Dog Training: Positive vs. Negative Reinforcement 

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Julia Nikolaus is a content strategist for an LA-based company. She enjoys working with food and drink brands along with pet clients. In her free time, Julia likes to bake new recipes, take dance classes, and spend time outdoors.

Training your dog helps build a lifelong relationship. Not only will a well-trained dog make your life much easier, but it will also set your pet up for success in pleasing you—something all dogs strive to do. There are various ways to train a dog, and how you reinforce behaviors can significantly impact your pet’s response. Every method of dog training comes down to positive or negative reinforcement strategies. But which one is actually more effective?

Here is a breakdown of the training techniques and how they can be utilized by the average pet owner. 

The Differences Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Man holding treat up as he trains his German Shepherd

First things first—here’s how positive and negative reinforcement differ.

Positive Reinforcement 

Using positive-based techniques typically means your dog will be rewarded for demonstrating good, desired behaviors. The reinforcement can be a treat, a pat on the head, or verbal praise. As your canine learns that you will give a reward for certain behaviors, such as sitting or pottying outside, it will continue to display those behaviors. A dog’s natural instinct leads it to please its owner, although a treat definitely helps keep the motivation for positive outcomes high.

Negative Reinforcement

Training your dog with negative reinforcement means that you will be taking something away when undesired behavior occurs. For example, if you want the dog to stay and it does not, you would remove the treat from sight until the dog stays. Dogs love praise, and when a reward or a ‘good dog’ does not come after an action, it is a signal to them something is wrong. Negative reinforcement can include time-out periods if your dog has trouble socializing with other dogs.

Keep in mind that yelling and instigating fear will cause your dog to mistrust you and actually hinder your training.  

Combining Training Reinforcement

A combination of both positive and negative reinforcement can be beneficial to the overall training of your canine. Sometimes giving a treat for good behavior is precisely what your dog needs, but withholding the reward for disobedience is also appropriate. 

Continuous reinforcement and redirection of behaviors are very important throughout your dog’s life. If you are consistent with your approach and how you talk with your pup, then your dog will know the expectations for their behavior and the positive or negative consequences that will follow. 

Related: 10 Tips To Have The Best Road Trip With Your Dog

Positive and Negative Communication with Your Dog

Dog training reinforcement includes aspects of communication. You must learn to communicate with your dog so that you both know what you are trying to ask of the animal every time you give a command. 

Positive Communication

Woman holding a treat for her golden retriever in a park

When communicating with your dog, pay attention to your tone and body language. Since a dog doesn’t speak words like people, a mix of voice sounds and hand signals help the dog understand positive versus negative outcomes. When rewarding your dog for something correct, give cheerful praise like “good dog.” The dog will learn to hear your slightly elevated pitch for good behavior. When giving a command, use a calm voice to provide the desired response.

In addition to training with your voice, you can train with your hands. Using signals for different commands helps your dog visualize what you’re asking them to do. For example, if you want Fido to sit down, you can make a fist and hold it out for the dog to know to sit. Then move your fist downward to show the action of down. Sit down now becomes a fist followed by a downward motion. Your dog will understand the signal and word tones each time you present them consistently. 

The same signaling technique will help teach the command of rolling over. Provide a unique signal your dog will understand when you give the instruction. 

Communicating to Redirect Negative Behaviors

There are times when your dog does not display appropriate behavior. How you respond to this behavior sets a tone for your dog. When your dog chooses not to come when called, it is important not to yell. Your dog may feel that you are playing and become hyper. He may also get scared by the loud noises and resort to aggressive or defensive behaviors.

Instead of yelling, using a calm or whispering voice to help redirect the dog’s behavior is beneficial. Your dog will pick up on your lack of high-frequency, positive reinforcement praise, allowing it to realize the undesired behavior quickly. 

For example, when your dog does not stay for you, look at it and calmly say, “Stay, Beans,” while using your hand signals. Do not reward the wrong behavior with praise or touch. The communication difference will help the dog understand that it did not follow directions. Repeating the command in a quiet, calm voice will gain the dog’s attention just as well as a praise-filled voice when it learns the difference in your voice commands. 

Related: The 11 Best Family Dogs

Positive Reinforcement Training Tips 

When reinforcing behaviors, it is an excellent idea to have your plan ready before you start training. Go through your list of training behaviors you want your canine to learn. Then decide the command, signal, and reward for each instruction. Here are examples of implementing positive reinforcement into your training routine.

  1. Give a treat when your dog follows instructions, such as sit, stay, lay down, etc.
  2. Give extra outside time when your dog does well with going to the bathroom outside.
  3. Play fetch longer with your pup to show extra attention when it brings the toy back to you and follows the fetch and release commands.
  4. Show appreciation to your dog when it follows the command of ‘bed’ and goes directly to its bed by giving it a pat on the head or an extra minute of petting.
  5. Have a special chew toy when your dog gets scared during a thunderstorm, and you want to direct their attention to something other than the loud noises outside.

Negative Reinforcement Training Tips 

Person holding their hand out to scold a dog

Although canine training with negative reinforcement is not always a popular suggestion of trainers, there are still techniques that can help demonstrate appropriate behavior with the dog. Taking something away from your dog can encourage better behavior or allow your dog to understand that something is dangerous and to avoid it. Examples of negative reinforcement include:

  1. If your dog starts acting out at the dog park, give it a time-out period to stop and settle down. 
  2. If your dog does not follow an instruction, like come, withhold the giving of a treat.

Train Like A Professional

Positive reinforcement plays a significant role in providing your dog with a special treat for their good behavior, while negative reinforcement will take away from teaching your dog more appropriate actions. Both options can build great communication to help your dog know its expectations and train well.

Dog training is possible with any dog breed, age, or behavior issue. If you need help using techniques consistently or communicating effectively with your dog, there are great dog training programs that will help you and your dog learn how to train for a better life together. 

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