Like humans, dogs are motivated by gain and to avoid pain. Therefore, to train a dog, reinforcements or punishments can be used.

So what are reinforcements and punishments?

Reinforcements are anything that increases the likelihood that a dog will repeat a certain behavior. Similarly, punishment is anything that reduces the likelihood of a behavior being repeated.

What may not be so clear is that there are 2 types of reinforcement and likewise 2 types of punishment. Here’s why…

The 4 quadrants of operant conditioning

To reinforce a dog for a particular behavior, you can give it something it likes (eg a treat) or take away something it doesn’t like (eg an aversive). Either way, the dog is rewarded for repeating the behavior. The former is called positive reinforcement (R+) and the latter negative reinforcement (R-).

And to punish a dog for bad behavior to reduce the likelihood of the dog repeating that behavior, you can give something the dog doesn’t like (e.g. physical punishment) or simply take away something it likes (e.g. withdrawal of privileges say in the form of a time out). The former in this case is called positive punishment (P+) and the latter negative punishment (P-).

As can be seen from the examples above, the word positive and negative are used simply to indicate whether something is administered or taken away. And because you can reinforce or punish a dog by adding or taking things away, we end up with 2 different types of reinforcement and punishment each or in short, the 4 quadrants of operant conditioning.

Examples of the 4 quadrants used in dog training

Here are common examples of the four quadrants in action during dog training:

Positive reinforcement (R+): Ask a dog to sit and give it a treat when it sits

Negative reinforcement (R-): When teaching a dog to retrieve, to pinch the dog’s ear (aversive) and release it (remove aversive) only when the dog retrieves the object.

Positive Punishment (P+): Using a leash pop to correct a dog for unwanted behavior.

Negative punishment (P-): When a dog likes to play with another dog, to introduce a timeout by taking a dog to a boring corner (take away play time) the moment it becomes too rough or aggressive (unwanted behavior )

Clicker vs Compulsion Dog Trainers and how they use the 4 quadrants

Clicker and other positive reward based trainers generally use a lot of R+ in training. In rare cases where punishment is required, they usually administer P-. In clicker training, dogs are often set up for success, which gives trainers the opportunity to highlight, reward and reinforce desired behaviour. Such training is therefore generally described as more humane and dog-friendly.

Conversely, compulsive trainers focus a lot on using P+ and R- to get the job done. Dogs are sometimes deliberately set up to make mistakes, which gives the trainer the opportunity to correct the dog. Therefore, the concept of correction and coercion is often associated with such a form of dog training.

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