Positive Versus Negative Reinforcement. Which one is better?

From my experience in training dogs, I have come to the conclusion that there is no one right way to train a dog. Each and every dog is different and unique in his or her own way. This makes it impossible to use only one training method. Good dog trainers are consistent with training but are also able to switch gears when it comes to working with a completely different dog with different temperaments and drives. No two dogs should be trained the exact same way. Understanding the way dogs think and behave, and having a basic knowledge of dog psychology is the biggest piece to the training puzzle. When you understand the “why” in a dogs behavior, then you can start applying training methods.

Positive and Negative Reinforcement

A lot of schools, classes, and trainers only use positive or negative reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement: Positive reinforcement is a method used in dog training to encourage good behaviors through rewards. Common rewards are toys, food, and or praise. Every time the dog sits, he/she gets a treat. Every time you say lay down, the dog gets a toy. Here the dog is learning and obeying behaviors through an incentive.

Negative reinforcement: Negative reinforcement is a dog training method used to discourage unwanted behaviors. Every time the dog disobeys a command, he/she is corrected. Here the dog is learning and obeying behaviors out of respect for the handler.

Let’s say someone is using 100% positive reinforcement to teach the sit command. Every time the dog sits he/she gets a treat. Sit-treat, sit-treat, sit-treat. The dog will learn the behavior quickly and will be extremely motivated doing it. Although this may sound good so far, when you add the smallest of distractions into the equation you will find the dog is less likely to obey. The distraction is more “positive” or desirable to the dog.

Now, someone else is training their dog to sit using 100% negative reinforcement. Each time the dog doesn’t sit he/she is corrected into the sit position. Correction-sit, correction-sit, correction-sit. Although the dog has learned that he/she must sit (or else) you will find a much less motivated dog.

If a person trains using just one reinforcement the dog will never understand the true meaning of his/her commands. When it comes to training dogs and getting functional results, results you can rely and depend upon, both positive and negative reinforcements are very much needed. Some people believe in only one type of training but in my experience it’s an ineffective way to train a dog.

The Positive Reinforcement Challenge

Suppose you are training your dog to recall (come here). You call your dog to you, and every time he comes to you he is rewarded with a treat. By the 100th time you call your dog, he comes flying to you because he knows he gets that delicious treat. Now, you’re outside at the park and your dog sees a squirrel run by. You call your dog to you with the treat in hand, but the dog runs for the squirrel. Why? Because chasing the squirrel is better and more pleasurable than the treat. What would your dog do?