Today, we’re not going to work on commands. We’re going to discuss what positive reinforcement is and what it isn’t.
Often, positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement get mixed up and interpreted incorrectly. Both styles can and are used with multiple species. Not just dogs, but horses, monkeys, cattle, cats… So, let’s define both terms with dictionary.com.
: psychological reinforcement by removal of an unpleasant stimulus when a desired response occurs
What does this mean in practicality? What does it look like?
Well, a good example of negative reinforcement is the parent that yells at their kids to do their chores. Pretty soon, the kids only respond to yelling. The parent starts to yell more and more to get a response out of the kids. The kids are being negatively reinforced because the yelling stops when they respond by doing their chores.
Another example would be the common way horses are trained. Horses are wired differently than kids or dogs for the most part. For a horse, negative reinforcers are stronger than postitive ones. A horse will choose to move away from a negative reinforcer rather than stay for a positive one (ie, treat). Negative reinforcement in horses activates their fear response, which results in a flight response such as moving away from the negative stimulus. Such as, by putting pressure on the lead rope, a horse is negatively reinforced when he takes a step forward and the pressure is removed. The pressure is the reinforcer, the reward is the release of pressure. The pressure is a negative stimulus, the release becomes a negative reinforcement. Often, people see this as a positive reward. But it’s not positive. It’s only removing the negative. The horse didn’t gain anything it wouldn’t have already had if the negative stimulus hadn’t existed. The removal of the negative was a good thing, but not truly a positively rewarding thing. Most horses respond well to this. However, it may not be ideal in all cases, such as Casey. But that’s an idea I’m toying with. 🙂
Negative reinforcement for a dog might be the choke collar on his neck that tightens when he pulls and then the pressure is released when he quits pulling. He’s negatively reinforced by the removal of the choking sensation when he quits pulling. Again, the issue with using negative reinforcement as a primary tool is that it can escalate to where you need even more and more negative stimulus to get the behavior you’re looking for. In the case of choke collars, real physical damage can happen in untrained hands. A better use of negative reinforcement with dogs would be using your body to block and back up a dog out of an area you don’t want them in, say like a kitchen. The reward for backing up and staying out of the kitchen is the removal of your physical presence. You’re no longer sending the message to “get out of my space”.
Negative reinforcement isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It has it’s uses. However, I don’t believe it should be the only training method you use or the only tool in your tool box.
Are you following me so far?
Conversely, the definition of positive reinforcement is:
|Part of Speech:||n|
|Definition:||the offering of desirable effects or consequences for a behavior with the intention of increasing the chance of that behavior being repeated in the future|
What does positive reinforcement look like?
Positive reinforcement is much more reward based. You receive something you didn’t have before and wouldn’t already exist without the “trainer”. An example would be the kid who does his chores and gets allowance, the kids who do their chores and receive praise for a job well done. This isn’t just ending the yelling to negatively reinforce the kids, they’re getting something they didn’t have before the parent said “do your chores”. They didn’t have allowance money before, or maybe not as much as before if they had an amount squirreled away. They didn’t have the praise before. These are things they gained through positive reinforcement. Some children (depending on age) will begin to seek out additional chores (or a job) to earn additional money. This is the reward. Do something expected, gain something they didn’t have before. It becomes rewarding.
Carrot stretches would be an example of positive reinforcement with horses. The horse stretches and it gets the carrot as it’s reward. Positive reinforcement turns on a different pattern in the horse’s behavior. The horse begins to actively seek reward. Imagine how this could change the lives of halter horses everywhere. Instead of being negatively reinforced to prick their ears with the handler cracking a whip (activated fear system, leaving them ready for flight- a negative stimulus), imagine that halter horses are clicker trained to prick their ears and gain the reward of a carrot! How could this change the person-horse relationship dynamic? (For me, just think of how this might change my relationship with Casey! He could learn that people mean good things!)
If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time, you’ve probably already seen how positive reinforcement shapes the behaviors of dogs and how it speeds the learning/training process. We’ve learned to lure our dogs into a sit position, click as marker for the behavior that pairs with the word “sit”, and be rewarded for giving the desired result. Because we’ve rewarded the desired behavior, the dog will seek out ways to earn the reward.
As a side note, I should mention that praise is a secondary reinforcer. It increases the effectiveness of either reinforcer when paired with it. However, positive reinforcement is greatly heightened by praise.
So, in what situations have you been perhaps using negative reinforcement and maybe could replace it with positive reinforcement to gain better results? In what situations do you know of where positive reinforcement could make your relationship better? Any questions?