The Magic Words ‘Yes’ and ‘No’

Roger Abrantes and Dog

'No' is a signal. It means 'stop what you are doing.' It is not a punisher (photo from the EI archives).

Yes and no are two very short words, yet they convey the most important information many living beings can receive, on one level regulating their organic functions on another, their behavior, and ultimately, their survival. If I say these words don’t require any explanation, everyone would probably agree and yet we’d be wrong. Did you know that in some languages yes and no don’t exist?

In my book “Psychology rather than Power,” written in 1984, I define ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in dog training for the first time. ‘Yes’ means “continue what you’re doing now” and ‘no’ means “stop what you’re doing now.” I explain how to teach our dogs these signals and I emphasize that ‘no’ is not a punisher and that it should always be followed by a reinforcer as soon as the dog changes its behavior. As the years passed, I reviewed, improved and refined all definitions, especially the ways to teach dogs these signals. In 1994, I wrote the first draught of SMAF, which provided the opportunity to analyze signals and teaching methods (POA=plans of action) with increased precision. The definitions of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ remained the same, but we could now clearly distinguish between the two completely different ways in which dog owners and trainers were using the sound ‘no.’ One was as a signal as I describe; the other was as a punisher. The punisher ‘no’ was pronounced more harshly than the signal ‘no’ but was basically the same sound. Transcribing it into SMAF, we had no doubt that we were talking about two different stimuli. The signal is No(stop what you doing right now),sound(no) and the punisher is [!+sound](no).

Using a punisher as a signal to encourage the dog to do something is never a good idea as the function of a punisher is to decrease the frequency, intensity and/or duration of a behavior. Conversely, the function of a signal is to produce a behavior which we increase in frequency, intensity and/or duration by reinforcing. Therefore, in order to increase the effectiveness of No,sound (the signal), we had to explain very carefully to owners and trainers that they should never use ‘no’ as a punisher. Amazingly (or perhaps not), many dogs could distinguish between the two ‘no’s,’ but we didn’t want to risk them forming a respondent association between the sound ‘no’ and an aversive. We should use any other sound (word), e.g. ‘phooey’ (‘fy’ or ‘føj’ in the Scandinavian languages) as a punisher.

Why the word ‘no’?

The word ‘no’ seemed to me at the time, the best option to convey, “stop what you are doing right now.” After all, implicitly or explicitly, this is the way most of us use this word (when we have it in our language, that is). Of course, some people cannot say ‘no’ properly, but the fact that some people have bad manners doesn’t detract from the meaning or the value of the word itself.

The magic words ‘yes’ and no

‘Yes’ and ‘no’ are two words used for expressing affirmatives and negatives. The words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are difficult to classify under one of the eight conventional parts of speech. They are not interjections (they do not express emotion or calls for attention). They are sometimes classified as sentence words or grammatical particles.

Modern English has two words for affirmatives and negatives, but early English had four words: yesyeano and nay.

If you’re a native English speaker, you know what yes and no mean and you have no problem using these words, from a linguistic point of view, that is. You might have a problem using the word no from a psychological point of view, but that’s a completely different story.

If you are a native English speaker and have never ventured into learning other languages, you probably believe there is no problem in simply answering any question with yes or no. After all, most things either are or are not, are either true or false, right? I’m afraid I’m going to have to disappoint you by demonstrating that you are wrong.

Even though some languages have corresponding words for yes and no, we do not use them to answer questions. For example, in Portuguese, Finnish and Welsh, you rarely answer questions with yes and no. Portuguese: “Estás bem?” (Are you OK?) “Estou” (I am). Finnish: “Onko sinulla nälkä?” (Are you hungry?) “On” (I am). Welsh: “Ydy Ffred yn dod?” (Is Ffred coming?) “Ydy” (He is coming).

In Scandinavian languages, French and German (amongst others), you answer questions with yes and no, but you have two different ways of saying yes depending on whether the question is an affirmative response to a positively-phrased question or an affirmative response to a negatively-phrased question: Danish and Swedish (ja, jo, nej), Norwegian (ja, jo, nei), French (oui, si, non), German (ja, doch, nein).

So far so good, but if you venture into the Asian languages,  it gets far more complicated. Some Asian languages don’t have words for yes and no. In Japanese, the words はい (hai) and いいえ (iie) do not mean yes and no, but agreement or disagreement with the statement of the question, i.e. “agree.” or “disagree.” はい can also mean “I understand what you’re saying.” The same in Thai: ใช่ (chai) and ไมใช่ (maichai) mean “correct,” “not-correct.” In Thai you can’t answer the question “คุณหิวข้าวไหม” (Are you hungry?) with “ใช่” (correct). It doesn’t make sense for what is it that you are confirming to be correct? The right answers are “หิว” (hungry) or “ไมหิว” (not hungry). In all Chinese dialects, yes-no questions assume the form “A or not-A” and you answer echoing one of the statements (A or not-A). In Mandarin, the closest equivalents to yes and no are 是 (shì) “be” and 不是 (búshì) “to not be.”

Latin has no single words for yes and no. The vocative case and adverbs are used instead. The Romans used ita or ita vero (thus, indeed) for the affirmative and for the negative, they used adverbs such as minime, (in the least degree). Another common way to answer questions in Latin was to repeat the verb like in Portuguese, Castellano and Catalan (e.g. est or non est).  We can also use adverbs: itavero, etiam (even so), sane quidem (indeed, indeed), certe (certainly), recte dicis (you say rightly) or nullo modo (by no means), minime (in the least degree), haud (not at all!), non quidem (indeed not).

In computer languageyes and no appear as a succession of “A or B” conditions. If condition A is true, then action X. A computer’s CPU only needs to recognize two states, on or offyes or noone or zero for us to instruct it to perform complicated operations.

The theories of quantum computation suggest that every physical object, even the universe, is in some sense a quantum computer. The universe itself appears to be composed of yes and no. Professor Seth Lloyd writes: “(…) everything in the universe is made of bits. Not chunks of stuff, but chunks of information—ones and zeros. (…) Atoms and electrons are bits. Machine language is the laws of physics. The universe is a quantum computer.”

The way computers use yes and no is the closest to our own general use of these terms. ‘Yes’ means “continue what you are doing right now.” ‘No’ means “stop what you are doing right now.” This is the implied meaning of yes and no in the majority of the sentences. “Are you hungry?” The answer “yes” would result in you getting food and “no” in the opposite. “Shall I turn right? ” followed by a ‘yes’ would make me continue with what I intended to do and if followed by a ‘no,’ would make me stop doing it. A ‘yes’ in response to  “Did you buy rice today?” would prompt me to continue doing whatever I might be doing and a ‘no’ would lead me to interrupt what I’m doing to go and buy some rice. There are many other examples, but in general ‘yes’ prompts or encourages a continuation and ‘no’ does the opposite. There is nothing particularly positive or negative in either. Both are valuable bits of information that we can transform into behavior for our benefit. Both save energy, the most important resource for all living organisms.

Two peculiar aspects of ‘yes’ and ‘no’

As we have seen, some languages don’t have words for ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ This is a cultural phenomenon. For example, in Japan and in Thailand, it is bad manners to be direct. Japanese and Thai people consider ambiguity to be a beautiful aspect of their language. The objective in courtesy is to convey the true meaning between the lines. The way the message is communicated should be as unclear as possible, especially when criticizing someone or rejecting an invitation. This linguistic feature is probably related to the sense of self-respect and honor that is so pronounced in both cultures, i.e. one doesn’t want to hurt other people’s feelings, or lose face.

For example, I can’t say to a Thai employee that arrives late to work “Arriving late is not acceptable. Please, rectify this in the future.” If I do, I won’t have an employee coming to work at all the next day or maybe ever again. I’d have to say “If we had employees that arrived late, we would have to ask them to come at the right time, don’t you think?” That would have the desired effect. If you invite a Japanese to an event that he or she is not the least bit interested in, they will answer “I want to come, but unfortunately it is impossible on that day.” That would suffice for me to understand that they not interested without making me lose face. Suggesting another day (and missing the point) is considered impolite.

Thais use คฺรับ (khrap, by men), ค่ะ (kha, by women) and the Japanese use はい (hai) to show that they are listening to you because it is impolite for them to let you talk for any length of time without their acknowledgement.  However, it does not mean they agree with what you are saying, or that they will comply.

In terms of animal training, if a signal is “everything that intentionally changes the behavior of the receiver” and a command is “a signal that intentionally changes the behavior of the receiver in a specific way with no variations or only extremely minor variations,” the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are probably the closest we come to commands (‘yes’ means continue and ‘no’ means stop and, as with most behaviors, there are not many possible variations in continuing or stopping, if any).

Is ‘no’ a bad word?

‘No’ is not a bad word, on the contrary it is a very useful word. It conveys information in a precise and efficient way. To get ‘no’ as an answer is as important as getting a ‘yes.’ Both save us energy and lead us to our goal. Personally, I like the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ equally and I wished people would learn to use them properly and more often.

The other day, I went to a busy store at a busy hour with busy employees and I didn’t have the time or the patience to wait. I said to the employee: “I have a question that you can answer quickly with a yes or no. Do you have a Time Capsule 2TB?”

“I have one, but it’s reserved for a customer,” he answered.

“What does that mean? Is he coming to pick it up or not?” I asked again.

“Yes, he is.” He answered.

“Well, than that’s a no right?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

Why couldn’t he just have said no the first time? It would have saved us all time: me, the other customers in the line, and not least himself.

Another example:

United Airlines desk at the gate boarding to ORD: I approach and ask: “Do you have an empty seat on this flight?”

The United operator answers me: “That depends on your ticket, sir.”

“No, it doesn’t,” I reply, “whether or not you have empty seats does not depend on my ticket, It depends on whether all the seats will have butts on or not.”

A colleague of hers smiles and checks. “Sorry, sir, this flight is fully-booked. I have one seat on the next flight, but… it’s business class.”

“No ‘but’, you can put a comma or an ‘and’ in there,” I say. It blows my mind. A seat is a seat and that’s what I asked for. A seat is not less of a seat because it is a business class seat.

“Excuse me, sir?” she says with a smile, plainly not understanding my remark based on linguistics/logic.

“Never mind. Here’s my frequent flyer card. I have an e-ticket for the 7.13 pm flight. Upgrade it on the card, please. Thank you.” I smile to her in an attempt to reinforce her for having been able to think clearly (yes/no) for two seconds and for checking availability on the next flight.

“Yes, sir.” Finally a short and precise answer!

Why couldn’t they have just answered first ‘no’ and then ‘yes’ until they got the next bit of information, if I had any to give them? It would have saved me (and them) time and energy. If the lack of words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in Asian languages is frustrating for the Western communicator, the refusal to use them or their incorrect usage in languages where they exist and are well defined is exasperating.

Why don’t some people like the word ‘no’?

Cultural differences apart, some people don’t like the word ‘no’ for the same reason that some dogs don’t like it either: because they associate ‘no’ with aversives. Parents are just as bad as dog owners in distinguishing between signals and punishers and they make the same mistakes which will later create problems for their children.

Of course, parents have to yell ‘no’ if  the toddler is about to  stick his fingers in the wall outlet (plug socket). There’s nothing wrong with that. What is wrong, and creates the aversive respondent association with ‘no’, is the constant repetition without a reinforcer when the behavior stops. The toddler only learns that sometimes parents go berserk and, has no idea why or how to avoid it. The toddler becomes so sensitive to the word ‘no’ that later on, like many others, he or she would rather live with regret than to risk hearing a ‘no.’ This conditioning can also happen later in life to which abusive parents, irate spouses, tyrannical bosses all contribute.

An elementary mistake, committed by both parents and dog owners, contributes to the aversive connotation of ‘no.’ If we have to use punishment, we should never (ever) punish the individual, we punish the behavior. Punishing the individual is what creates traumas, a lack of self-confidence, the feeling of rejection, etc. Punishing the individual rather than the behavior can even produce aggressive behavior rather than decreasing the intended behavior.

The reason why some people don’t like ‘no’ has nothing to do with the word or the message conveyed, but with the aversive(s) to which it was (respondently) conditioned. To change that goes beyond the scope of biology, animal behavior and linguistics, and pertains to the realm of psychology.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with the word ‘no’ and particularly not with the message it conveys. There is something wrong with abusive parents, irate spouses, tyrannical bosses and ignorant people (all potentially abusive animal owners). To forbid the word ‘no’ or to replace it with another, e.g. ‘stop,’ does not resolve the problem. The only thing that does solve the problem is to educate people, to teach them to respect others independently of species, race and sex.

‘No’ in dog training

The signal ‘no’ is indispensable in dog training. I use it constantly when training detection dogs and rats, and the animals respond correctly with no emotional response at all. I give the signal ‘search’ by means of sound, the dog searches, I reinforce it. I give the dog the signal ‘no,’ the dog changes direction, I reinforce it. If the dog stops and looks at me, I give the signal ‘direction’ with a stretched arm toward the desired direction, I give the signal ‘search’ by means of sound, the dog searches and I reinforce it. If necessary, while the dog searches, I can signal ‘yes’ to encourage the dog to continue searching (‘yes’ functions here as a signal and a reinforcer, not an exception at all).

For those of you proficient in SMAF:

PRS1. {Search,sound => Dog searches => “!±sound”};

PRS2. {No,sound => Dog changes direction => “!±sound”};

ALT2. {No,sound => Dog stops and looks at me => Direction,arm + Search,sound => Dog searches => “!±sound”};

If necessary:

PRS1. {Search,sound => Dog searches => “!±sound” => Dog searches => Yes,sound};

/* Yes,sound also functioning as “!±sound */

In languages where there are no words for ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ such as Thai, I use ใช่ (chai=correct) and หยุด (yut=stop) respectively for “continue what you are doing right now” and “stop what you are doing right now.” I don’t use ไมใช่ (maichai=not correct) because the sound is too close to ใช่ (chai=correct).

Some trainers don’t allow their dog owners to say ‘no’ at all in their classes. This is an option, particularly if we have a class full of bad-mannered dog owners, but if our class consists of average, well-mannered owners, I cannot see any reason to do so. If they are not well-mannered, maybe they should learn good manners before beginning training their dogs; and maybe, by training them to be polite to their dogs, we could even make a change for the better in their lives in general by teaching them good manners toward their fellow humans as well.

Forbidding the signal ‘no’ in dog training is a grave mistake (and misunderstanding) in my opinion. Firstly, it is one of the two most crucial signals in life. Secondly we all need a quick, efficient signal to stop a behavior which might be life threatening for someone we care about (human or animal). Thirdly, it would be an untenable waste of time and energy if we had to resort to diverting maneuvers every time someone (our dogs included) did something undesirable.

Substituting the signal ‘no’ with other sounds (words) such as ‘stop,’ or ‘off’ doesn’t solve the problem. It only transfers the conditioning to those new words. The problem is that some people just can’t speak nicely to anyone. Most dog owners yell their dog’s name and they yell ‘come.’ What are we going to do about that? Forbid them to use their dog’s name and the word ‘come’? What’s the next thing we are going to forbid them? Rather then forbidding, it seems to me a much better option to teach them to communicate properly. We need to explain to them that the words they use, in the way they use them, are not signals but punishers and by definition they will not achieve the desired result, quite the contrary, they will get an undesired outcome. We need to show them how appropriate signals effect appropriate behaviors.

Bottom-line: The fact that some languages don’t have words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and that Latin uses quantifiers instead, suggests that there are cognitive as well as emotional elements connected to the meaning of both words. Maybe the logical human brain likes the precision and simplicity implied in ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ but the emotional human brain doesn’t. The universe and computers have no queries with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ perhaps because they are not emotional. Perhaps ‘yes’ and ‘no’ appeared in some languages at a stage when action became more decisive than emotion. We don’t know. I haven’t been able to clarify any of these questions. Nevertheless, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ convey important bits of information in a succinct and precise way. In the languages, which contain them, we can use them correctly for our benefit.

Enjoy and don’t feel guilty because you are well-mannered and know how to say no.

R-

References

Dog Training: Signals, Cues, Commands, Obedience and Punishment

Kelly Gorman Dunbar and Roger Abrantes at Animal Cafe.

Kelly Gorman Dunbar interviewed Roger Abrantes at Animal Cafe on October 17, 2011.

This is the podcast where Kelly Gorman Dunbar interviewed me for Animal Cafe.

Related articles

Commands or Signals, Corrections or Punishers, Praise or Reinforcers

An Australian Shepherd doing agility at the Ro...

Do you use signals or commands to communicate with your dog? (Image via Wikipedia)

Commands or signals, corrections or punishers, praise or reinforcers—does it matter what we call them?

If you think it doesn’t matter, there’s no need to read any further. If you think it does matter, please continue reading because I’d like to help you. I noticed some inconsistencies in contemporary dog training terminology  and will proceed to argue that they need correcting.  Trainers use too many terms that either are badly defined, not defined at all or already exist and mean something else.

Why is it important to agree on one single terminology? Because only then can we have a meaningful discussion and avoid falling out with people with whom we might otherwise like to cooperate.

For example, the majority of “positive” dog trainers have no problems using the word command and yet a command means “an authoritative direction or instruction to do something,” or “a line of code written as part of a computer program.” To command means “to exercise authoritative control or power over.” The word has connotations of the military, the police and of authority in general. Of course, we may use the word command but it beats me why we ban the terms dominance (without defining it properly) and punisher (whilst disregarding the correct, technical definition of the term) and use command with no concern whatsoever.

Personally, I have a problem with the use of command in dog training for several reasons. A command implies the obligation to execute a behavior in a very precise way. We give computers commands to execute actions in exactly the same way every single time, no variations allowed (that’s what we want from our computers). Army officers issue commands they want obeyed with no questions asked and disobedience is severely punished.

Is this what we want from our dogs? No, it is not. We want them to perform a behavior within a particular class of behaviors where variations are both inevitable and acceptable. There are many ways to sit correctly, but not many ways to “copy” or “paste”. The authoritarian aspect also bothers me; it implies subjugation. I don’t want my dog so much to obey me as to understand what I want him to do. The essence of communication is to convey information, not to enforce it. When we communicate, we use signals, and signals are understood, not obeyed and not commanded. I can’t say “I command you to understand.” A command is a signal before becoming a command, only we don’t need to issue commands to our dogs if we’ve done our job properly.

Signal seems to me undoubtedly the right term and has much better connotations than command. Your dog is not a computer, nor a soldier (PS—I have nothing against computers nor soldiers).

The same goes for the term punisher. You’ll find “positive” trainers using the word command without blinking, but demonizing you if you dare as much as whisper the word punisher, which doesn’t make any sense at all to me. If we are sensitive about the connotations of one term, it seems that we would also be sensitive about those of the other. Whilst blithely employing the word command, some trainers substitute punisher with correction, which doesn’t make any difference, it still means the same and is interchangeable with punisher in some senses.

Then, there is praisePraise means “an expression of approval and commendation,” “applaud,” “pay tribute to,” “compliment.” It is true that praise can influence learning in humans, but I doubt it very much that it has any value in animal training. Praise and reinforcer are two different things. We use reinforcers in dog training, not praise. “Positive” animal training claims to be a more humane way of training animals (meaning showing compassion or benevolence), to be more scientific than the “old-fashioned” training, and to know all about “classical conditioning” and “operant conditioning.” If this is true, why don’t we show it and educate people accordingly? Why don’t we use the proper scientific terms?

Some claim that the right scientific terms are too difficult. I fail to see what’s more difficult in reinforcer than in reward, in signal than in command, but even if it were true, this appears to me to be one of the situations where the end justifies the means. It would be a small price to pay in order to gain more clarity and avoid misunderstandings. Using technical terms instead of everyday words would also help people fully understand and use the various learning tools correctly. Sometimes, in trying to simplify things, we miss the point completely. Most dog owners don’t know that praise in dog training means “everything that increases the frequency, intensity and/or duration of a behavior when presented simultaneously or immediately after the behavior takes place” (= reinforcer). Dog owners are not more stupid than dog trainers and if the latter can learn it, so can the former. It’s up to us to motivate them. We were all dog owners before we became dog trainers. Did we like condescending dog trainers back then?

As far as I can see, we only have two options: (1) to claim that it doesn’t matter what we call things, in which case nobody should be labelled for using terms such as punisher, dominance, etc., and we can all be “positive” nevertheless; (2) to use, teach, encourage and propagate the use of correct, well-defined terms, starting with ourselves, in order to be consistent with ideology and methodology.

Personally, I am not worried by the terms you use and I will not label you solely on your choice of words. The only concern I have is that (unless I know you) when you say command I’m not so sure you know about the intricacies of signals, and when you say praise I’m not certain that you fully appreciate the function of reinforcers (and punishers). I understand that you don’t like the word punisher because you are a good person, but I’m not sure that this is the right way to manifest it. Changing a term doesn’t change an attitude. Sometimes, quite on the contrary, if you used the word punisher, you’d have an opportunity and a reason to emphasize that it has nothing to do with violence and abuse.

On the other side, I do have worries that we label good, humane, “positive” dog trainers otherwise because of their correct use of the scientific terms; and that we label good, humane, “old-fashioned” trainers abusive due to their ignorance of the terminology that is fashionable nowadays. Before you even think of labeling me on the basis of my comments here, I would like to remind you that my first book on dog training, published in 1984 and entitled “The Dog, Our Friend—Psychology rather than Power,” was a revolution in dog training at the time; it was the first book (as far as I know) to describe exactly how to teach a dog sit, stand, down, come, heel, jump, slalom, treat-on-the-nose, retrieve, etc., without the use of any force at all. I showed even pictures of the clicker (except that we used a whistle) and of the precursor of these so fashionable toys that you fill with treats to stimulate the dog. Since then, many have followed in the same spirit: respect for the dog as a species and as an individual.

The bottom-line is that we should define terminology and implement it consistently. As it stands now, I’m afraid we’ll lose many good people for our cause of “a better world for dogs and dog owners” because of fashionable trends and pettiness.

Think about it.

Keep smiling,

R-

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!

R—

FAQ

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!
Related articles