Positive Vs. Negative Reinforcement in Training

What’s the difference between Positive and Negative Reinforcement? Is negative reinforcement bad?

Samoyed puppy learning to walk on a leash.

This is, I think, my number one pet peeve in the animal training communities. I’ve actually seen folks absolutely jump on others who proclaim to use negative reinforcement, equating it to punishment – when, in fact, that is not the case at all. (And, as an aside, I am not pro-punishment.)

The myth:

Positive Reinforcement only utilises treats and praise. You can’t use punishment with positive reinforcement.

The truth:

Positive Reinforcement can involve “punishments” or so-called “negative” reinforcers, but this is NOT negative reinforcement.

Three horses waiting on their positive reinforcement for approaching me – breakfast!

The simple definitions:

Positive Reinforcement involves INTRODUCING stimuli (reinforcers) into an environment, such as a treat, or a shock from an electric training collar, in order to strengthen a specific behaviour.

Negative Reinforcement involves strengthening a behaviour or response by REMOVING, stopping, or avoiding aversive (undesired) stimuli. It stems from B.F. Skinner’s theory of Operant Conditioning, and requires a longer explanation.

A Negative Reinforcement Scenario:

You have a fearful animal (let’s say a bird) who you’d like to train to accept human touch. Placing him on a playstand perch, you step back and take note of the distance where he is comfortable with you nearby. Next, you inch forward to the exact threshold where he displays discomfort. He slims his feathers and leans away, and you know he’s worried now.

You wait. After a minute or two (perhaps longer), the bird begins to relax, his feathers gently ruffling. Use your bridge – either your praise word of choice (“good!”) or a clicker – and calmly step back to the original point where the bird was comfortable. This is the negative reinforcement – you have just REMOVED something unwanted (you) from the bird’s environment. Each time, you can step just a little closer until the bird relaxes again, thereby strengthening the calm response.

Eventually, however, this method stalls out – it can only take you so far. You need to begin introducing positive reinforcement.

Celestial Parrotlet

The Positive Reinforcement Scenario:

The same bird is sitting on his playstand perch after a handful of negative reinforcement sessions – and he’s gaining confidence near you. Today, you have a pocket full of treats and a clicker to bridge the space of time between the desired behaviour (friendliness/calmness) and the reward, or “reinforcer.”

Stepping close to the bird, you reach your hand out by his head and wait for him to show relaxed body language. As he begins to preen, you click your clicker and offer a treat. He accepts.

You have introduced a treat into the situation. This is positive reinforcement. You rewarded his calmness with you nearby, and he is likely to offer the same behaviour later to seek more. He associates you with that food now.

But wait. I mentioned that punishment is also positive reinforcement! How is this possible?

The myth:

Positive is synonymous with “good,” and negative with “bad.”

The truth:

In the case of training, positive and negative essentially refer to the addition and removal of “things” from an environment.

It drives me a bit batty when trainers and owners talk about only using “positive” reinforcement, when, in fact, they mean that they use feel-good training methods (and this is not to bash that – I personally veer more this way when training dogs and horses, and always with birds).

Using negative reinforcement to tame our Cockatiel

The Positive Reinforcement Scenario, Part Two:

You’re standing next to your bird on his playstand – but realise you don’t have treats for today’s session. Quickly, you duck out of the room to grab some, but your bird doesn’t like this. He begins to scream.

Mid-shriek, you dart back in and squirt him with the spray bottle you always have handy, shouting, “NO.”

He shuts up. You just successfully used two positive reinforcers (verbal, and the water) to reinforce his screaming when you leave him.

**As a side note, do not squirt or shout at your bird! The best way to handle that situation is to wait the screaming out. Return to the room only when the screaming ends, or you’re just teaching the bird that it takes X many shrieks to summon you.**

If you want to read more, try https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2223166/.

And there you have it, folks, the real difference between positive and negative reinforcement. To sum it up: Is negative reinforcement bad? Not at all! Is positive reinforcement better? It’s up to you to decide which is best for your situation. Each has its own important place in training.

And as a slight aside, I would personally be wary of any trainer who misuses the terms. Those with backgrounds in behavioural psychology will understand how to use them and their associated methods properly – and that’s who you want teaching you!

Any tales of your own negative reinforcement training adventures? I’m on a crusade to banish the (heh) negative view of negative reinforcement!

Parrotlet “Ptak” modelling his pin feathers

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