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This blog will help you understand the scientific principles of how dogs learn. Since all learning is governed by these basic principles, learning them can help you develop better training skills through a proper understanding of behavior. Over the last 15 years, it has become increasingly difficult for own- ers to translate the behavioral jargon used by some dog trainers. This is made even more difficult by the fact that trainers sometimes misuse behavioral terms. In addition, although most people today are some- what familiar with behavioral terms, they are often confused about what these terms really mean. For example, what do “positive rein- forcement,” “positive training,” “punishment” and “negative reinforce- ment” really mean? It is important for owners to have a basic understanding of these terms and others, and how they apply to your dog’s training.

Part of what causes confusion is that no single training method works in every situation. The reason for this is that every dog, envi- ronment and owner is unique. With an unlimited number of possible scenarios, it stands to reason that there will be more than one way to modify and/or teach various behaviors to dogs and owners. This is part of the reason why five trainers can have five different ideas about how to teach the same thing. A famous trainer and author once said that if you put 10 trainers in a room and ask them their opinion about some- thing, the only thing they’ll agree on is that the other nine don’t know what they’re talking about. This makes it challenging for dog owners, to say the least.

Owners who understand basic behavioral principles will find it easier to make training decisions based on facts. This is important, because when trainers use unproven or unscientific methods, the results may not be good. It may even be counterproductive. As such, it is crucial that training techniques be rooted in science.

Please read this chapter twice. The first time, try to read it straight through. Then read it a second time, pausing to consider the different examples and concepts I cover. It’s my experience that this will help you “get it.” Let’s start with some basic terms: motivation, reinforce- ment and punishment.


Motivation is a need, drive or desire that incites a person or animal to some action or behavior. All learning entails some change in behavior. In order to change, the dog must be motivated to change. If there is no motivation, no change or learning will occur.

There are two main types of motivation: positive and negative. With positive motivation, the dog works to get things the dog likes. Examples of positive motivation include:

  • Walks
  • Attention
  • Petting
  • Rubs
  • Playing with other dogs
  • Food treats
  • Playing with toys
  • Getting to sniff
  • Car rides
  • Going outside
  • Access to a favorite resting place
  • Scratches

Here’s an example of how positive motivation is used in training: Shred, a six-month-old American Eskimo Dog, runs to her owner and sits when she first greets him. Shred is petted and scratched for sitting. This is something Shred likes. Shred is positively motivated to sit for pets and scratches.

Negative motivation is when the dog works to avoid something the dog considers unpleasant. Examples of negative motivation include:

  • A spray of water
  • Choke chain corrections
  • Not getting a food treat
  • Raising your voice
  • A shock from an electronic shock collar or mat
  • Loud noise from a motion sensor alarm
  • Citronella spray
  • Being ignored
  • Losing her toys
  • Losing her playmate

Here’s an example of how negative motivation is used in training: Sometimes Shred gets so excited that she jumps on her owner when greeting him. The owner responds by turning away and ignoring her. Shred considers this unpleasant and she is negatively motivated to not jump, so she can avoid being ignored.

You can use both positive motivation and negative motivation to either reinforce/increase a behavior or punish/reduce/eliminate a behavior.


Reinforcement means to give new strength or force to a behavior; for training purposes, it means to do something to strengthen a behavior. If you want to increase the probability that a certain response will occur, some sort of reinforcement must be involved. This may include negative reinforcement or positive reinforcement.

Reinforcement must be something meaningful enough for the dog to try to get (positive reinforcement) or try to avoid (negative rein- forcement). And it must be meaningful to the dog.

The box on page 28 demonstrates how either negative or positive reinforcement can be used to obtain a desired behavior. Look at the box carefully, because that last part on negative reinforcement can cause some confusion. The negative reinforcement does not take place when the noise starts, but rather when the noise stops.

Since trainers use terms like positive reinforcment and negative reinforcement all the time, let’s review to make sure you are very clear about what these terms mean.

Positive reinforcement involves giving reinforcement at the moment the dog performs the desirable behavior, to increase the like- lihood the dog will perform that behavior again. An example is giving your dog a food treat the moment she achieves the sitting position.

Negative reinforcement involves removing something the dog con- siders unpleasant the instant she performs the desired behavior. An example is releasing the pressure on a flat buckle collar the moment the dog achieves the sitting position.

Training methods can contain both positive and negative rein- forcement.

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