Dog Training: Positive vs. Negative Reinforcement

In dog training, positive vs negative reinforcement can be a big debate. But the truth is, both have their places and when used together, they work together to help a dog learn all about the world around them.

It’s Simple

There’s a simple difference between positive and negative reinforcement in canine training: with positive reinforcement, you are adding something to encourage good behavior you want to see again, and in negative reinforcement, you are taking away something your dog feels is unpleasant to make a behavior occur again in the future. Whether you are adding or taking away something, both are used to encourage behavior that you would like to see again in your dog.

Both types of reinforcement work, but each has their places in your dog’s training regimen.

Operant Conditioning

Essentially, there are four quadrants to operant conditioning –and this isn’t just how dogs learn. It’s how all animals learn!

There are two halves to the four quadrants of operant conditioning. They are reinforcement and punishment.

Reinforcement is used to encourage the behavior to happen again while punishment is used to discourage a behavior from happening again.

The Basics of the Operant Conditioning Quadrant

Within each half, the reinforcement or punishment could either be positive or negative. Here is an easy way to remember each quadrant:

  • Positive reinforcement: Encourages behavior by starting something good
  • Negative reinforcement: Encourages behavior by ending something bad
  • Positive punishment: Discourages behavior by starting something bad
  • Negative punishment: Discourages behaviors by ending something good

Keep reading for more details on how each operant conditioning quadrant works.

Positive vs Negative

To better understand operant conditioning and its quadrant, first, get rid of everything you already know about positives and negatives.

In the case of dog training, these words don’t mean good or bad things. They simply mean adding or removing things.

Perhaps some examples will better illustrate the point of dog training positive vs negative reinforcement.

Operant Conditioning Quadrants Examples

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement would be adding something that your dog likes to encourage a certain behavior you would want to see them produce again.

For example, when your dog sits, you give them a treat. Giving them a treat makes the act of sitting more appealing to your dogs because they feel like they will be more likely to get a treat if they sit again.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement would be taking away something that your dog doesn’t like in order to get them to do a certain behavior again.

For example, you keep tension on your dog’s leash as they walk– if they are pulling against you and then release the tension once they begin to behave correctly. Releasing the tension, which is probably unpleasant to them, makes your dog more likely to repeat the behavior that allowed the tension to dissipate in the first place.

Positive Punishment

Positive punishment would be adding something that your dog does not like to discourage the chance that they will repeat a certain behavior in the future.

For example, if your dog tries to jump on someone and you make a popping noise with the leash, the popping noise will scare them and make them think twice before jumping up on someone in the future.

Negative Punishment

Negative punishment would be taking away something your dog likes to discourage a certain behavior from happening again.

For example, if your dog gets too excited and tries to jump on you to get a treat, you take the treat away until they calm down. Removing the treat keeps them from jumping on you for more treats in the future.

Changing Behaviors

Since all animals learn using operant conditioning, it’s only a matter of finding the right area of the quadrant that fits with the behavior change you are trying to create within your dog. You need to teach them each behavior that will make things happen and whether it is a good thing or a bad thing.

Dogs learn best using cause and effect. And using operant conditioning, you will be showing your dog that there are consequences for their actions. However, it might be a good one or it might be a bad one based on the behavior.

According to the quadrant, there are four different consequences that dogs can face during training. They can either have good things start, good things end, bad things start, or bad things end.

Dogs are smart and they will more often than not want the good things to start and the bad things to end. Plus, they will always want to avoid ending the good things and starting the bad things.

Remember this because you can use this knowledge to change your dog's behavior. You can use everything from their food to their toys to their social interactions to help encourage their behaviors to change.

Problem Solving

The more you work with your dog using operant conditioning, the more your dog will get used to problem-solving. That means they will be able to understand the consequences of their actions all on their own, even if it's a new behavior you haven’t yet worked on.

As we mentioned earlier, they want to get rewarded and avoid bad things, so they will start to pick up on things pretty quickly.


A key piece of the operant conditioning quadrant in dog training is timing!

Time passes quickly to dogs. Even 10 minutes between a behavior and punishment or reinforcement is too much time because they will likely not remember what they did.

The best time to either punish or reinforce a dog’s behavior is immediately. Do your best to catch them in the act of the behavior you are trying to correct.

And always try to start with positive reinforcement or negative punishment before moving to the other two quadrants.


In the end, dog training positive vs negative reinforcement comes down to operant conditioning. And operant conditioning is simply showing your dog that there are consequences for their actions, whether they are good or bad.

Plus, don’t forget that positive and negative don’t mean good or bad. They only mean adding or taking away.

By doing this, you will be able to change your dog’s behavior and make it more likely that it will act in the way that you desire again in the future.