The Truth About Reinforcers and Punishers

Cute Dog

Basically, and it is as simple as that, the behavior of all living creatures changes because of its consequences; and there are only two ways in which behavior can change. It can become either more of it, or less of it. Even what we call new behavior is nothing else than an increase in frequency, intensity and/or duration of components of a behavior in the repertoire of the individual in question. Sometimes, new behavior amounts to the recombination of well-practiced elements. We may alter its frequency, its intensity, its duration and we may associate it with new stimuli, but if that particular behavior element were not present in the behavior repertoire of the animal, it would not show up.

As everybody knows, reinforced behavior tends to increase in frequency, intensity and/or duration and punished behavior tends to do exactly the opposite, i.e. to decrease in frequency, intensity and/or duration.

As everybody also should know, a reinforcer is not a reward, like the paycheck our boss gives us at the end of the year because he earned a lot of money. A reinforcer is everything that somehow increases a certain behavior. It may not increase the behavior of everyone, or every behavior. A reinforcer is thus only a reinforcer in relation to a very specific behavior and a very particular individual. It may also work, as reinforcers often do, in other circumstances than originally envisaged, and on a class of individuals, but this is a bonus, not a requirement.

punisher tends to decrease the frequency, intensity and/or duration of a behavior. Again, punishers are particular to specific behaviors and individuals, and need not operate on various individuals or behaviors. There is nowadays a tendency to relate punishers with violence, mutilation, etc., but a punisher is only an aversive, i.e. something, one would like to avoid in a specific context, and it does not need by any means to have anything to do with violence or mutilation. I immensely dislike mayo, which implies that any restaurant serving me a sandwich with mayo decreases the frequency of my visits to that specific restaurant. The chef is actually punishing me, even though he doesn’t know it. When I open a window and I am almost blown out because it happens to be one of those windy days, I hasten to shut it again. The natural elements punished me indeed for my opening-the-window-behavior.

The bottom line is that reinforcers and punishers are in principle neither good or bad, not things we like or don’t like, they are just stimuli that either increase or decrease the frequency, intensity and/or duration of a behavior. A reinforcer one day may be a punisher another day and the opposite is also true. A reinforcer for you may be a punisher for me today and the opposite tomorrow.

Consider the following example: your dog is standing in front of you and you hold a treat in your hand in front of his eyes. Now, you look at the dog and you say ‘sit’. The dog doesn’t sit, just looks silly and barks at you. Then, you put on your serious face, emit a grunting sound, and take the treat away. Now, the dog sits and looks as innocent as ever. You hasten to say ‘good’, you remove your serious face and present the dog your most friendly expression of the day, and you give the dog the treat you were holding in front of his eyes, the one you removed while he was silly. This is a situation that I’m sure all dog owners and trainers have experienced countless times. Is there anything wrong with it? Not at all, right? Ok, let’s take a close look at it. You say ‘sit’, the dog doesn’t sit, and you remove the treat and put on your serious face. The technical term for the removal of the treat is negative punishment and the serious face is a positive punisher. Now the dog sits and you remove your serious face and give the dog a ‘good’ and the treat. The removal of your serious face is negative reinforcement and the presentation of ‘good’ and the treat are positive reinforcements. In two seconds you’ve used all four tools (and correctly).

If you don’t like the terms reinforcer and especially punisher, we can change them. Once I suggested we called them increasers and decreasers, positive reinforcers thus being add-on increasers and negative reinforcers turning into take-away increasers. It doesn’t make any difference and however it looks completely different when we come to punishers. What do you think about using add-on decreasers and take-away decreasers? Sounds fancy and doesn’t make anyone's blood pressure raise, right? You have no objections? Good, because if you’re a good dog-trainer, I’m sure you sometimes use these techniques. 

Therefore, life is all about learning how to control the consequences of our behavior—and this suits perfectly our job description as dog trainers. We must help our dogs to learn how to control the consequences of their behavior, which is not at all the same as to avoid them. If we as a rule either only reinforce or only punish everything they do, we are indeed doing a poor job, and we are certainly not preparing them for the real life where both reinforcers and punishers (increasers and decreasers) are a reality depending on circumstances and one’s behavior.You like it—you’re welcome to use it. A warning though: it doesn’t make any difference for the dog what we call the techniques.

Learning is nothing else than changing behavior due of its consequences, and as simple as it may seem, it proves undeniably to be more complicated than so whenever we have to manage it all in a practical learning situation. To be a good animal trainer, or a teacher, we need to master the science of learning theory and behavior modification, as well as the art of applying it all at the right time, in the right dosage, for the right reason. We need to be able to exercise our reasoning and to manage our emotions.

Enjoy your training session!





Q. Can I train my dog without punishers at all?

A. Yes, you can, (we have tried it) but it is extremely difficult if not unrealistic. Sooner or later, something will disturb you and your dog and you'll have at least to withdraw the positive reinforcer, which amounts to negative punishment.


Q. Can I at least avoid using positive punishers?

A. Yes you can, but maybe you won't get a behavior as reliable as you want. If there is no consequence for not displaying a behavior and the dog is not interested in what you can offer as reinforcers, there is no reason for the dog to display the behavior you want. It's up to you, but don't expect something that you have not taught the dog.


Q. Are punishers bad things?

A. No. Punishers just decrease a behavior. A reinforcer one day, may be a punisher another day and the other way around.


Q. Do punishers hurt?

A. No. Punishers and violence and two different things. Violence may decrease a behavior, but may also result in an increased intensity of the same behavior. You should never recur to violence in animal training.


Q. Are reinforcers good for the dog?

A. Reinforcers are neither good or bad, they just increase the behavior in one aspect or another. We presume the dog likes them, but that is not the essence of the reinforcer.


Q. What happens if I use too many punishers, can I hurt my dog?

A. Yes, you can. You should always teach your dog the desired behavior as a first option by reinforcing it. A punisher is a last resort, a necessity, not a choice. Life is not fun if you're punished all the time (even if it has nothing to do with violence). Punishers inhibit your behavior. Reinforcers enhance your repertoire of behaviors. 


Q. What about reinforcers, can I also hurt my dog if I reinforce everything?

A. Yes, you can. Life is not a dance on roses. Your dog must learn to cope with adversity as well. It's all a question of balance and for you as an educator to use the right tool for the right job. 


Read also my "Unveiling the Myth of Reinforcers and Punishers" on

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