Training Tip: Understanding Negative Punishment

Negative punishment sounds like a horrible way to shape your pet’s behaviors, but it is actually quite humane and effective.  

It is crucial to understand what is meant by “positive” and “negative”, as well as what is meant by “punishment” and “reinforcement.”  In the context of operant conditioning (a type of learning) the terms “positive” and “negative” refer to whether you are adding something to the pet’s experience (positive) or removing something from the pet’s experience (negative).  “Reinforcement” can be either positive or negative, yet always results in increased expression of that behavior.  “Punishment” can be either positive or negative, yet always results in decreased expression of that behavior.  Using these definitions, “negative punishment”, is removing something in order to decrease the incidence of that behavior.

Jumping up behavior in dogs in a good example of how effective negative punishment can be when used correctly. Many owners try to teach their dog not to jump up by using the following techniques: talking, yelling, pushing, shoving, grabbing paws, and kneeing chests. Owners think they are using a positive punishment (adding something to decrease the behavior). What many owners fail to realize is that their actions give attention to the dog. The dog jumped up to seek attention. By providing attention, the behavior increases. Therefore, the owners are inadvertently using positive reinforcement (adding something to increase the behavior). Negative punishment is much more effective for this problem behavior. The dog jumps up, the owner removes herself (and her attention), and the behavior decreases because there is no reward. The owner can easily take a step backwards and turn away when their dog jumps up. I often call this the “cold shoulder.”

Negative punishment should not disrupt the bond you have with your pet. When you withdraw your attention, or yourself, in response to a “bad” behavior, do so for not much more than a minute. Prolonged social isolation may cause stress and anxiety. As with positive reinforcement, timing is important. You must remove the rewarding stimulus within a few seconds of when the behavior occurred.    

This week, try to ignore your pet’s pushy and attention seeking behavior. Notice if your pet’s behavior initially worsens. Pets will try harder using previously successful behaviors which resulted in attention. If you are consistent with ignoring their pushy and attention seeking behaviors, that behavior will eventually come to end.  

Let me know how it goes!