Learning Theory 101: Modern Training Techniques

If you’re a fan of Animal Planet, National Geographic, or other cable and or streaming networks, you’ve probably seen one of the many animal training programs these stations broadcast. Methods used by the featured trainers range from positive reinforcement, such as using food and treats to strengthen a behavior, to aversive techniques such as positive punishment or negative reinforcement to eliminate an unwanted behavior. Some of these methods can cause fear, anxiety, and stress in pets or even aggression toward owners using these methods.

Let’s talk about why some techniques are recommended and others can cause more harm than good. At Fear Free Happy Homes, we want you to have the most up-to-date information on interacting with your pet. Understanding modern training and behavior therapy practices can strengthen the bond between you and help to keep your pet in your home for the long haul!

How Animals Learn

All species learn the same way. Most animals learn to associate behaviors with a particular outcome or consequence. When a behavior is followed by something the learner wants, the behavior strengthens. If the behavior is followed by something the learner fears or dislikes, the behavior decreases. The professional term for this process is called operant conditioning. This type of learning occurs throughout our animals’ lives, even when we are not in a formal training session or class.

As we move forward, you will see the terms positive and negative. Within learning theory and in this article the words positive and negative are defined as follows:

  • Positive (+): Adding something to the situation
  • Negative (-): Eliminating or removing something from the situation

Reinforcement: Increasing a Behavior

Reinforcement relates to strengthening a behavior.  For something to be reinforcing it must be something the learner wants. Reinforcers can be different for all learners. For many humans, money is a huge reinforcer. My own reinforcers are high in sugar and fat calories.

Reinforcement can be positive or negative. Thinking in terms of arithmetic (addition and subtraction) can help you remember how each type works.

  • Positive reinforcement is the addition of something to strengthen or increase the likelihood of a behavior.
    • Example: A dog is asked to sit. Once cued and the dog’s rear end hits the floor, you give a treat. This reinforces the likelihood of the dog responding to the word “sit.”
  • Negative reinforcement is removing something to increase the likelihood of a behavior.
    • Example: A prong collar is placed on a dog. When the dog pulls, he experiences pain and discomfort. When the dog stops pulling, the discomfort and pain disappear. The desired behavior (not pulling) is reinforced by eliminating the pain and discomfort that occur from pulling on leash.

Punishment: Eliminating a Behavior

Punishment relates to decreasing or weakening a behavior. A punishment must be something the learner dislikes or finds unpleasant. Like reinforcers, punishments can be different for all learners, so when using punishment, it is important to know what your learner dislikes or finds unpleasant.

Punishment can be positive or negative. Like reinforcement, each involves adding or subtracting something.

  • Positive punishment is the addition of something to decrease likelihood of a behavior.
    • Example: Using a shock collar for barking and displaying at unfamiliar dogs. When the dog begins to bark, the handler uses the shock (which for most learners is uncomfortable) and should therefore decrease or weaken the behavior of barking at unfamiliar dogs.
  • Negative punishment involves eliminating something to decrease likelihood of a behavior.
    • Example: Overexcited dogs may jump on people in greeting. Jumping is negatively reinforced when the human ignores the excited dog and waits for a calmer behavior. The jumping behavior is weakened by taking away attention, which is what the dog would like in this scenario.

Pooch and Punishment

Aversive methods have consequences, and they aren’t always the ones we want or expect. That’s why veterinary behavior teams typically don’t advise using positive punishment and negative reinforcement. These techniques are not recommended for a variety of reasons but most important is that punishment is difficult to use properly and does not teach the learner the correct behavior. With punishment we are always telling animals what they are doing wrong instead of what they should be doing.

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s position statement on punishment reviews the many side effects of this training method. Using remote punishment (shock collars) as well as choke and prong collars can cause physical damage such as burn marks, damage to the neck area, increased eye pressure, obstructed airways, and nerve damage.

Mentally and emotionally, punishment can cause increased stress, fear, and anxiety. That’s because for punishment to be effective it must incite a strong fear response from the learner, which can be generalized to other objects in the environment.

Lastly, punishment requires precise timing. It must occur within a half-second of the undesirable behavior for the learner to understand the exact behavior we are trying to weaken or eliminate. This can be challenging and is not always possible.

A study every dog owner should be aware of is by Megan Herron, DVM, DACVB. Dr. Herron is a veterinary behaviorist and completed her residency and research at The Ohio State University. The purpose of her study was to evaluate safety risks and behavior effects of aversive training techniques such as positive punishment and negative reinforcement. The results? Using these methods increased owner-related aggression, making the techniques much riskier to use with fearful, anxious, or aggressive animals.

The Big Picture

Positive punishment and negative reinforcement are not recommended for use in any animal species—including humans. Use of punishment can slow learning, suppress behavior, increase fear and fear-based aggression, create damaging and unintended associations with owners or objects in the environment, and damage the human-animal bond.

Just because you may see these techniques used on TV doesn’t mean they are acceptable. Remember that TV is all about ratings, not about what’s right. Watch the credits. If there’s a statement that’s the equivalent of “Kids, don’t try this at home,” that’s your clue that the methods used aren’t appropriate for your own dog (or cat). Discuss training techniques you’re considering with your veterinary team or a trainer who meets Fear Free or AVSAB standards.

As a member of Fear Free Happy Homes, we know that you are bonded to your pet. We want to keep it that way and eliminate as many unpleasant interactions with your pet as possible. Most veterinary behavior teams recommend use of positive reinforcement and negative punishment (ignoring unwanted behaviors). For more information on animal behavior and modern training methods, please check out the recommended reading below or see the videos here on Fear Free Happy Homes as this is only a bit of information on the ever-growing world of animal training!

Recommended Reading

  • From Fearful to Fear Free
    • Author(s): Marty Becker, Dr. Lisa Radosta, Dr. Wailani Sung, and Mikkel Becker
  • Decoding Your Dog
    • Author(s): The American College of Veterinary Behavior
  • Dog Sense
    • Author: John Bradshaw

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Rachel Lees, a Level 3 Fear Free Certified Professional, is a veterinary technician specialist in behavior, a KPA certified training partner, and lead veterinary behavior technician at The Behavior Clinic in Olmsted Falls, Ohio. She loves helping people create and maintain a strong human-animal bond.