Negative Reinforcement - Isn't that an Oxymoron?

Negative reinforcement is a term you don’t often hear unless you’re in the business of training and behavior.  It can sound like an oxymoron until you realize that in behavior terminology, negative is not a value judgment- it simply means something has been removed from the environment.  Let’s look at a scenario and then I’ll break down the definition. Sometimes, my toddler starts getting really wound up towards bedtime, as he gets more and more tired.  Occasionally, he’ll even do something like pull my hair to get my attention (I know, I know, even my child isn’t perfect… sigh...).  When he pulls my hair, it hurts and hurts and hurts, until I manage to uncurl his little fingers and remove them from my hair.  Then it stops hurting.  This means that something that really, really hurt me was removed from my environment when I uncurled his fingers.  In the future, I will be much more likely to uncurl his fingers as quickly as possible.  In other words, the frequency of me performing that behavior will increase.

This is exactly what negative reinforcement is: When the removal of something increases the future frequency of the behavior.

How does this impact dog training?  Well, negative reinforcement is still used by some trainers to train a dog to come back to their owner.  The owner says, “come,” and then either they or a trainer applies a shock to the dog through a shock collar until the dog turns back towards them.  At that point the shock stops.  So the shock is removed to increase the behavior of returning to the owner.   (Please note that this is only an example- I do NOT personally use or condone this technique.)

You can also see negative reinforcement in action with a dog’s behavior towards children.  Suppose your toddler is running around and squealing, and the dog doesn’t like it.  If the dog suddenly jumps up and barks at the toddler and the toddler then goes very quiet and still, the dog’s “barking at the toddler” behavior will be reinforced by the cessation of movement and squealing.  The dog might be more likely to jump and bark at the toddler in the future.  This is a challenging situation, and punishment could make the situation even worse.  There are humane ways of addressing it that are outside the scope of this post.

As you can probably tell, most instances of negative reinforcement are not particularly pleasant for the person or animal being trained.  This is why you have to be very cautious when throwing around a term like “reinforcement.”   When choosing a trainer, it’s important that you look for someone who doesn’t just “use reinforcement” but also emphasizes humane training methods.

Are there instances where negative reinforcement can be used humanely?  That’s a tricky question, and I’d love to hear if anyone out there thinks of any viable training scenarios.  The problem is, whatever is being removed from the dog’s environment really has to be something the dog doesn’t like, and thus is probably something you would not want to purposefully introduce to their environment in the first place.  I think one instance where I use it is in getting my dogs to shake themselves dry after their bath.  As soon as they shake, they’re allowed out of the bathtub- and they hate the bath.  But, I’m sure they wouldn’t classify giving them baths as humane treatment to begin with!