Most of our readers are likely familiar with positive reinforcement training, which at the most basic level is when a trainer provides positive reinforcement in the form of praise, treats, or other undesirable in return for desired behavior exhibited by the subject. The repetition of this process instills in the trainee the desired behaviors and enables the trainer to do her job without causing any discomfort to the animal being trained.

Positive reinforcement training has been proven to be effective in innumerable studies, and is widely used by professional as well as amateur trainers. There are some that contend that perhaps positive reinforcement training is not the only acceptable means of training, especially for those who are not professional trainers and able to dedicate themselves to an extensive and laborious training regimen for their subjects—even though positive reinforcement training is highly effective in getting the exact desired behavior from the subject, it does take a long time to get results due to the nature of how this type of training is conducted.

Negative Reinforcement

Before we continue, it is important to distinguish between negative reinforcement and punishment (physical or otherwise). Negative reinforcement training is the introduction of slightly uncomfortable stimuli which are no more than an annoyance. These stimuli are introduced right at the moment when an undesirable behavior is displayed, or when a desirable behavior is lacking. As an example, using rope training for hunting dogs is considered negative reinforcement. A desirable behavior for pointing dogs is to sweep the field as they move forward in search of prey. In order to get this behavior, the trainer uses a rope (attached to the dog’s collar) in order to nudge the dog into a desirable pattern. This is combined with a whistle which marks the point when the dog should switch directions. The training consists of the trainer allowing the dog to do what is in its nature which is to run off looking for prey (while attached to a long rope or lead) and tug on the rope to nudge them in the opposite direction right as the change is marked with a sharp whistle. The tug on the rope is negative reinforcement as it creates an uncomfortable pull on the dog’s collar, but it is by no means a punishment. The discomfort causes the dog to switch direction, and as training progresses the nudge becomes unnecessary since only the whistle can do the job.

In certain instances, negative reinforcement can be an acceptable replacement for positive reinforcement training, as long as mild levels of discomfort are used to guide the trainee in the right direction.

Often, pets are relinquished to shelters because they are unwieldy, and difficult to train, and the owner does not have the financial ability to hire a professional trainer. This is just one example where some training through negative reinforcement can help prevent a dog from ending up in the shelter.