Fallacy of Positive Reinforcement Only Training

May 8, 2019

Today "Positive Reinforcement" is considered the "be all-end all" in animal training. Is positive reinforcement only training really the best option? 

Let's start with the actual meaning of positive reinforcement. Positive Reinforcement is a form of training which provides/adds (the + part) a reward for a behavior that the trainer wishes to be repeated (the reinforcement part). Positive in this context does not mean good or bad. The opposite of positive reinforcement is negative punishment.  The negative refers to the removal of (-) a reward to discourage a behavior from being repeated ("punishment").  A simple example is when a dog sits, it gets petted (the reward) and when it jumps (an unwanted behavior) it does not get petted (removal of reward).  Again, no implication of the  "punishment" being wrong/harmful. Using these literal definitions, positive reinforcement only training is impossible. Positive Reinforcement only training means that there is no punishment, or acknowledgement of inappropriate behavior. Even taking no action is the same as removing a reward (because the dog does not get the reward) or negative punishment. 

 A commonly cited supportive argument for positive reinforcement only training is based on several experiments undertaken in human education. When children are only "punished" for wrong answers, they become frustrated and stop trying. When the children are rewarded for providing the correct answers, they become encouraged and try even harder. All great! But, the children that are being rewarded for correct answers, are in essence being punished by providing no reward (negative punishment) for the incorrect answers. There is no way of using positive/reward based training without utilizing negative punishment.

Remember the game "Hot/Cold" that you may have played as a child?  Someone hides an object and you search for it. The hider guides you with descriptions of hot (you are getting closer) and cold (you are getting further away). Now picture the game with only one set of those directions.   "You are ice cold.......nothing said..... nothing said... you are getting colder" is an example of what is termed positive punishment-receiving something unpleasant to discourage a behavior- the term cold.  You can assume that the "nothing said" is a indication that you are getting "warmer"-negative reinforcement -the removal of an unpleasant experience to encourage a behavior.  Most players get frustrated quickly and may stop playing. 

Now picture the game in which you are only told when you are getting "warmer". Much more encouraging, however you have no guidance when you are moving away from the object. You are not "warm" or close, but how far away are you?  You only have one direction of guidance. You are experiencing positive reinforcement only training. (and by elimination, negative punishment-no comment when you are not on the right track).

What is the best way to find the hidden object? Receiving BOTH extremes of guidance-you are either warmer or cooler.  using both boundaries, you can narrow down the expected direction quicker and with less frustration. You have now learned using a technique called "balanced training". 

The same applies to animals. They learn quicker and gain more confidence when taught what is expected and what is not appropriate. 

Now, take the hot/cold game one step further. What is you were offered alternative actions/directions that bring you closer to your goal quicker? You get to the shelf that the object you are hunting is on (for this example, a book). Remember that you do not know exactly what that object is yet.  One book is on either end of the shelf.  You touch one book and are told you are getting  cooler-which direction do you turn? What if someone pointed to the correct book as you were told you are getting cooler. The answer is simple!  This is called re-directional training. 

So when your dog grabs your favorite slipper, instead of just taking it away from him (negative punishment), hand him a kong full of treats (positive reinforcement). You have just acknowledged your dog's need to chew and offered an alternative course of action.  You have provided "punishment"-saying no to the slipper, "redirected" your dog to the behavior you want, "rewarded" him by letting him chew on the kong and hopefully praising him for doing so-teaching him through balanced redirectional training!

Learning (for humans and dogs) is a process utilizing a multitude of tools. No one tool/technique can be successfully utilized on all students in all situations. Animals (including humans) learn best through the combination of several techniques which best fit the situation. 

Now look at training from a dog's  (or other animal's) perspective. Watch a bitch (mother dog) with her puppies. Does she punish her puppies for acting in ways she does not want? Does she pull away or growl when a puppy bites too hard when nursing? Do puppies bite at each other?-(You bite me, I bite you-which hurts-punishment so you learn not to bite).  Dogs even growl at humans who are behaving inappropriately-grabbing at the dog's face for example-. Why do we feel that punishing a dog is wrong?   

--It is the degree, means and timing of punishment that is often wrong; but not the entire concept of punishment. The word punishment itself has "a bad feeling".  A more appropriate term may be correction, or marking/labeling of undesired behavior. 

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