Positive Only? Or Not?... Why I'm Not...


Hold on, don't freak out yet... stick with me on this one... I promise you'll learn something.

"Positive Only" and "Positive Reinforcement Only" dog training is currently the MOST TALKED ABOUT and LEAST UNDERSTOOD Method out there by the public and even some of those calling themselves dog trainers.

So first, let's talk about the terms "Positive" and "Negative" as relates to dog training. When we hear these words, we automatically think:

Positive = Good & Negative = Bad

... but that's not the case here!

Scientifically, the words Positive and Negative when it comes to behavior and learning theory mean the same thing they do in math class. So in actuality:

POSITIVE = adding something to the situation

NEGATIVE = taking something away from the situation

There's two other words that are a part of the equation too: Reinforcement and Punishment.

Again, here we automatically attach our emotions and english class definitions to these words, so we automatically think Reinforcement = good and Punishment = bad...

and again, we'd be wrong. We have to remember math and science people came up with

these terms!

So, scientifically speaking:

REINFORCEMENT = doing something that will INCREASE the likelihood a behavior will be repeated.

PUNISHMENT = doing something that will DECREASE the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated.

Let's Recap:

POSITIVE = Adding Something NEGATIVE = Subtracting Something

REINFORCEMENT = Behavior Increases PUNISHMENT = Behavior Decreases

So what does this mean in terms of dog training?

Well when you combine the four words together, we have 4 different types of interactions possible with our dogs. They're known as the Four Quadrants.



Hold on, don't go applying your emotional thoughts about the words just yet. If we applied what we (anyone unfamiliar with learning theory, meaning most people) thought they mean then:

Positive Reinforcement and Positive Punishment must be good, and

Negative Reinforcement and Negative Punishment must be bad...

It's not that simple though. Stay with me, I know this can get a bit confusing...


POSITIVE = Adding Something NEGATIVE = Subtracting Something

REINFORCEMENT = Behavior Increases PUNISHMENT = Behavior Decreases

So lets put together our scienfific definitions of the words to get to what they really mean:

POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT: ADDING something to the dog's environment/situation that will INCREASE the likelihood a behavior will be repeated.

NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT: SUBTRACTING something from the dog's environment/ situation that will DECREASE the likelihood a behavior will be repeated.

POSITIVE PUNISHMENT: ADDING something to the dog's environment/situation that will DECREASE the likelihood a behavior will be repeated

NEGATIVE PUNISHMENT: SUBTRACTING something to the dog's environment/situation that will DECREASE the likelihood a behavior will be repeated

Ok wait, what?

POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT = Adding Something to Increase the behavior

let's think about this in terms of our dogs.

Adding something/ giving them something so they will do a particular behavior again.

So basically we're giving our dogs a paycheck when they do what we want, in hopes the paycheck is enough motivation to get them to do it again. Just like how you get a paycheck for going to work.

Examples of those rewards or paychecks include anything your dog cares about or likes:

treats, toys, attention, going outside, playtime, the list can really become endless

Ok, so this one makes sense, it's what everyone is talking about and everyone assumes is giving treats (it doesn't have to be treats)

So let's get to where the real lack of understanding is happening. You understand why Positive Reinforcement is good for your dog and why people are talking so much about it, but why are the other 3 then considered not good? Really it's because people don't understand what they're talking about!

I have yet to meet a trainer who doesn't utilize some form of NEGATIVE PUNISHMENT

Negative Punishment and Positive Reinforcement work very closely together.

How many of you have heard, if your dog jumps on you turn your back to the dog? Guess what? That's actually Negative Punishment!

NEGATIVE PUNISHMENT = Subtracting Something to Decrease the behavior

let's think about this in terms of our dogs.

Taking something away so they will learn to not do a particular behavior again.

In the case of the jumping up dog, we are SUBTRACTING Our attention hoping our dog will learn, if you jump up, you don't get attention, if you sit politely I'll come back and pet you.

Examples of things your dog likes that we often "take away" until they behave or do what we want:

stopping our attention, removing a toy, ending playtime...

Let's talk about some more examples of negative punishment, so you start to understand where you are probably humanely using it all the time with your dog.


You want your dog to not jump in your face to get the ball, so you wait to throw the ball until your dog has four feet on the ground, or is in a sit... then you throw the ball

You take the ball away from the environment until your dog sits hoping to decrease the jumping up behavior.


You have the food bowl in your hand to feed your dog, but you wait for them to sit until they can have it

You withhold the food bowl until your dog sits, hoping to decrease them jumping all over you for the food.


Your dog is pulling you, so you stop and wait until your dog comes back towards you and you have a loose leash.

You take away the walk hoping to decrease the pulling.

Now here's where positive reinforcement and negative punishment go hand in hand. They are almost always done in conjunction with each other. If we revisit our examples from above:


Negative Punishment: removing your attention by turning your back until they sit, but you reward the sit with Positive Reinforcement by giving them attention again or turning back when they are sitting.


Negative Punishment: Withholding the ball until you have four feet on the floor

but, you reward the dog with Positive Reinforcement when you throw the ball again...

Positive Reinforcement: adding the ball back, in hopes of reinforcing the four feet on the floor.


Negative Punishment: Withholding the bowl until you have a calm sit

but, you reward the dog with Positive Reinforcement when you give them the food bowl...

Positive Reinforcement: adding the food bowl, in hopes of reinforcing the calm self restraint


Negative Punishment: Withholding the walk until you have a loose leash or heel

but, you reward the dog with Positive Reinforcement when you start walking again once they give you a loose leash...

Positive Reinforcement: adding the walk back, in hopes of reinforcing the loose leash

So lets Recap this:

Just like how you wouldn't give a child a piece of candy that was throwing a temper tantrum, withholding a toy until you have appropriate behavior teaches your dog to think for themselves and make the choice to do what you're asking for.

Not all Negative Punishment is benign however.

There are extremes: Not giving a dog a meal because they did something you didn't like.

Removing shelter, or leaving them behind because they did something you didn't like. All of which is utterly unacceptable.

When I say I've never seen a trainer (professional or otherwise) use only Positive Reinforcement, it's because, technically speaking I haven't.

Trainers who claim they are "Positive Reinforcement Only" literally means they will ask a dog to do something and reward that behavior while ignoring every other behavior. This means that you ignore all the stuff you don't like too. Which I'm not knocking, but I've never seen a trainer who doesn't at least "FREEZE" or stop interacting when a dog is doing something they don't want like jumping up on them. This is technically speaking a form of Negative Punishment!

Okay, so here's where we start getting into even more gray area:

POSITIVE PUNISHMENT = Adding Something to Decrease the behavior

let's think about this in terms of our dogs.

Adding something they dislike so they will learn not to do a particular behavior again.

So basically we're adding something to the environment /doing something to our dogs so that they stop doing something and learn to not do it.

Here's where we reach a "level of punisher" issue:

Punishment itself doesn't have to be and isn't inhumane, it's the particular punisher that is used that defines that.

So... examples of Positive Punishment:


Yup! When you say NO, you are adding something to your dog's environment that they don't like, it hopes that they will stop a behavior immediately and do it less in the future.


Yup, you say "uh-uh" to your dog and you've technically used Positive Punishment.

You've added a sound your dog finds negative to the environment, hoping your dog will go in a different direction towards the behavior you wanted or asked for.

I explain this like playing Hot and Cold with your dog. If you ask them to do something and they go off in the wrong direction or are struggling to figure it out, you tell them they're getting colder, and they hopefully go and think about what to change so they get closer to the behavior you asked for.

Side Note: scientifically speaking it has been proved that dogs learn better without the use of guidance in learning a behavior. However, I've personally found that owners get rather frustrated waiting 10 minutes for their dog to figure out what they want, and feel more engaged when they're allowed to mention to their pup they are headed down the wrong path.


Using these corrections when a dog does something you don't want is a form of Positive Punishment.

Dog does something you don't like - you add a collar correction - in hopes the dog stops and learns not to do it again.

You can see there's a wide range of realities when it comes to Positive Punishment. Some are just verbal guides, others are inhumane and cruel.

Ok... now lets make it even more confusing. On to the last quadrant:

NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT = Subtracting Something to Increase the behavior

let's think about this in terms of our dogs.

Subtracting something they don't like so they will do a particular behavior again.

Some examples will probably help most here:


I've seen people use e-collars to teach a dog to stay in a location. If the dog takes a paw off, they're shocked until the dog is completely on the bed again.

So you're removing the shock, to increase them staying on the bed.

a more mild example:


if the dog steps out of heel, they are getting pressure on their nose from the head collar. When they come pack to the heel position, the pressure on the face is removed.

So you're subtracting the head pressure to increase your dog choosing to heel.

This is still a form of physical correction.

Side Note: I don't often utilize even head collars (their safety would be a whole different blog post), however when I do it's due to a handling issue generally where the dog's size and strength puts the dog and owner at risk until they learn to heel and I don't have the owners use the head collar to teach the dog, only if they feel they are in a questionable situation where their safety is at risk.

Here's a great Image Recap by the fabulous artist Lili Chin:

Check out her website and facebook if you haven't seen the awesome doggie things she draws!


I hope you can see now where someone saying they're a "POSITIVE ONLY" trainer could actually be very scary. What it really could mean is that they're using positive reinforcement (paychecks) and positive punishment (anywhere from verbal markers to e-collars), and it wouldn't be false advertising!

Even a trainer who says they are "POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT ONLY". I have yet to see this actually be true. And what this statement would tell me is that they don't understand learning theory and likely don't have the education behind them that they should to be training my dog.

Remember that there's no governing or regulating body over who calls themselves a dog trainer. So, someone who just calls themselves that could have absolutely no education or experience.

When choosing a trainer, please look at both their education and experience. A good dog trainer needs both, not just one or the other. A trainer with education and without experience won't have a working understanding of theories. A trainer with only experience won't have the education and science backing their methods.


Look for a trainer that is FORCE FREE. This means a trainer that won't use physical force, compulsion, or manipulation to teach your dog. This doesn't mean they won't use physical touch... just not physical force!

These are the trainers that are looking for your dog to be an individual with their own personality who want to and enjoy learning. Not an individual who is going to force your dog to comply out of fear and be a robot.

That's a whole other post I will write soon too!

In the meantime, if you have any questions please feel free to contact me!



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