Is Negative Reinforcement Bad for Dogs?

Is Negative Reinforcement Bad for Dogs?

FAQ: Is Negative Reinforcement Bad for Dogs?

The short answer to the question Is Negative Reinforcement Bad for Dogs? is “No, it isn’t.” But let me explain this in more detail, as negative reinforcement is much misunderstood, even by many dog trainers.

Reinforcement generally means to do something that makes a behavior more likely to occur in the future— as such, it reinforces the behavior. The distinction between positive vs. negative comes down to whether we add something (positive) or take something away (negative).

The Scientific View

In the scientific community, there has been a long-standing argument that positive and negative reinforcement can’t truly be separated from each other. The distinction should probably be set aside (Michael, 1975; Baron & Galizio, 2005). In terms of dog training, the distinction does make more sense as we are doing distinctly different things in each case.

For example, you give your dog a treat for sitting on command. He eats the treat because he is still hungry enough to want it. If he were full, that wouldn’t work. Hence, your dog eating the treat has positive (eating it) and negative (reducing/escaping hunger) elements. This will be the same in all cases. We can always find both aspects.

Is Negative Reinforcement Bad for Dogs?

Negative reinforcement is neither good nor bad. It is a completely natural, biological process all of us experience in some form daily. Negative reinforcement uses a biological escape and subsequent avoidance response to create reliable behaviors. Human negative reinforcement examples include putting a coat on when you’re cold (escaping the cold) and remembering to wear it the next time right away (avoiding the cold). Or get out of the sun when you’re getting too hot (escaping the heat) and go in the shade sooner (avoiding the heat) next time. Or donating to help animals in need you saw on TV (escaping feeling bad) and making it a monthly recurring donation (avoiding feeling bad in the first place, as you are doing your part already).

Negative reinforcement is a completely normal, natural, and often unavoidable part of learning. In many instances, we must first experience what it’s like before we see the need to change things.

Negative reinforcement is what helps us make the world a better place. 
– Dr. Michael Perone

It’s the same in dog training. The goal is for the dog to learn how first to escape and then avoid a negative sensation, so you don’t have to keep doing it. So, it is not a question of if negative reinforcement is bad for dogs, but more of how to do it correctly, so it works as it is supposed to. Not to get too technical, but biologically, avoiding negative things is primary reinforcer number one, while food is primary reinforcer number two. This is why adding negative reinforcement to training produces more reliability than positive reinforcement by itself.

More Learning Science

To learn more about Negative Reinforcement, I recommend you also check Ivan Balabanov’s TWC Podcast interview with Dr. Michael Perone. Dr. Perone is an authority who has studied Negative Reinforcement in all its aspects for decades.

For a condensed overview of the science of dog training, I highly recommend you also check Ivan Balabanov’s TWC Podcast episode on The Real Fact About Science-Based Dog Training. It provides a great starting point. If you want to explore more, also check our companion article on The Real Facts About Science-Based Dog Training by Ivan Balabanov. It contains links to all studies discussed in that podcast.

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