Are you positive? Ask your dog.

I think most dog owners want to be as kind, gentle and humane as possible, while still effectively training their dogs.  If you read training blogs, you might start to think that withholding rewards is rather…punishing.  Others claim that rewards and punishments have a ying yang relationship.  You cannot have one without the other.

Many of these blogs have a technique-centric approach.  For example, cookies are positive.  Hitting a dog is punishment.  Verbal corrections (No! or Eh eh) are punishment.  Petting and praise are rewards.

If you think this is true, then you would be very wrong.

The DOG determines if you are using the carrot or the stick.  You, the human, trainer, owner do NOT get to determine what is naughty or nice.  Technique-centric trainers are wrong because they are presuming to know how the dog feels and thinks about various consequences.  They are painting all dogs with the same brush.

All dog training (not rehabilitation – different ballgame) uses carrots and sticks.  The technical terms are reinforcements and punishments.  You can giveth or taketh them away.  Not everyone has the same likes and dislikes.

For example, some people hate snakes while other like them.  Offering Johnny a trip to the snake exhibit for cleaning his room is a pleasant consequence only if Johnny likes snakes.  If Johnny refuses to clean his room despite a trip to the snake exhibit, you would be foolish to ignore that reaction.  The smart move is to consider that Johnny may be terrified of snakes.

So too it is with our pets.  Fasten your seat belts and leave your ego at the door.  It is time to ask the dog for some feedback on what they really think.  Here are some examples to consider:
Petting and praise for sitting.

  • If the dog sits more often, you have used a carrot.
  • If the dog sits less often, you have used the proverbial stick.

Your touch could be repulsive to a dog.  Puppy mill dogs and other under socialized animals cringe in terror at being touched.  Other dogs may tolerate your advances but really do not like it.  Some pets develop pain issues and no longer enjoy touch like they did in the past.  Never assume someone welcomes physical contact.

Push the dog off when it jumps.

  • If the dog jumps lesKip and Ic intense plays often, you have punished jumping.
  • If your dog jumps more often, you have rewarded it.

Many dogs love rough, physical play.  Rough handling can be play.  Pushing, shoving, grabbing – are fun for many dogs.   Being physically pushed is better than a slab of steak for many dogs.

Leash correcting a dog for pulling, then rewarding when the dog comes back to your side.

  • If the dog pulls less often, then the correction has punished the pulling.
  • If the dog stays right by your side, then you are reinforcing the dog for being at your side.
  • If your dog yo-yos between pulling and walking at your side, then you have rewarded pulling on the leash.  The dog has learned that pulling gets a correction.  The dog willing takes the pain in order to get a reward.

Dogs will learn to misbehave to get rewards.  You always get what you create.  The dog is not lying.  If you do not like having a yo-yo dog, look in the mirror because you probably created this problem behaviour.  I certainly hope no one would intentionally do this, but it does have some practical uses.  Think needle at the veterinary clinic means cookies.

Ignoring barking

  • You ignore barking.  Your dog’s barking worsens and then eventually stops.  You have used extinction.
  • You ignore barking and the dog quickly stops barking.  You have punished the dog by withdrawing attention the dog finds valuable, much like a timeout.
  • You ignore barking and barking escalates.  The dog probably wants you to go away.

You do not necessarily punish a dog by ignoring it.  If a dog wants you to go away, ignoring them is a carrot.  Even the happiest married couples probably realize it’s nice to see your spouse leave so you can have a bubble bath.  Love you – go away – come back later.  Do not assume your presence is always a gift to the universe.  You’re special, but not THAT special.  None of us is.

The point being that in order to aspire to compassionate – to be more humane and kinder, we need to stop talking so much and we need to start listening.

We listen by watching the dog’s reaction.  When you reach to pat a dog on the head and see that slight ducking and shying away, then take note.  Look for escape and avoidance behaviours.  They can be hard to spot.  Relief can look oddly similar to joy.

Avoid a technique-centric approach and choose communication.  When you stop – really stop – and listen, you realize that all dogs respond to positive reinforcement.  Unfortunately, too often, the human thinks they are being positive and the dog firmly disagrees.  You must truly hear what the dog is saying.

If you do that, you realize that the dog will tell you which quadrant is in play.  Open yourself up to the dog’s answer, even if the truth might sting a little.

Side note:  I love technical, jargon filled blogs.  I just happen to think that most people fall into a coma reading them.  Would recommend an introductory psychology text as a good source of information for anyone wanting to learn more.

12 thoughts on “Are you positive? Ask your dog.

  1. Pingback: Layman’s Dictionary of Dog Jargon in Rehabilitation | awesomedogs

  2. This is stupid.
    1. Any trainer would know that you can’t use the same technique for all dogs.
    2. I’m pretty sure they call it “negative reinforcement”, not “punishment” or “corrections” at the very least.
    3. Obviously you have to find what motivates your dog. Your hyper lab who is dying to be touched is not going to train well with you constantly trying to pet it but, it will sit like a stone if you dangle a carrot.
    4. Just because your dog needs to be taught one way or another, doesn’t mean we as human are adept at so doing.

    • The proper terms are:
      Positive reinforcement
      Negative reinforcemnt
      Positive punishment
      Negative punishment

      People sometimes get offended when they are told they “punished” the dog. But it is the correct term if you suppressed a behaviour.

      For more information, take a look at:

      While you would think that “any trainer” would know how to effectively use and understand how all these interact – since anyone can be a behaviourist, many don’t even know the very basics. They get married to a cookie cutter system.

      • Thanks for the article link. I find it difficult to understand that “positive” can be interpreted as adding something to a situation. It seems like we’re arguing semantics but it is a bit of a reach. The idea of “positive punishment” is an opposing statement since “punishment” is almost always a negative action. Even if you were to argue that “positive punishment” is the “adding” of punishment then “negative punishment” would be the removing of punishment? I guess I’m lucky to have had enough hand on experience with animals that I feel comfortable deciding if X trainer’s techniques will work on X animal and to know that you must cater your approach based on a number of factors.

        • You know how some words have more than one meaning? So a bank can be a place to put your money. A bank can be the edge of a river too. Same word. Two different meanings.

          Positive means add.
          Negative means substract.
          Reinforcement means to strengthen or increase behaviour. (Think reinforce a make it stronger)
          Punishment means to weaken or lessen.

          Positive punishment means ADD something that weakens or lessens a behaviour. Dog pulls on leash. If I jerk a less (adding pain/discomfort), IF the dog pulls less, I have lessened pulling.

          Positive reinforcement means to ADD something that increases behaviour. Want dog to sit. If I add a treat (add food), IF the dog sits more often because I give a treat, I have reinforced or strengthened sitting.

          Negative Punishment: Take away something so that the behaviour is weakened. If I take away freedom (timeout) when the dog nips, I weaken nipping.

          Negative Reinforcement: Take away something to strengthen behaviour. (Tricky one because you often have to add something first to take it away…). If I shock a dog on continuous shock. I keep shocking. I stop the shock when the dog comes to me. I have strengthened coming when called because I took away the pain.

          People read punishment and positive and think there is a judgement call in those words. If you use the right definition, there isn’t a judgement, just an is. They are not the same meanings as what you’d find in a dictionary.

  3. “The point being that in order to aspire to compassionate – to be more humane and kinder, we need to stop talking so much and we need to start listening.”
    Well said! It is only a reward if the dog thinks it is a reward. Some people don’t really know their dog well enough to determine what he wants.

    • I’ll assume that different universities have different texts they use. If you go to a reputable university, they usually have a campus book store where the students buy their textbooks. (Some have a used section where you can save a bit of money).

      The one I have is: Psychology by Wortman Loftus Weaver and Atkinson.
      Ask what their psych 101 course text is. And make sure it has learning theory covered in it.

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