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Dog Training 101: What Is Negative Reinforcement?

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You may have heard about the ongoing debate in the dog training community about the best way to train your doggo. In recent years, negative reinforcement, once a tried and true standard of training, has come under some fierce scrutiny, and many pet parents and trainers have abandoned it as a training method entirely. Others combine negative with positive reinforcement, and a very few make negative reinforcement their go-to way of dog training.

So, what’s all the fuss about? And what is negative reinforcement, anyway? Let’s look at this training method more closely.


What is negative reinforcement?

Behaviorists describe negative reinforcement as a training technique that uses aversive actions or stimuli that are uncomfortable for the dog. As soon as the dog stops the bad behavior or does whatever the trainer wants them to do, the trainer removes the aversive stimulus to show the dog that they only receive unpleasant action when they’re misbehaving. 

An aversive stimulus doesn’t mean hitting or kicking the dog. It can be a gentle action, but it is always something the dog doesn’t enjoy and may dislike. Something as simple as pushing a doggo’s behind down until they’re sitting (the desired behavior), and then releasing the aversive stimulus by stopping the push then rewards the pup for good behavior. This is a negative/aversive method because dogs don’t like to be forced to the floor and held. 

An aversive method differs from negative punishment in that it doesn’t raise a fear or aggression response. Negative punishment like yelling and hitting a pup can result in aggressive behavior aimed at the trainer or pet parent.


How is negative reinforcement used?

There are many ways to use negative reinforcement to train a dog. Here are a few examples:

  • If a dog is barking incessantly, make a loud noise to startle them, such as rattling a can partially filled with coins. When they startle into silence, stop shaking the can. The unpleasant stimulus is gone and the pup learns that not barking means no loud, abrasive noise will sound.
  • When training a dog to sit, the negative reinforcement method involves pushing down on the dog’s rump until they’re sitting. At that point the hand is removed, and the dog is happy not to be held down anymore. If they get up again, the trainer pushes their bottom down again, and releases it when the pup sits again. 
  • A dog wearing a shock collar attempts to cross the buried wire enclosing them in their yard in pursuit of a squirrel. As they cross, an unpleasant shock comes from the collar around their neck. When they step back over the wire, the shock stops. They’ve now learned that crossing that barrier causes an unpleasant feeling, while staying away from it causes no shocks to occur.


Should you use negative reinforcement on your dog?

Cesar Chavez, the well-known television dog trainer, has said that some dogs may need to be negatively reinforced before they are ready and open to positive reinforcement. His belief has yet to be proved or disproved by published scientific research. However there have been studies that have shed light on other aspects of negative reinforcement.

One study compared the effects of negative reinforcement on 92 dogs taken from seven training schools, three of which used positive reinforcement and four relied on negative reinforcement. Levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, was tested in the doggos’ saliva, and signs of stress and anxiety, such as lip-licking, panting and yawning, as well as postures indicating anxiety and tension were noted. Researchers found that dogs primarily trained with negative reinforcement showed more signs of stress and tension, exhibited higher levels of cortisol and displayed pessimistic attitudes towards cognitive bias tests than dogs who were trained with positive reinforcement, or a mix of the two. 

Another researcher found in several observations, surveys and reviews of prior studies of dog training that negative reinforcement works less effectively than positive reinforcement, and creates negative effects on the dog’s state of mind, as well as stress-related behaviors like aggression.

What does all this mean for your pup? While some trainers may insist that negative reinforcement has a place in dog training, it’s clear that it may not be the best choice for every pup, and may cause more problems than it is fixing. With several training methods being used today, including positive reinforcement, there’s sure to be one that’s just right for your best furry pal. 


For much more information about dog training, be sure to visit the Wag! training pages for furbulous training ideas that will be fun for both you and your pupper! 


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