Dog Training: Reinforcement vs. Punishment

Do you have a dog that has perfect behavior without ever being trained? They just automatically knew every command you threw at them, was potty trained from the get-go, and never showed any bad manners? Is the answer no? Then you are just like me and your pup is like all dogs everywhere. All dogs need some type of training, whether it be a little or a lot.

If you self-train your dog at home I’m sure you have scoured the internet looking for tips and tricks on how to get your dog to listen. Like me, you have also realized that there are a lot of mixed ideas out there. Like use a prong collar; don’t use a prong collar, harnesses are the best; harnesses don’t work, and then the great debate of positive versus negative reinforcement and punishment.

First, let’s talk about positive punishment. What does that even mean? It may sound like a good training technique because it is “positive”. But positive punishment actually involves the presentation of a bad consequence when the dog performs an action. Let’s say as an example, your puppy pees on the floor and then they get hit with a rolled-up newspaper. The puppy performed an action and in return received a bad consequence.  It is logical to us — our natural response when a puppy has an accident is to yell, rub their nose in it, or give them a little smack because they were a “bad dog”.  We want them to associate the punishment with the behavior and learn a lesson. This form of training is good for the trainer but, sadly, it is bad for the dog.  They don’t get it.

Negative punishment is even worse. It is bad for both the dog and the trainer. Negative punishment is the removal of a good consequence when a requested action is performed. Example:  you entice the dog to lay down by offering a piece of food, the dog lays down, and then you eat the food you first offered him. What should have been a good consequence, the food, for the dog was taken away even though he did what was asked of him. Using this type of training method will lead to a decrease of responses from your dog in the future. If he is not getting rewarded, why should he do what is asked of him?

Now, let’s take a look at reinforcement training. Many if not most trainers recommend positive reinforcement.  This is the presentation of a good consequence when a response is performed. Example:  you give a command to heel, your pet heels, then you give him a treat. He is rewarded for doing what is asked of him. This technique is both good for the dog and the trainer and increases the chances of your dog responding to commands in the future. After all, dogs love to please their owners. So, they get to do that and get a tasty treat out of it.  Why wouldn’t they respond to this type of training?

Lastly, we can talk about negative reinforcement. This is the removal of a bad consequence when the response is performed. For example, if your dog is pulling on their leash, they are causing harm and choking to themselves. When you tell your pet to heel and they listen, the collar is no longer hurting or choking them. So, the negative or bad consequence was taken away once they listened. The use of negative reinforcement is likely to incite a response from your dog in the future because it is good for the dog.

Below is a contingency table that Pamela Reid, Ph.D. uses to simplifie these four different training techniques.

Stimulus   Present Take Away

Positive Reinforcement

Present something good: behavior is likely

Negative Punishment

Take away something good: behavior is less likely


Positive Punishment

Present something bad: behavior is less likely

Negative Reinforcement

Take away something bad: behavior is more likely


As we can see, punishments are in fact a punishment for the dog. Whether you are trying positive or negative punishment, both will likely lead to a decrease in performance from your pet. Also, neither are that fun to use as the trainer. Reinforcement, on the other hand, typically leads to a positive outcome for your dog. Both the positive and negative technique will likely lead to an increase in performance from your pet.

As dog owners, we just want what is best for our pets (and for them to listen). Teaching them basic commands and good manners will benefit everyone, both dog and human, in the long run. Though the four techniques above are generally what people and trainers use, one way is not overly superior to the others and any single way won’t be effective on every single dog out there.

As we all know, each dog is different and learns a different way. One technique may work wonders on one of your dogs but has zero effect on your other one. Consider the case when  you have one food motivated dog and one that could care less about treats. It could take a mix of 2 or more training techniques to get through to one of your pets.  As the trainer you have to learn what works best for your dog and go from there. No matter the technique, it is going to take time and patience to get a well behaved and good-mannered dog. And don’t worry, if you can’t do it (like me), there is a trainer out there somewhere that can.

For more information regarding dog training, I highly recommend “Explaining in Plain English How Dogs Learn and How Best to Teach Them” by Pamela Reid, Ph.D.