Operant conditioning uses both reinforcement and punishment. When you master this very effective psychology, you can teach a dog (or human family member) to reliably perform specific tasks. Stay with us on this one. It sounds much more complicated than it is!

The Basics

Positive Reinforcement (+R)

Positive reinforcement means the addition of something, like a treat. If a dog gets a treat when he sits, he’ll be more likely to sit.

Negative Reinforcement (-R)

In this case, the dog’s behavior causes something uncomfortable to go away. For instance, when a trainer wants a dog that is lying down to sit up, the trainer will pull the dog’s leash to an upward position, tightening the collar and creating minor discomfort. When the dog sits, the trainer slacks the leash, and the discomfort goes away.

Positive Punishment (+P)

Again, here the word positive means the addition of something; in this case, it’s the addition of a consequence. For instance, if a dog jumps on the owner and the owner pushes the dog away with an unpleasant sensation like a knee push to the dog’s chest, the dog will associate the discomfort with the action of jumping up, and be less likely to do so in the future.

Negative Punishment (-P)

As with negative reinforcement, the word negative means the removal of something. In the case of punishment, it’s the removal of a good thing. If a dog jumps on the owner and the owner steps back, removing himself and his attention, the dog will associate the loss of his owner’s attention with that particular action, and he’ll be less likely to repeat it in the future.

A Few More Behavioral Terms

  • Neutral operants: responses from the environment that neither increase nor decrease the probability of a behavior being repeated.

  • Reinforcers: Responses from the environment that increase the probability of a behavior being repeated. Reinforcers can be either positive or negative.

  • Punishers: Responses from the environment that decrease the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. Punishment weakens behavior.


  • It’s important to keep in mind that positive and negative punishments may be different for different dogs. Your dog has different likes and dislikes, just like you do. For example, if your dog doesn’t like having his head touched, a pat on the head may be negative reinforcement, rather than positive reinforcement. We’ll work with you to help determine the most effective strategies for your particular dog.
  • What about a dog that begs for food at the dinner table by barking? To the dog, barking has just offered food. Therefore he will repeat the same trick another day to earn food from the dinner table. To the owner, barking particularly at the dinner table is annoying, and he hates that. However, he achieves silence by giving the dog food and may do this often to prevent barking at the table. The two situations, stopping barking (negative) and giving the dog food to stop barking (reinforcement) presents two sides of the same coin.
  • People use the term positive to imply that they employ rewards as the key dog training method. Additionally, they use negative to refer to the obedience method based on corrections. However, the same people will use both negative and positive at a given time in the training session. Positive implies giving. For instance, giving the dog a treat. On the other hand, negative relates to taking away. For example, withdrawing attention from the dog or taking away pressure on the leash. Therefore, positive can either be good or bad depending on what the person gives his/her dog.

in summary

Operant Conditioning helps your dog understand that actions have consequences. Your pet will learn to moderate their behavior based on what happens after its actions. If their behavior comes with a perceived reward, it’ll repeat it. If there is no reward, or if they don’t enjoy the consequence, they’re less likely to repeat the behavior.