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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