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.
If you are ready to get help with your own dog(s), please use our dog training contact form to schedule a free phone consultation.
Please also check out our other FAQ answers:
Services and Area
We are located in Southern California and train dogs nationwide. Happy Dog Training currently offers local dog training services in the following counties. Riverside County, Orange County, San Bernardino County, Los Angeles County, and San Diego County. In addition, we offer our board-and-train program nationwide and all virtual training services worldwide.
Do you want your new puppy trained right from the start? Are you looking for help for your fearful dog? Do you need to resolve a severe aggression problem? You came to the right place! We are experienced, professional dog trainers. Ralf has trained over 1500 dogs in over 18 years, and Sarah has trained over 1200 dogs in over 11 years. Consequently, we can help you with any dog training goal.
What We Offer
For many of our clients, we train their dogs from puppyhood, getting them off to a great start. However, we also have extensive experience training rescue dogs from all imaginable backgrounds and circumstances. Our Board-and-Train program is our most popular.
We can help you, regardless of your dog's challenges or training goals. Being a professional dog trainer means having experience, knowledge, and skill. Further, we developed a highly effective training program to specifically help fearful dogs gain more confidence and become the best possible version of themselves. Building Confidence is our second most popular training program.
Last but not least, we are experts in dealing with all types of aggression in dogs and are often the trainers of last resort after many other programs have failed. Most of our aggressive dog clients previously spent significant money on half-baked solutions without much improvement. This is different from us. We will give you an honest assessment of what goals are realistic for your dog. We will tell you what can be resolved reliably and what likely needs to be managed before we start.
Our flagship product is our board and train program. But our virtual dog training and coaching services have become quite popular over the last couple of years. Our setup enables us to deliver online dog training services from our indoor and outdoor training areas. This allows us to help clients worldwide.
Also, check out our Free Dog Training tips on Separation Anxiety in Dogs, Potty Training aka Housebreaking, and Leash Handling for expert solutions to common challenges.
Additional Services: Presentations and Q&As on Dogs | Professional Service Dog Training
Contact Us and Start Training
Finally, once you're ready to move forward, please use our dog training contact form to schedule a free phone consultation or book a paid, in-person consultation.
About Ralf and Sarah
Happy Dog Training is the pet dog training business of Ralf Weber and Sarah Gill. We are certified professional dog trainers in Southern California. We are specialized in advanced obedience training, all forms or behavioral challenges and service dog training. For behavioral training, we are known for our work with aggressive and fearful dogs. Our service dogs, through Total K9 Focus, have a nationwide reputation for their reliability, longevity and performance.
Ralf Weber, MS, TWC CPDT, IACP CDT, CDTA
Certified Professional Dog Trainer Ralf Weber is lead pet dog trainer of Happy Dog Training. Ralf is a long-time dog owner of German Shepherds. During his career, Ralf has worked with over a 1500 dogs of many different breeds. Moreover, Ralf has a thorough understanding of all aspects of canine training. This includes evolutionary psychology, ethology, and, most importantly, learning science. Ralf is specialized in resolving dog behavior challenges—especially fear and aggression. Apart from this, Ralf trains dogs in basic and advanced obedience, service dog tasks, and GRC Dog Sports. Ralf is further certified in a broad range of other canine training areas. Last but not least, Ralf is the author of the behavioral book If Your Dog Could Talk: Understand Your Dog Like Never Before.
Ralf loves helping people have a better relationship with their dogs. He is a certified professional dog trainer in the Training without Conflict™ methodology by Ivan Balabanov (TWC CPDT). Ralf is also a member of the International Association of Canine Professionals and also holds their basic and advanced dog trainer certifications (IACP CDT, CDTA). In addition, Ralf is an AKC-approved evaluator for the AKC Puppy Star, CGC, and Advanced CGC programs and is also certified in canine first aid by the Red Cross.
Sarah Gill, Certified Professional Master Trainer
Sarah Gill, is a professional service dog trainer and handler. Sarah entered the world of professional service dog training after a car accident. As a result, she had to use a wheelchair for almost two years, trying to maneuver in a house not designed for it. No one expected Sarah would walk again. This opened her eyes and became a driving force behind pushing herself to defy the odds. When she regained some stability, Sarah attended a dog training school and learned how to train service dogs. Sarah completed her Master Trainer Certification and gained further experience by training new trainers. However, the school wasn’t accommodating to those with physical difficulties and PTSD. Hence, Sarah moved home to Dallas. In 2019, Sarah teamed up with Ralf and moved to California.
Sarah started this journey because she had a trained dog to mitigate her disabilities. But Sarah needed additional tasking for a new diagnosis. The only option she could find was getting a second dog for the new diagnosis. She knew there had to be a different way to address this. Sarah's passion is changing the ways of the service dog training industry.