Unveiling the Myth of Reinforcers and Punishers

Cute Dog

Positive and negative reinforcerspositive and negative punishment— these terms are no doubt familiar to you but the definitions are confusing or you may be unsure of how and when to use each. I shall endeavor to explain. As a biologist and an ethologist, I study and explain such topics irrespective of political correctness, commercial interests, or fashion trends.

Except for reflexes, the behavior of all living creatures changes as a result of its consequences; and there are only two ways in which behavior can change: there can be more of it or less of it. Even what we call new behavior is nothing more than an increase in frequency, intensity and/or duration of components of an individual’s behavioral repertoire. New behavior sometimes amounts to the recombination of well-practiced elements. We may alter its frequency, its intensity, its duration and we may associate it with new stimuli, but if that particular element of behavior is not present in the behavioral repertoire of the animal, it will not be displayed.

As most people know, reinforced behavior tends to increase in frequency, intensity and/or duration and punished behavior tends to do exactly the opposite, i.e. it decreases in frequency, intensity and/or duration.

As most people should also know, a reinforcer is not a reward, like the bonus our boss gives us at the end of the year because he earned a lot of money. A reinforcer is anything that somehow increases a certain behavior. It may not increase the behavior of every individual, or every behavior. A reinforcer is thus only a reinforcer in relation to a specific behavior and a particular individual. It may also work, as reinforcers often do, in circumstances other than those originally envisaged, and on a class of individuals, but this is incidental (an added extra), not a requirement.

In contrast, a punisher tends to decrease the frequency, intensity and/or duration of a behavior. Again, punishers are particular to specific behaviors and individuals, and need not operate on various individuals or behaviors. There is a tendency to relate punishers to violence, but a punisher is simply an aversive, i.e. something, one would like to avoid in a specific context, and does not necessarily have anything to do with violence. For example, I immensely dislike mayonnaise, which implies that any restaurant that serves me a sandwich with mayo will decrease the frequency of my visits to that specific restaurant. Unbeknown to him, the chef is actually punishing me (or rather my behavior of visiting his restaurant). When I open a window and am almost blown away by gale force wind, I hasten to shut it again. The natural elements punished me for my opening-the-window-behavior.

In short, reinforcers and punishers are everywhere and we are exposed to them by simply living and interacting in this world. There’s no way of avoiding them completely. You can learn how to control them, by controlling your behavior, so you are reinforced more often than you are punished if that’s what you want, but even experienced people, wolves, bears, wombats, jellyfish and, of course, dogs, sometimes display behaviors, which are instantly and duly punished. Behavior punished and behavior reinforced—that is how we all learn and it’s a fact of life whether we like it or not.

In terms of learning theory, the scientific definitions of reinforcers and punishers are:

reinforcer is everything that increases the frequency, duration, and/or intensity of a particular behavior when presented or removed simultaneously or immediately after that behavior takes place. Reinforcement is the presentation of a positive reinforcer or the withdrawal of a positive punisher (an aversive).

punisher is everything that decreases the frequency, duration, and/or intensity of a particular behavior when presented or removed simultaneously or immediately after that behavior takes place. Punishment is the presentation of a positive punisher or the withdrawal of a positive reinforcer.

Bottom line: in principle reinforcers and punishers are neither good nor bad, they are not things we like or don’t like, they are just stimuli that either increase or decrease the frequency, intensity and/or duration of a behavior. A reinforcer may be a punisher one day and a reinforcer another, whilst a reinforcer for you may be a punisher for me. Consider the following example: your dog is standing in front of you and you hold a treat in front of his eyes. You look at the dog and you say ‘sit’. The dog doesn’t sit; he just plays around and barks at you. You then, you put your serious face on, emit a grunting sound, and remove the treat. The dog sits and looks as innocent as ever. You hasten to say ‘good’, you get rid of your serious face and present the dog with your friendliest expression of the day, and give the dog the treat you were holding in front of his eyes, the one you removed when he was being silly. This is a situation that I’m sure all dog owners and trainers have experienced countless times. Is there anything wrong with it? Not at all, right? Ok, let’s take a closer look at it. You say ‘sit’, the dog doesn’t sit, and you remove the treat and put on your serious face. The technical term for the removal of the treat is negative punishment and the serious face is a positive punisher. The dog then sits; you remove your serious face and give the dog a ‘good’ and the treat. The removal of your serious face is negative reinforcement and the presentation of ‘good’ and the treat are positive reinforcements. In two seconds you’ve used all four tools (correctly).

Reinforcers and punishers must have the right intensity in order to function. This is a key feature of both. A stimulus of too low an intensity will not increase or decrease a behavior. Hence, such a stimulus is not a reinforcer or punisher. Conversely, a reinforcer with too high an intensity may create another behavior. If it does, it is no longer a reinforcer for the behavior you wanted to reinforce. For example, showing the dog a treat increases its sitting behavior, but if the treat is too good (particularly yummy or the dog is very hungry), it may overexcite the dog and produce jumping up behavior. Equally, a punisher of too high an intensity will not decrease the behavior you want to decrease and instead may produce a completely different behavior. If this is the case, what you thought was a punisher for a particular behavior becomes instead a reinforcer for another, undesired behavior. For example, saying, “stop” to your dog with an unpleasant tone of voice and stern face decreases its barking behavior, but if you shout or become violent, you may produce fleeing or aggressive behavior.

Reinforcers and punishers are stimuli that have a determined window of opportunity and sometimes this window is very narrow. You have to adjust them to the individual animal you are working with, the environmental conditions and the behavior in question. Remember that you never ever reinforce or punish the animal, only its behavior. For example, you still love your dog equally, independently of whether the dog displays a behavior to your liking or not. If it does, fine. If it doesn’t, you’ll have to work a bit more on that.

If you don’t like the terms reinforcer and especially punisher, we can change them.  I once suggested calling them increasers and decreasers, positive reinforcers thus becoming add-on increasers and negative reinforcers turning into take-away increasers. What do you think about using add-on decreasers and take-away decreasers? They certainly don’t have the same connotations as punishers, do they? If you’re a good dog trainer, I’m sure you use these techniques. If we substitute the terms reinforcer, punisher, positive and negative with my suggestions, the famous table for the four operant procedures looks like this:

Operant Behavior Table

So, life is all about learning how to control the consequences of our behavior—and this is a very apt description of our job as dog trainers. We must help our dogs to learn how to control the consequences of their behavior, which is not the same as avoiding them. If, as a rule, we either only reinforce or only punish everything they do, we are indeed doing a poor job, and we are certainly not preparing them for real life where both reinforcers and punishers (increasers and decreasers) are a reality, depending on circumstances and one’s behavior. If you like my table with the alternative names, you’re welcome to use it. A warning though: the terminology doesn’t make any difference to the dog. It may make a difference, however for dog owners and dog trainers with no, or only rudimentary, knowledge of learning theory. I believe it is our duty to educate dog owners and dog trainers to distinguish between the various stimuli and teach them how to use them correctly.

Learning is changing behavior according to its consequences, and as simple as it may seem, it proves undeniably more complicated in a practical learning situation. To be a good animal trainer, or teacher, we need to master the science of learning theory and behavior modification, as well as the art of applying it at the right time, in the right dose, for the right reason. We need to be able to exercise reason and manage our emotions.

Enjoy your training session!



Q. Can I train my dog without punishers at all?

A. Yes, you can, (we have tried it) but it is extremely difficult if not unrealistic. Sooner or later something will disturb you and your dog and you’ll at least have to withdraw the positive reinforcer, which amounts to negative punishment.

Q. Can I at least avoid using positive punishers?

A. Yes you can, but you might not get as reliable a behavior. If there is no consequence for not displaying a behavior and the dog is not interested in what you can offer as reinforcers, there is no reason for the dog to display the behavior you want. It’s up to you, but don’t expect something that you have not taught the dog.

Q. Are punishers bad things?

A. No. Punishers just decrease a behavior. A reinforcer may be a punisher another day and vice versa.

Q. Do punishers hurt?

A. No. Punishers and violence and two different things. Violence may decrease a behavior, but may also result in increased intensity of the same behavior. You should never recur to violence in animal training.

Q. Are reinforcers good for the dog?

A. Reinforcers are neither good nor bad, they simply increase the behavior in one way or another. We presume the dog likes them, but that is not the essence of a reinforcer.

Q. What happens if I use too many punishers, can I hurt my dog?

A. Yes, you can. You should always teach your dog the desired behavior as a first option by reinforcing it. A punisher is a last resort, a necessity, not a choice. Life is not fun if you’re punished all the time (even if it has nothing to do with violence). Punishers inhibit your behavior. Reinforcers enhance your repertoire of behaviors.

Q. What about reinforcers, can I also hurt my dog if I reinforce everything?

A. Yes, you can. Life is not a bed of roses. Your dog must also learn to cope with adversity. It’s all a question of balance and for you as an educator to use the right tool for the right job.

Q. How do I use what we know about reinforcers and punishers to plan my training?

A. When planning your training, you should devise ways of motivating your dog to display the behavior you want and reinforce its behavior. Your dog’s motivation to do what you wish is your most efficient tool. Punishment should only be an emergency measure. If you plan your training properly, you may not need to use punishers at all, which is the optimal strategy.

Further reading

Abrantes R A. 1997. Dog Language – An Encyclopedia of Canine Behavior.

Abrantes R A. 2011. Animal Trainers Handbook (not published yet).

Bailey J. S. & Burch M R. 1999. How Dogs Learn.

Catania C.1975. Learning.

Chance P. 1999. Learning and Behavior (4th ed.)

Dickinson A. 1980. Contemporary Animal Learning Theory.

Donaldson J. 1999. The Culture Clash.

Dunbar I. 1998. How to Teach an Old Dog New Tricks.

Holland J G & Skinner B F. 1961. The Analysis of Behavior.

Lindsay S. 2000. Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Learning.

Pryor K. 1999. Don’t Shoot the Dog.

Ramirez K. 1999. Animal training: Successful animal management through positive reinforcement (don’t get fooled by the title, just read the foreword).

Reid P. 1996. Excel-Erated Learning.

McFarland D. 1987. Animal Behaviour.

Wilkes G. 1993. On Target!
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Teach Your Dog to Be Home Alone in Five Steps

Puppy on its bed.

Dogs are social animals, enjoy company and dislike being alone. We must teach our puppies to be home alone to avoid serious problems later (photo by Roger Abrantes).

You can teach your dog to be home alone in five steps. The earlier you begin, the better.

Number one canine problem behavior is “home alone.” Don’t panic if someone tells you that your dog suffers from separation anxiety. It’s probably not the case. Anxiety is a serious disorder and most dogs don’t have any anxiety when left alone. They are either under-stimulated and burn their surplus energy by wrecking the furniture, they’re having fun and don’t know that it is wrong to destroy human possessions, or the owners have not taught them the desired routines when left home alone. There is a good chance that you can solve the problem with my five steps program.

You’re not alone. Problems with dogs that can’t be home alone (I call it CHAP=Canine Home Alone Problem) is the most common problem all over the world when we keep dogs as pets. Everybody seems to have a different idea as how to solve the problem. Remember the principle: too many cooks spoil the broth. If you choose to follow some other method, please do it and don’t even bother reading the following. If you choose to follow my five steps method, stick to it and don’t listen to what others tell you.

Teach your dog to be home alone in five steps:

  • DLO means desired learning objective.
  • QC means Quality Control and indicates the number of times in a row (or similar criteria) you must have accomplished your DLO successfully before you move to the next step.

1. Teach the dog to associate the bed (crate, blanket, spot, or whatever you have chosen) with positive experiences.

DLO: The dog likes to lie down on the bed. 

QC: The dog goes often and voluntarily to its bed.

  • Throw a couple of treats on the bed of the dog (without the dog seeing it) whenever there are none left.
  • Whenever the dog lies on the bed, reinforce it verbally (don’t exaggerate, so that the dog gets up).
  • Sometimes, pet the dog when it lies on the bed (calmly).
  • Send the dog to bed with a particular signal, e.g. “bed” 10-20 times daily.
  • Send the dog to its bed often when you watch TV, read the news, do computer work, etc.

2. Teach the dog meaning of the word “bed.”

DLO: The dog goes to the bed after you say “bed” without any problems.

QC: Ten successive correct behaviors.

  • Send the dog to the bed with the word “bed” by pointing to the bed or throwing a treat on the bed.
  • Use only the word “bed.” Don’t say anything else.
  • Reinforce it verbally, calmly so it remains on the bed.

3. The dog lies down on the bed even if you walk away.

DLO: The dog lies down on the bed even if you walk away. 

QC: Ten successive correct behaviors.

  • Send the dog to the bed with the word “bed.”
  • Reinforce it verbally, calmly so it remains on the bed.
  • Stop reinforcing it immediately if it should leave within 10 seconds and ignore it for a couple of minutes. (Important: those two minutes must be particularly boring for the dog).
  • Start all over until the dog remains on the bed even if you walk away.

4. Teach the dog to stay on the bed.

DLO: The dog lies on the bed for three minutes after you leave the room.

QC: Ten successive correct behaviors.

  • Reinforce the dog verbally as soon as it lies on the bed after you said “bed.” Be calm.
  • When the dog lies quietly on the bed, leave the room for two seconds, then come back.
  • Repeat, leaving the room at irregular intervals and for irregular periods, e.g. 5 s, 30 s, 4 s, 1 minute, etc.
  • If the dog remains on the bed, do nothing.
  • Should the dog leave its bed, send it back and start all over.

5.  Teach the dog to stay on the bed when you leave the room and close the door.

DLO: You can leave the dog and close the door without any problem.

QC:  Ten successive correct behaviors.

  • As soon as you can leave the room three minutes without the dog leaving its bed, repeat procedures in point 4 but beginning to close the door.
  • The first times, do not close the door, only touch it.
  • The following times, leave the door ajar.
  • Then, leave the room, close the door for two seconds, open it and enter the room. If all is all right, do not pay attention to the dog. Otherwise, start all over with point 5.
  • Finally, leave the room, close the door, stay out for irregular periods, open it and enter the room. If all is all right, do not pay attention to the dog.

Maintaining the good behavior

  • Even when you’re home, leave the dog alone sometimes. Do not pay attention to it all the time.
  • Always stimulate the dog properly before leaving. Remember: too little and too much are equally wrong.
  • Give the dog something to do when you leave. You don’t even need to invest in expensive toys. A plastic bottle full of treats will keep the dog busy for a while figuring out how to take them out (watch the dog the first couple of times and encourage it, if necessary, to toss the bottle around and not bite it).
  • Place the dog’s bed in a central place in the house (living room). Most dogs don’t like to feel isolated.
  • Continue using “bed” and continue making the bed attractive with occasional treats, verbal reinforcing and petting (all very calmly).
  • Make sure the bed is not too clean (most dogs don’t appreciate our flagrance drenched laundry), nor too dirty and is doggy-comfortable.
  • Pick up your keys often (or put on your shoes, cap or whatever you normally do before you leave) so that the dog disassociates these cues with being left alone.

Here is some explanation for those of you interested in the principles of these five-steps method:

  • We create a positive association with the bed so that the dog will go often and voluntarily to its bed.
  • We get the dog used to lie on the bed when we are at home either relaxing or doing our home work. After all, the ideal dog is the dog that it quiet at home and active when out.
  • We teach the dog the meaning of the word “bed.”
  • We get the dog used to us leaving the room and coming back as a normal routine.
  • We teach the dog to associate the door with a normal routine.
  • We create a routine for the dog that when there’s nothing to do at home, the best is to go to bed.

You maximize your chances of speedy success if:

  • The dog sleeps on its bed at night and (even better) if it doesn’t sleep in the same room as you.
  • The dog is routinely well stimulated (under-stimulated dogs are more difficult to teach to be home alone)
  • The dog is not hyper-active and over-stimulated (over-stimulated dogs have difficulties in remaining in the same spot for longer periods of time).

Important for you:

  • Be calm no matter what you do.
  • Advance step by step.
  • Be patient.
  • Control your emotions and behavior when you succeed as well as when you fail.
  • If you haven’t anything important to say to the dog, be quiet.
  • It’s your responsibility alone to understand and implement this five-steps program and to adjust them if needed, not the dog’s.
  • If my five steps method don’t seem to solve the problem, it may be that your dog shows genuine separation anxiety in which case you must contact a competent specialist.

Enjoy training your dog and remember that you train your dog primarily for the dog’s sake, not yours!