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A Brief Primer on Punishment and Reinforcement

Learning sign

Would you like to improve your understanding of your dogs’ behavior?  What about the behavior of your family, friends and co-workers?  If you really want to understand behavior (and training) then it is absolutely critical that you understand the basics of learning.  You have probably heard the terms “punishment” and “reinforcement” many times, both in reference to training dogs and in other contexts.  However, you likely do not have a clear understanding of what they mean.  Or maybe you learned them long ago and have since forgotten the details.  This post is meant to act as a very brief introduction to punishment and reinforcement.  It should only take a few minutes to read.

General Definitions

  • Learning – A change in behavior due to experience.  This goes far beyond “book” or classroom learning.
  • Instrumental learning – Changes in voluntary behavior (such as sitting, dancing or running) as a result of pleasant or unpleasant consequences of that behavior.
Dancing is a learned behavior.
Dancing is a learned behavior.

Reinforcement

  • One kind of instrumental learning (punishment is the other)
  • Occurs when the consequences of a behavior increase the strength or likelihood of that behavior (see examples below)
  • Divided into positive and negative reinforcement.  In instrumental conditioning the word “positive” refers to the addition of something and “negative” refers to the removal of something.  They are not equivalent to “good” and “bad”.

Positive reinforcement

  • Occurs when a behavior is strengthened due to the addition of something pleasant
  • Example 1
    • A child says “please” and gets candy
    • Behavior: saying please
    • Consequence: the addition of candy (something pleasant)
    • The behavior of saying please increases
  • Example 2
    • A dog gets a treat for sitting on cue
    • Behavior: Sitting
    • Consequence: the addition of a treat (something pleasant)
    • The behavior of sitting (on cue) increases
If sitting is reinforced, it will increase in frequency.
If sitting is reinforced, it will increase in frequency.

Negative reinforcement

  • Occurs when a behavior is strengthened due to the removal of something unpleasant
  • Example 1
    • You take aspirin which causes your headache to go away
    • Behavior: Taking aspirin
    • Consequence:  the removal of the headache (something unpleasant)
    • The behavior of taking aspirin increases
  • Example 2
    • The electronic stimulation (shock) from a collar stops when the dog comes on cue
    • Behavior: Coming on cue
    • Consequence: the removal of the shock (something unpleasant)
    • The behavior of coming on cue increases

Headache

Punishment

  • One kind of instrumental learning (reinforcement is the other)
  • Occurs when the consequences of a behavior decrease the strength or likelihood of that behavior (see examples below)
  • Divided into positive and negative punishment

Positive punishment

  • Occurs when a behavior is weakened/decreased due to the addition of something unpleasant
  • Example 1
    • You get a ticket for speeding
    • Behavior: speeding
    • Consequence: the addition of a traffic ticket (something unpleasant)
    • The behavior of speeding decreases
  • Example 2
    • A dog approaches livestock and gets an electronic shock from a collar
    • Behavior: approaching livestock
    • Consequence: the addition of an electronic shock (something unpleasant)
    • The behavior of approaching livestock decreases

Police car

Negative punishment

  • Occurs when a behavior is weakened/decreased due to the removal of something pleasant
  • Example 1
    • You miss your flight to Hawaii for vacation because you slept in
    • Behavior: Sleeping in
    • Consequence: the removal of your trip to Hawaii (something pleasant)
    • The behavior of sleeping in (when you have a flight) decreases
  • Example 2
    • You take away the toy and stop playing because your puppy nips at you during play
    • Behavior: Nipping
    • Consequence: the removal of play and the toy (something pleasant)
    • The behavior of nipping decreases

Mouthing - puppy

This post is meant only to familiarize you with the definitions of these terms.  It is not meant to be a full discussion of  when or if these methods should be used or how effective they are – that will come later!  Next week’s post will talk about one aspect of using positive punishment in dog training.

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Kristina Spaulding

Kristina Spaulding

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