Negative Punishment, What is it and How Does it Work

My last blog was about Positive Punishment. ( ) We are now going to talk about Negative Punishment, what it is and how it works.

In the world of psychology, the definition of Negative Punishment is removing a desirable stimulus or opportunity in order to make an unwanted behavior decrease.

pitty pulling on leashA good example of negative punishment is the ‘be a tree’ scenario where you stop moving forward as soon as the dog puts pressure on the leash. Negative… you took away forward motion; punishment… the behavior decreases. In human terms,  a monetary fine is a negative punishment. They are taking your money in order to make your associated behavior decrease. As with any training method, you must be totally consistent and your punishment well timed. You must also make it as easy as possible for your dog to give you the right answer, thereby avoiding the punishment. To this end, start working in a very low distraction environment and give ample reward for correct answers. As your dog becomes more reliable, up the distraction level.

Negative punishments are not meant to be fun or enjoyable, this means you may get reactions of displeasure from your dog. Those reactions might include heightened energy, frustration, etc. This is by no means a reason not to use this technique, in fact, negative punishment paired with positive reinforcement is a very powerful team of training techniques. As with any training technique, it is always a good idea to research it and understand it before you begin using it to train  your dog.






What is Positive Punishment and How Does it Work?


Let me start by saying that this article is not meant to supply a moral judgment as to the humane or inhumane nature of positive punishment, it is only meant to explain what it is, how it works and how it can have unexpected side effects.


This type of punishment can create a confused, fearful and even aggressive dog.

In terms of psychology of the dog and how it pertains to training, positive punishment means something is added to make a behavior decrease. Sounds pretty simple but there are many variables including the emotional makeup of the dog, the intensity of the punishment, level of reinforcer for bad behavior and how well timed the punishment is. In the simplest form, in order for a punishment to be effective, it must be well timed and be stronger than the level of reinforcement the dog feels when performing the undesirable behavior. If the punishment is ill timed or not strong enough, the dog will continue the same behavior.  Examples of positive punishment are leash yanks, yelling at the dog, hitting the dog, shocking the dog with a collar, etc.


Stinging nettles are masters of positive punishment!

Many fully positive reinforcement trainers will say that positive punishment does not work. This is not true, positive punishment works quite well, even when delivered by a plant. Anyone who has had a run in with stinging nettles, poison oak, poison ivy or any number of thorned or spiked plants can attest to the power of positive punishment.


The immediacy of the pain is what makes this an effective punishment

With positive punishment, timing has to be impeccable, otherwise the dog may associate the punishment to something unintended. In human terms, lets say you had never seen a bee before and were stung by one, if the pain was immediate, you would easily connect the pain to the bee and avoid them in the future. If instead, you didn’t feel anything immediately, but seconds later when the bee was long gone, you felt a stinging sensation just as you brushed against a bush, how likely would you be to connect the sensation to the bee? How likely would you be to connect it to the bush? Without prior knowledge of the insect, you would be much more likely to connect the punishment to the bush rather than the bee. Your behavior toward the bee would be unchanged; however, you would probably immediately develop a fear towards any and all bushes of similar appearance.

prong and e collar

This dog is wearing a prong and e-collar. This dog’s body language suggests anxiety and discomfort.

There are also emotional considerations. Dogs are individuals and as such, react to things on different levels. Some dogs accept mild to moderate positive punishment with little to no negative affects while others can be deeply damaged by it. You must be able to temper the level of your punishment not only to the reinforcement level of the unwanted behavior, but also to the emotional strength and temperament of the dog.

The first picture in this article gives a very clear indication of the effects positive punishment can have when administered harshly and by someone uneducated in techniques and ramifications. This woman  is poised to strike her dog who is cowering in the corner. Though we have no idea the context of this punishment, we can make an educated guess that since this is a puppy, it has to do with soiling in the house. This punishment is ill timed since it is well after the fact and is absolutely not going to stop the soiling in the house, in fact, it can have a completely opposite affect where the dog soils more out of anxiety or fear. At best this punishment will teach the dog not to soil in front of the owner, at worst, it will teach the dog distrust or fear the owner. This association can create a timid, fearful, extremely submissive or even aggressively defensive dog when in the owner’s presence, especially if the owner is in this posture. Further, it can create a dog that will react in the same manner to anyone that attains anything even similar to this posture, such as someone getting ready to throw a ball.

Positive punishment is an extremely powerful tool of learning which is much more complex than the normal dog owner realizes. There are multiple schools of thought as to its positive and negative aspects. This article only scratches the surface and I suggest before you decide to use any level of positive punishment in training your dog, you educate yourself on all aspects involved in using it.


Compulsion Techniques -vs- Positive Reinforcement Techniques in Training

The definition of compulsion is that by force or pressure the being acted upon produces the desired behavior.

Compulsion training is often called punishment training. While the two often go hand in hand, it is not a fully accurate description. Compulsion trainingbucklingseatbelt has its basis in negative reinforcement; negative meaning that something is taken away and reinforcement meaning the behavior increases. An example of negative reinforcement in the human world is that irritating chime your vehicle makes until you buckle up. Once you buckle up, the chime
stops (negative) and your buckling up reliability increases (reinforcement). An example of this in dog training is pulling up on the leash while pushing down on the bottom to get the dog to sit. As soon as the dog sits, both pressures are released (negative) and the dog sits reliably in order to avoid the pressure (reinforcement). If you or the dog do not produce the desired behavior in the future, you know the threat of the chime or the pressure is there. This is also known as avoidance training.

Positive reinforcement training is often called treat training. Again, while these two often go hand in hand it is not a fully accurate description. Positive Reinforcement training has its basis in exactly its namesake; positive meaning something is added, reinforcement meaning that the behavior increases. Let’s take that seatbelt scenario; instead of the chime for not being buckled, as soon as you buckled up, your insurance company gives dog sit with childyou five dollars (I know, unlikely, but bear with me). To learn sit, the dog is guided into position by following a treat. When the dog sits he is rewarded with the treat. Both of you have been positively reinforced for a desired behavior.

Which training techniques would you rather learn by?

Where people go wrong with positive reinforcement is that they have not learned how to apply a variable reinforcement once the dog understands the cue. Variable reinforcement is one of the strongest behavioral tools in existence; Las Vegas is built on it! We will talk about variable reinforcement soon!