasant action to strengthen (reinforcement) your dog's behavior.
C) Positive Punishment You give (positive) your dog something unpleasant (positive) to make a behavior disappear (punishment).
D) Negative Punishment Taking away something (negative) important to your dog to make a behavior disappear (punishment).

For direct examples of these as well as the definition and examples of conditioning terms, please visit my blog Doglandia. For an informative and helpful list of dog training terminology, flip to page 151 of my most recent book Modern Dog Parenting, Raising Your Dog or Puppy to be a Loving Member of Your Family.

For now- Take this fun Quiz (answers in the comments section)
Your dog has your shoe. You race down the hall shouting and cornering him as you pry the shoe from his mouth. You hope that by using ___ he'll learn not to grab your shoes again.

Your dog steals your shoe. Instead of yelling you whip out a biscuit from your pocket you call to him and exchange the shoe for a treat. You hope that by using ___ you'll inspire him to bring you the things he finds instead of destroying them.


You leave a leash on your dog to help with the jumping problem. When he's excited you step on the leash so he gets a tug each time he jumps up. You ignore your dog until he calms down. You're using __ to help your dog learn not to jump during greetings.

When your dog jumps on you, you stand up and fold your arms over your face. When he sits you drop down to pet him. You're hoping that ___ will help your dog learn to greet you on four paws instead of two!

Leash Walking
You're hoping that by jerking your dog when she pulls she will learn to walk at your side. This technique uses the __ technique.

You place your dog's breakfast in your pocket and give her a portion every time she chooses to walk by your side. You hope that using ___ she'll learn the habit of walking by your side.

Try not to be too discouraged if you didn't get all the answers right. I still have to concentrate my dyslexic brain every time I think through it.

The bottom line?? Your dog couldn't figure it out either. He just knows what feels good and what makes his tail wag!

For more fun quizzes and a live discussion of these terms and more tune into my Facebook Live Streaming event Sunday's at 8 PM!