“My dog would find that to be a punishment.”

“Stop reinforcing that dog!”

“Is punishment ever ok?”

“Be careful that you don’t reinforce that fear.”

“I always reinforce him, so why doesn’t he listen?”

These statements all have two things in common: they are frequently uttered by the dog-loving world I belong to, and they all imply a gross misunderstanding of operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning is divided into four quadrants, here’s a visual:


Punishment and reinforcement are defined by their functions; they are unstoppable forces constantly operating on the behaviors our animals (and we!) display. So here is what might be reconsidered with the statements above:

“My dog would find that to be a punishment,” is intended to mean “my dog would not like that.”  A spray with water, a pop on the collar, a removal from playtime could all act as punishment–they could suppress  behavior. Or they could remain unpleasant and ineffective. A choke chain is just a hunk of metal until it suppresses behavior; then it’s a punisher.

“Stop reinforcing that dog!” might be uttered by someone who means to express concern over supporting an unwanted behavior. We’d be wiser to say “stop reinforcing that behavior.” We’d be wiser still to say “reinforce this other behavior instead.”

“Is punishment ever ok?” was asked at my seminar last weekend and the brave attendee who asked this meant to ask if intentionally aiming to suppress behavior was ever ok. What she was unclear on is that punishment and reinforcement are neither inherently good or evil; again like gravity, they are both always present. My answer to her lied in the use of the humane hierarchy, which provides a roadmap for when punishment might be ethically utilized by a teacher/trainer.

“Be careful that you don’t reinforce that fear.” The notion that one can reinforce or punish an emotion is one that all dog trainers must let go of if they are to succeed in their profession. We can no more reinforce our dog’s startle at fireworks than we can punish it! Behavior is what is affected by the laws of operant conditioning; not emotions. I read it on facebook just the other day, written by a dog trainer upon a soap box of sorts; “fear is a dangerous emotion and we don’t correct it hard enough.” There is something dangerous afoot in that statement; but it certainly isn’t fear.

“I always reinforce him, so why doesn’t he listen?” Again, we don’t reinforce dogs, we reinforce behavior. And if behavior isn’t maintaining or strengthening, reinforcement isn’t at play! A cookie is just a cookie until it build behavior; then it’s a reinforcer.

So the next time someone asks you if you’re worried about reinforcing your dog’s fear, or why you were using punishment, 6a29bbb70d34ef17161cedeae66aff34 or any other misguided questions regarding operant conditioning principles just say “reinforcement and punishment are defined by their functions!” and walk away.