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Thoughts from a “Positive Reinforcement” Trainer

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Is it Really All or Nothing?

In February, I wrote an article titled Is it Really All or Nothing? That article described a few of my concerns about the obstacles some positive reinforcement trainers place in the way of converting new trainers to positive techniques. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies in helping new trainers embrace positive reinforcement. There were two main topics I focused on in that article. The first was the reluctance many trainers feel in allowing more traditional trainers to approximate or gradually convert to the use of positive reinforcement tools. The other issue that I addressed was the troubling trend of being overly critical, and not very positive, in the approach that some take talking about or to trainers who have not yet adopted positive reinforcement.

Those two topics will continue to be important issues for our community, but this article will focus on how the terminology we use often gets in the way of conveying the desired message. Interestingly, after the Is it Really All or Nothing? article came out, many people forwarded articles, blogs, and essays that others had written about the topic of punishment and reinforcement—and the confusion that exists about these concepts in training circles. I would like to add my voice and explanation to this conversation. 

“Purely positive?”

Phrases that will raise a skeptical eye or turn others off to our message quickly are comments such as, “I am a purely positive trainer,” or “I never use punishment!” I appreciate the sentiment behind these statements, but it is easy to understand why some scoff at those comments and assume that anyone who makes those statements is not a serious trainer. I don’t think those assumptions are necessarily true, but it highlights the challenges and obstacles that the use of terminology creates.

To whom are we speaking?

Perhaps one of the first challenges is not knowing or understanding the background of the person delivering a particular message, or not knowing the background of the person listening to or receiving the message. When those involved in a conversation are from different backgrounds, there is often a huge difference in the terms each of them will use and understand. Professional trainers often focus on vastly different approaches to their craft: operant conditioning, classical conditioning, ethology, several new Eastern philosophies, and traditional mentorships (that may or may not have a grounding in one of the previously mentioned approaches). In addition to communicating with professional trainers, we must find ways of communicating with the general public—people who may have very little understanding of the technical terminology. Even professional trainers, depending on their background, may use vastly different terms. Word choice and vocabulary are often at the crux of a communication breakdown.

If we want to have an honest dialogue about techniques, we have to recognize that we may each be bringing a different understanding of terms and concept.

I approach training in an operant way and, while I certainly use knowledge of classical conditioning and ethology, my terminology and toolset come from the operant part of the science. However, when I communicate with the public, I revert to language and terms that are more commonly understood. This choice can be confusing if you are not aware that I change languages depending on my intended audience. If we want to have an honest dialogue about techniques, we have to recognize that we may each be bringing a different understanding of terms and concepts to the table.

Reinforcers and punishers are always at work on behavior

The phrase “purely positive” is neither realistic nor truthful. I have never used that term and can’t even imagine what that phrase really means. Both pleasing and aversive stimuli are around us all the time, and the frequencies of various behaviors in an animal’s repertoire are constantly in flux. As those behaviors change in frequency, they are, by definition, being reinforced or punished. Reinforcement and punishment are occurring every day to every animal, no matter what type of trainer we claim to be. If we understand the science, we know this to be true. The truth requires that skilled trainers recognize and understand how to use all the tools, and how to adapt the environment to set animals up for success.

So, what do the various labels that we put on trainers really mean? I will not presume to speak for anyone other than myself. But I can explain why I call myself a positive reinforcement trainer and what that means to me.

Explaining training to the general public

I have spent a great deal of my career talking about training to the layman, or the non-trainer. Even many of the young trainers I have worked with did not come from a science background, and were often unfamiliar with the technical terminology. As a result, I talk about punishment and reinforcement the way the public understands it quite frequently.

In our society we tend to punish and reinforce people, children, and animals. But if you are a true trainer, you never punish or reinforce a person or an animal; you punish or reinforce behavior. This is a concept that is lost on the average person, someone who does not have the time, interest, or inclination to understand that distinction. We see it all the time: people punish their dog, punish their child, or punish the criminal. Sadly, this punishment often does not yield the desired result, yet we continue to punish in our society.

We need to make a greater effort to help the average person really understand the science of training.

Gradually, I have come to realize that we need to make a greater effort to help the average person really understand the science of training in order to help make the interactions with their pets and the people in their lives more successful. But unless I am planning to teach that “science lesson” specifically, if I am communicating with a broad, non-scientific audience, I may make the statement that “I never use punishment.” In that instance I mean punishment as the general public understands and uses that word. I am not referring to the behavioral definition of punishment.

Teaching training to young trainers

I have taught hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young trainers on the path to becoming professional trainers. I have taught them in environments where I could dictate what tools they were allowed to use and when they were allowed to use them. With these students, I do teach the real meaning of reinforcement and punishment. It is important to me that they are aware of how the environment reinforces and punishes behavior, and how they should adapt their actions to compensate for that. As a result of the controlled environment, and because I am able to ensure that they are not working with animals that have serious behavior problems, I can insist that the student focus on positive reinforcement, and forbid the purposeful application of any punishers.

If an animal presents problems, my student trainers are encouraged to redirect toward more appropriate behavior or to pass the animal to a more experienced trainer, someone with the option to use a broader tool set. During these formative learning years, this approach to punishment teaches young trainers how to use reinforcement effectively. Since punishment is not available to them, they learn to find positive alternatives. These students become far more disciplined trainers who, later in their careers, when the option to use punishment tools is opened up to them, do not find it easy or necessary to use those tools. Using positive options first becomes second nature; punishment options are simply not the default response for trainers schooled in this system. These trainers, during the early years of their training, truly are using only positive reinforcement.   

Working with clients

Most clients have even fewer skills and less knowledge than the young trainers I described. Usually I teach clients only the tools they need to work effectively with their particular pets in their specific environment. I find that the positive tools are quite effective for beginners; focusing on those tools prevents an overly emotional use of a punisher, because I avoid teaching clients those tools at all. In severe cases, where some aversive tool might be selected traditionally, I suggest the client seek out a professional trainer (me or someone else) who can guide them in the safe and appropriate use of a more advanced tool. I avoid putting those tools in the clients’ hands. I find it too easy for beginners to overuse punishment or escalate it to a level that is so harsh that it does serious damage to the learner. It takes a much higher skill level than the average client possesses to apply punishers appropriately.

My approach to professionals

Working with professional colleagues, labeling myself as a positive reinforcement trainer indicates that I focus my attention on desired behavior as opposed to unwanted behavior. I look for ways to reinforce desired behavior instead of focusing attention on getting rid of unwanted behavior. I acknowledge that if one behavior is increasing in frequency, there is likely another behavior that is decreasing at the same time.

Looking at behavior that way, reinforcement and punishment are, by default, occurring all the time for every trainer in all learning situations. However, my concern or attention is on what my learners are experiencing. Where is their focus? If they are performing a behavior out of fear or concern for getting it wrong—or are avoiding an aversive—I have failed in my goals as a positive reinforcement trainer.

I am hopeful that my animal is seeking to get it right and is working for the joy, thrill, or reinforcement of the activity. My approach can be equated to the various ways human workers look at their jobs. Some work hard and are motivated by the fear of losing their job or fear of getting in trouble; these people work hard, do excellent work, but have a poor attitude and hate their jobs. There are other workers (and I consider myself one of them) who never think about getting fired and are not motivated by fear; instead we do our work well, enjoy our jobs, and are motivated by the reinforcement that we get for that work (joy of the job, mission, coworkers, and, almost secondarily, a paycheck).

Most of us who consider ourselves positive reinforcement trainers are neither ignorant nor oblivious to the realities of punishment.

There are a few positive reinforcement trainers who refuse to acknowledge that punishers are operating on their animals at all. But I think that group is small and not the norm. Most of us who consider ourselves positive reinforcement trainers are neither ignorant nor oblivious to the realities of punishment. We are keenly conscious of the impact that aversives have on animals, and use that knowledge with skill and care. Punishers are certainly part of the learning and teaching that takes place in all training programs—but they don’t have to be the focus, and they certainly don’t need to be the most prominent for the animal that is learning.

My way of thinking about reinforcement and punishment comes from a desire to teach with clarity and set an ethical standard and a guideline for myself, my staff, my clients, and my students. I believe in the science and try to teach the science with clarity and objectivity. I share this information with the hope that it clarifies my approach and reasons for calling myself a positive reinforcement trainer; I make no judgment or criticism of those who choose to train or teach differently.

The dialogue continues

As our profession grows and our use and understanding of the science expands, I hope we can discover similarities among us and lessons we can learn from each other...

As our profession grows and our use and understanding of the science expands, I hope we can discover similarities among us and lessons we can learn from each other, no matter what label we put on our style of training. The goal of this Letter was simply to share why I use the term “positive reinforcement training” and why I avoid or minimize punishment when I train or describe my training. It is my ongoing desire to bridge the huge gap that still exists between many of us who train animals as professionals, and to help us continue learning from each other.

Happy Training,


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