The positive and the negative

Dog looking

Most dog trainers know the difference between a positive reinforcement (“Good dog!” or giving a treat,) and a punishment (a collar pop or “No”,) but it’s not up to the trainer to tell the dog what is good and what is bad. The dog decides what it likes and what it doesn’t like.

Imagine being given a piece of broccoli for doing the dishes. You might think, “Geeze. Um. Thanks?” Or what if your “punishment” is to do the dishes and it’s something you find soothing and relaxing? You might be inclined to get “in trouble” a little more often. Most of us have experience having a negative association with something someone else considers benign. My father used to whistle when he was angry, so whistling still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. A person whistling because they are happy would have no idea they were stressing me out unless I told them.

Which brings us back to our dogs. Building a relationship with our dogs through training means getting to know their little quirks; treats they like and really like, and what they consider to be “punishment.” For a “soft” dog, a “punishment” may mean simply turning your back on them. Learning to read our dog when they are stressed and what stresses them out allows us to bypass their brain shutting down. Imagine trying to learn something in the presence of something you are afraid of, like someone holding a snake to your neck and asking you to solve math problems. Your brain would be trying to figure out a way to make the snake go away more than solving the math problems.

The dog chooses the reward and the dog dictates what is “punishment.” In training it’s better to reinforce the good behaviors because we don’t always know what the dog is going to think is “punishment” or how they are going to scale that “punishment.” Is it really harsh or just a gentle reprimand? Unless you know, why test it? You may end up asking your dog to learn with a snake held to their neck unintentionally.

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