Negative Reinforcement vs. Positive Reinforcement

Nothing is black-and-white, except for winning and losing, and maybe that’s why people gravitate to that so much.

-Steve Nash


“I am looking to train my puppy, but I only want to use 100% positive reinforcement.”

“My dog is misbehaving and needs training.  He needs to understand that I am pack leader, and that I am dominant over him.”

Two similar but  requests with completely different vibes.  Who is correct?

Being absolutely polarized on any subject is dangerous (since when are there only two black and white choices about how to do anything?), and how to train your dog is no different. Your dog isn’t black nor white.  He Fido. Rex. Prince. He is indeed an individual, so why would you train him using one-size-fits-all mentality.

In order to understand where you are in the world, you need latitude and longitude. Directions involve left and right.  ”Yes” and “No”.  Using exclusively negative or positive reinforcement makes about as much sense as playing a game of “hot or cold” using only “cold” or only “hot”.  Your dogs are asking us questions all the time, and sometimes the answer “no”, sometimes “yes”.


How quick come the reasons for approving what we like! – Jane Austin

Positive reinforcement operates under the principal of “catching” a behavior and rewarding it.  The wonderful thing about positive reinforcement is that it nurtures the bond between humans and dogs.  How do we show love but through praise and treats! It is very easy and satisfying to use positive reinforcement because it’s what we, as humans want to give positives to the creatures we love (look at Grandma with her grand kids!)

Unfortunately, not everything your dog does is bright, wonderful and perfect.  Sometimes they need to be told “no”.  I’ve seen too many instances of a 100% positive reinforcement training turn out dangerous.  If every time your dog jumps on you, or initiates in rough play,you offer him a treat, you are merely training him to jump on you to receive his treat. Congratulations!  You’ve taught him a trick.  I see this time and time again.


Remember, 100% positive methods never work, they are just easier.  Nobody wants to say no, be it to their kids or their dogs.  But have you ever seen a well-adjusted, well-behaved child who has never heard the word “no”? Your dog is no different.

So when is positive reinforcement appropriate?  Only three times:

  • The “come” command.  Never use negatives when working on recall.  The “come” command should always end in positives.
  • When you are asking your dog to do something another dog couldn’t.  A dog can tell another dog “That’s mine, leave it alone”, but I have never seen one dog teach another dog to be housebroken. Or agility.
  • Most importantly, when your dog is calm.  Calm is the vending machine button we want them to push all the time to get their reward of Touch, Talk, Treat.  If your dog is calm, engage in whatever love and affection and positives you want!
Sparta Holding Dog Treats
Sparta learning a new trick – holding things.  100% positive reinforcement used to train this behavior.


The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.
- Edmund Burke 

On the other end of the spectrum, are individuals who feel the need to dominate “something”, and a dog seems like a great thing to dominate.  They aren’t kind, benevolent leaders. They are domineering bullies…dictators.  They don’t want dogs – they want perfect little robots who are subservient to their every whim.

I had a client (we’ll call her Lana) recently tell me that in an attempt to sort out some impressive issues her pit was having, took him to a dominant-style trainer.  The trainer called Lana out during class and railed against her, claiming that the she was an inappropriate owner for this dog, and that she was a terrible pack leader.  The “trainer” had Lana in tears.  What is that but bullying?  (I have since worked with Lana and her dog, using a balanced mix of positive and negative reinforcement, and they are on their road to the dog/owner bond they were hoping for.)

Shock collars, prong collars…if those are your first method of training, I ask you why?  Pain is not a training tool. Granted, there are some legitimate use cases for these tools, but not too many.  It’s like having open-heart surgery to cure heartburn.  Completely unnecessary, invasive and painful!

“Pep the cat-murdering dog,” and Lady, who followed his example.  Both sent to prison for their behavior. 

Punishment and negative reinforcement are NOT the same thing.  Punishing your dog is absurd.  It doesn’t happen among dogs, so don’t add it as a human.  Negative reinforcement means using your natural body language to answer a question, such as “Can I bark at this?”.  Answer “no” using the body language described in the PAW method, and when the dog accepts the answer to the question (disengages, looks away) you are done.  Completely.  No punishment. Remember, your dog isn’t bad, but you do need to answer their questions with a “yes” or a “no”.


Life has more than two choices.  There is so much gray area between positive and negative reinforcement!  Find out where your dog sits on that spectrum!  Answer your dog’s questions using the PAW method.  Your Golden Retriever may only need 5% negative and 95% positive reinforcement.  Your Jack Russell may require 50%/50% split.  There is no dog on the planet who can operate using only “yes” or “no”.  If you are using the guidelines set above, you will automatically fall into whatever percentage they need, creating the healthy, happy bond with your dog that you want.

Danica and Porter
Danika and Porter.  Picture perfect!


Keep calm and pilot onKerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

3 thoughts on “Negative Reinforcement vs. Positive Reinforcement

  1. Pingback: My Bad Dog | Darwin Dogs

  2. Pingback: Chew on THIS | Darwin Dogs

  3. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wished to say that I’ve really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. After all I’ll be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you write again very soon!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>