Negative reinforcement is probably the most misunderstood concept in dog training. Many trainers equate negative reinforcement with punishment and then condemn its use as inhumane – while ironically some behaviorists have called to eliminate the distinction between positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.
I wonder how many of these people ever went shopping with a tired, crabby toddler? Because when a cranky three-year-old throws a tantrum until that box of atomic sugar bombs goes into the shopping cart, he’s giving you a textbook example of negative reinforcement.
And the beauty of it is, you’ll rarely (if ever) need to use a stimulus as harsh as a tantrum when training your dog.
Animals are masters in the subtle, effective use of negative reinforcement. They use it all the time to establish and protect territory, maintain individual space, protect food resources and to teach boundaries to their young. Negative reinforcement teaches your dog to lay in the shade instead of the sun on a hot day. And if you’re lucky, it’s the tool your puppy’s mother and littermates used to teach him bite inhibition.
In Animals in Translation Temple Grandin writes:
Rewards and positive reinforcers are the same thing: something good happens to you because of something you did. Punishment and negative reinforcement are opposites. Punishment is when something bad happens to you because of something you did; negative reinforcement is when something bad stops happening to you, or doesn’t start happening to you in the first place, because of something you did. Punishment is bad, and negative reinforcement is good. Punishment makes you stop doing what you’re doing, although a lot of behaviorists believe that punishing a bad behavior isn’t as effective as rewarding a good behavior when it comes to getting an animal to do what you want him to do.
Negative reinforcement is the hardest to understand. Negative reinforcement isn’t a punishment; it’s a reward. But the reward is negative in the sense that something you don’t like either stops or doesn’t start in the first place. Say your four-year-old is screaming and crying and giving you a headache. Finally you lose your patience and blow up at him, and he’s shocked into silence. That’s negative reinforcement, because you’ve made the crying go away, which is what you wanted. Now you’re probably more likely to blow up at him the next time he starts a tantrum, because you’ve been negatively reinforced for blowing up at him during this tantrum.
And part of the beauty of negative reinforcement is that, unlike punishment, it’s highly effective even when very subtle, mildly aversive stimuli are employed. This can involve little more than being somewhat annoying or tiresome – you just need to apply enough pressure that the subject of your attention wants to do something to make you stop it.
Here’s an example of mild pressure being used to make a horse back up and move forward. Note how calm and relaxed the horse and trainer are. In spite of all the ugly baggage we humans associate with the term, like a smile or a frown, negative reinforcement in its milder forms is one of the foundations of human and animal body language.
Ironically, even though negative reinforcement is something that all animals (including humans) use without thinking about it – most humans need coaching to use it consciously. The video linked here (by the most excellent Lori Drouin) provides some nice examples of how to introduce negative reinforcement (or pressure and release) into lure / reward training. It’s simple, fair and effective and as Ms. Drouin points out, the use of pressure / release also gives us an excellent way to segue out of luring.
Transitioning from luring to negative reinforcement is valuable because it eliminates the dog’s reliance on treats. In addition, because negative reinforcement is an integral part of dog and human body language, using it teaches you to pay attention to how you use subtle cues like touch, eye contact and body posture to turn pressure on and off. This is totally awesome because, along with petting and praise, these are tools you’ll have with you anywhere you work with your dog.
Don’t fall into the trap of believing the propaganda that using negative reinforcement to communicate with your dog (or, for that matter, your toddler) is cruel and abusive. Negative reinforcement is a fair and natural part of the way animals communicate with each other. Practice it. Learn how to use it well. Your dog will thank you.