Positive doesn’t mean good

When it comes to dog training I find that using technical jargon, “big words”, scientific terms to describe simple things a complete waste of time and learning that Positive doesn’t mean good is a big part of clearing up misconceptions in dog training.

I mean, many people I see, I would say the majority, are nervous and anxious about their dogs behaviour, have very often been to a number of trainers before me and to spray them with boffin language I am sure is plain frustrating for them.

I remember doing a lesson with a person that said this about me, “Most trainers speak in a way to try and make you think they are smart, Steve speaks like he wants you to understand your dog“.

Another thing to consider is that many terms used in the dog behaviour field have different meanings in the laymen’s world.

So this means that, when using a certain term from the dog behaviour field, it may be misunderstood by the dog owner.

I find that most dog owners have not studied Operant Conditioning principles, nor do I think they should have to, but yet they often feel that they are working within these principles, when very rarely do they truly understand them.

A great example is that “Positive doesn’t mean good”.

We have been conditioned to think that positive means good. Or rewarding or pleasant etc. When in Operant Conditioning principles it does not mean that at all.

Operant Conditioning is a principle explained by Skinner and was used to explain how various forces determine how we can modify, strengthen and weaken behaviour.

So we have to understand that whilst some may not agree with his use of the terms, when using his principles, we need to understand their meanings and operate within the principles as they have been laid out.

The term positive in operant conditioning means to add, and not necessarily something good. For example one of the four quadrants of operant conditioning is Positive Punishment.

Often thought of as the Devils tool by some, but is it? Well read on as it may not be.

In mathematics the term positive means add, plus + and that is how it is meant within operant conditioning. Now of course I am not saying you can’t add anything good, not at all, because for years people have been adding food, toys, affection etc with great success.

One of the most common quadrants of operant conditioning is Positive Reinforcement. Now we have established what positive is, what does reinforcement mean?

Well this is one term that is very similar in behaviour and layman’s terms. It means to strengthen, reinforce or solidify.

So a simple example would be to ask a dog to sit, when he or she does you add (positive + ) a piece of food. Repeated correctly this should increase the likeliness of the (sit) behaviour IF the dog finds eating food reinforcing.

So if your following my line here, what does Negative mean? 

Well whilst some would say bad, but it is just the opposite of positive. And again in mathematical terms, it means to subtract, remove, minus – .

Let’s say you were standing in the sun on a warm day. You looked around and saw a shady tree, so walked over and stood underneath the tree. Once under the tree you were glad that you found that tree and got out of the sun.

Negative reinforcement just took place.

Negative is the sun was removed from you, reinforcement means the shade seeking behaviour will be stronger. All whilst no one hurt anyone or anything.

Negative reinforcement can be used as a motivator for some dogs, if the trainer understands this quadrant well.

Whilst we are on a role here I want to get to the most misunderstood word in operant conditioning.


When people are faced with the thought of punishing their dog, many feel that they need to be angry, inflict pain, make the dog remorseful, frighten the dog, hurt the dog, dominate the dog and many other things.

Whilst there are some who claim to use no punishment at all, and portraying those that do as “The Devil”. These at some stage were called Purely Positive trainers. Most now refer to themselves as Force Free.

So why the name change?

Well I feel that these people wanted to be seen as never using anything the dog did not like and referred to themselves as positive only. The problem is as this article explains is that purely positive does not rule out positive punishment.

So let’s remember that some people reading this will have gained the true meaning of positive, negative and reinforcement so now we need to tackle the term, punishment.

In Operant a conditioning, punishment means to weaken, dilute or effect the behaviour in a way that makes it less likely to occur.

So let’s say that you pull out a piece of food and your dog see’s and wants that piece of food. You ask your dog to sit and in the excitement your dog does not sit.

You respond by putting the food back in your pocket and walking away. You just applied negative punishment to your dog.

Whilst sounding like the worst quadrant, having both evil words like negative and punishment in the same phrase, it can simply mean removing a reward. This is one of the more common reactions trainers deliver and claim it is harmless.

I would suggest that the intensity of the punishment will be directly proportionate to how much the dog wants the food and how well the dog deals with stress.

I know many dogs that would rather get food than avoid pain. How about the dog that will pull hard on the leash down the street every day, choking himself all the way, just to sniff and get to places?

Using these values for the terms,

Positive punishment means to add something that weakens or reduces a behaviour.

Positive reinforcement means to add something that will strengthen a behaviour.

Negative reinforcement means to remove something that will strengthen a behaviour

Negative punishment means to remove something that will weaken a behaviour.

Positive doesn't mean good

One of the goals of this post is to take away the fear and concern that the word punishment has been known to attract. To understand that adding some things (positive) does not always make you the nice person.

Positive doesn’t mean good

The skilled trainer will normally be able to smoothly travel through any or all of these quadrants without creating undue stress to the dog, inflicting huge amounts of pain and reinforcing things they don’t mean to.

I do not speak in the terms above when ever I am working with a client or talking with other trainers, I will be more specific like “reward the dog now” and “ok put the dog (that is seeking that reward) back in his or her crate now”.

I don’t find it useful to anyone to reduce training down to four quadrants and only speak about training and behaviour modification using these words, and one of the reasons is that the dog in question may interpret things you think are rewards as punishment. The dog plays a big role here in how the quadrants will effect his or her behaviour.

Dogs can be quite interesting as they may interpret elements of operant conditioning differently from one dog to another. For example whilst your dog may enjoy being petted by you, another dog you see in the street may not.

So perhaps your dog would call it positive reinforcement whilst another dog may see it as positive punishment. Hence why approaching dogs on the street may not be the best idea for you, the dog or their owner.

Here is something interesting that can help identify the benefits of understanding what you’re doing. There is this experiment that you can do to control the behaviour of a dog owner, just tell them this.

If you do X to your dog, your dog will not like you.

This short sentence has the power to associate a strong unpleasant feeling with any method or tool that exists before a person even uses it or investigates into the facts.

People are so scared that their dog will not like them they avoid what they believe to be any type of punishment at all.

The first problem is that they do not understand what punishment (the operant conditioning punishment) is and the second and bigger problem is that, they can’t see that their dog already has low value (read dislikes them) in many situations.

If you walk your dog down the street and your dog see’s something such as another dog or a person playing with a ball, would your dog run off to investigate, join in, play with, attack or bark at them?

If so, do you feel in this situation that your dog favours staying with you over running to the other dog?

Another consideration to make, when a jockey is riding a racehorse, and he hits the horse with a riding crop, does the horse: –

  • Shut down
  • Fear the jockey
  • Dislike the jockey
  • Panic and rare up
  • Feel motivated to run faster

The answer in many cases of course is that the crop will motivate the horse to run faster. So, does that mean that the horse feels that the crop is a punisher or a stimulator?

When working with animals, there is a lot to learn and consider and it can take many years to get a grasp of how they think, feel, act and modify their behaviour based on certain principles such as operant conditioning.

A dog that is highly food driven and has the food taken away can suffer a great deal of stress, stress that can last many hours or even days, whereas when the same dog runs into a tree in the back yard, he may even let out a yelp but shakes it off and keeps running.

There are more dogs that when they lose a piece of food as in the above scenario, they could care less. There are dogs that if you yell at them they would fall to pieces and there are dogs that appear deaf.

There is a saying “it is not what is done to you but how you react to it“.

I find this especially true when working with dogs, it is highly important to understand what you’re doing and the effect it has when working with dogs and the bad news is that this only comes from experience.

Learning experiences that teach you what to expect when applying reward, pressure, punishment or motivation and applying that in a manner that will see the dog change its behaviour to a more desirable one will give you greater results in behaviour modification and training while minimising stress and impact on you and your dog.

This is the major reason that we here at K9Pro spend a great deal of time teaching our clients how to understand and train their dogs. My Training in drive program teaches owners how to use SUPER REINFORCERS to create and make behaviours SUPER STRONG even in the face of distraction and under pressure.

As always have fun with your dog and we welcome your comments below.

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About SteveK9Pro

Steve Courtney is a Nationally Accredited Canine Behaviour Specialist, Obedience Trainer, Law Enforcement Dog Trainer and ANKC Breeder. Steve has been training dogs all his life and in these articles he shares with you his experience...

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  1. As always, a brilliant article, written so that people understand. Not creating unnecessary emotions but really making people start to think.
    Thank you Steve for all that you are doing.

  2. Brilliant as usual Steve, I can’t like this enough & as you know, Jax & I are reaping the benefits of change.
    Cheers Janette

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