This page on Theory and Strategy is part of the Beginners Course of the
D.S. Dog Training Workshop, and an element of the Dog Science Network

Comprehensive Behavioral Conditioning for Dogs
Section Two of the Beginner's Course

Behavioral Theory and Procedural Strategies
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Tackling the Terminology

In order to facilitate a better understanding of what behavioral science has to say about how you can best go about the task of training your dog, this website uses the terminology of the original researchers who founded that discipline.

But as I said, it can get confusing. For example, when they are speaking in terms of reinforcement, the words positive and negative have a totally different meaning for behaviorists than they do for people who have not been formally trained in that discipline.

Unfortunately, that gap has been expanded by a growing crop of bogus, behavioral "experts" who have so consistently misapplied behavioral terms that they have the general public thinking of positive reinforcement as being good reinforcement that has a good effect on the dog, because it is delivered for a good purpose, thereby making the world a better place.

As opposed to negative reinforcement, which most people now seem to think of as being some sort of retribution one seeks against ne'er-do-wells who have behaved badly. As in, "I'm going to put on my brass knuckles. Then, I'm gonna head downtown with my boys and treat this clown to a little negative reinforcement."

However, that is not at all what those terms mean in behavioral science. To a true behaviorist the term positive refers to the presence of something, while the term negative refers to the absence of something.

Hence, if we say something is positive, we are just saying that there is something there; that something is in existence and that something is being presented.

When behaviorists say something is negative we are just saying that there is not anything there; that we have an absence of something; because something has been removed.

When we say that a given behavior is being "positively" reinforced, we just mean that as a result of the person or dog having made the target response, they get something afterward that causes them to begin making that response more often in the future.

For example, you do some work for your employer and he reacts to that by paying you some money. The response we are focusing on is working. After you worked and as a result of your having made that response, something was presented to you, which made you want to repeat that same response again in the future.

Please note, however, that they call it "positive" as a sort of shorthand to let everyone know that something was presented. In the example just cited, it was a paycheck that was presented.

Remember, then, that describing the event as being "positive" does not necessarily mean that there was anything good about what transpired. If you pet and praise your dog after he bites a child, you will have just used positive reinforcement to help make your dog vicious toward children.

There is nothing good about that. The point being that if you are like most people, you need to get over the notion that positive reinforcement is necessarily a good thing, because it can be used to do tremendous evil. And it is frequently used for just such purposes.

This is a behavioral workshop that uses behavioral terminology the way it has historically and traditionally been used by behaviorists. For that reason it bears saying again that in behavioral science, when we are speaking in terms of reinforcement, the words positive and negative are not references to good and evil. Rather, they simply refer to the presence of something (positive) or the absence of something (negative).

Negative Reinforcement

When we say that something is being negatively reinforced, we are just saying that our subject is making that response because it allows him to get rid of (or avoid, or escape from) something he doesn't want. And because it allows him to get rid of something he doesn't want, he starts emitting that response more and more often.

For example, if a salesman comes to your house, but then quickly gives up and goes away because you slammed the door on him. Then, we say that your door slamming response was negatively reinforced because, by making that response, you got rid of something you didn't want, with the result that you will be slamming the door on salesman more often in the future.

That's what negative reinforcement is about. Through negative reinforcement, a response comes into being and is perpetuated because it allows you to avoid something that you do not want.

If your dog goes in the house because he was cold outdoors, then, we say that his going in the house was negatively reinforced, because it allowed him to get rid of the cold, which was something that he did not want.

Positive and Negative Reinforcement Are the Inverse of One Another

Note that the dog went in the house because it allowed him to get rid of the cold, which was something that he did not want. However, the act of going indoors, as opposed to the act of leaving the outdoors, was positively reinforced because it also allowed the dog to get something he did want, which was the warmth he found in the house. Thus, we see that positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement are the inverse of one another.

The term negative reinforcement is so confusing to most people that we try to use it as little as possible in this workshop.

Just remember that the terms positive and negative have nothing to do with good or bad. Just because it is "positive" reinforcement does not necessarily mean that any good is going to come from it.

Positive = the presence of something

Positive ≠ good

Negative = the absence of something

Negative ≠ bad


If I ever came home to find that my wife was so upset about something that she wouldn't speak to me, I would know that whatever it was that she thought that I had done, it must be pretty awful.

On the other hand, if I'm in mid sentence and my wife just kind of rolls her eyes, then, I instantly understand that to mean that she is under the altogether mistaken impression that I must have just said something kind of stupid. Not too stupid to live, stupid, just kind of stupid.

By employing a punishment procedure as mild as rolling her eyes, my wife conveys to me that whatever it was that I said, that it was only slightly unacceptable.

In contrast, if she ever resorted to an extreme punishment procedure, like throwing things at me, I would take that as an indication that I must have wandered back into that too stupid to live range that I mentioned a moment ago.

On the other hand, if my wife acts like there is no problem whatsoever, then, I take that to mean that as far as she is concerned, my behavior is just fine.

Dogs are the same way in that regard. They believe that the more upset we are with them, the worse they must have fouled up.

That being the case, then, what message does it give your dog if he engages in some form of anti-social behavior, and you respond by doing nothing other than standing there passively, like you don't care?

Perhaps two dozen times in my life, I have seen a dog, accompanied by his master, who did his best to bite some innocent person. In some of those cases it was more than the dog just quickly snapping at someone.

In fact, in several of those instances, as the dog's owners stood there calmly doing nothing, the dogs were snarling, snapping and straining against the leash as they made a sustained effort to break loose and, thereby, get at their intended victims.

In comparison, if one of my dogs was to ever try to bite someone with anything short of perfect justification, then, I absolutely guarantee you that before it was over, it would be the single most upsetting experience of the dog's entire life.

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This page on Theory and Strategy is part of the Beginners Course of the
D.S. Dog Training Workshop, and an element of the Dog Science Network