Dog Training – The 4 Quadrants of Operant Conditioning – What They Are and How They Are Used

Like people, dogs are motivated by gain and to avoid pain. Hence, to train a dog, reinforcements or punishments can be used.

So What Are Reinforcements and Punishments?

Reinforcements are anything that increases the probability of a dog repeating a particular behaviour. Similarly, punishments are anything that decreases the probability of a behaviour being repeated.

What may not be too clear though is that there are 2 kinds of reinforcements and likewise, 2 kinds of punishments. Here’s why…

The 4 Quadrants of Operant Conditioning

To reinforce a dog for a particular behavior, you can give it something it likes (e.g. a treat) or takeaway something it does not like (e.g. an aversive). Both ways, the dog is rewarded to repeat the behavior. The former is called positive reinforcement (R+) and the latter negative reinforcement (R-).

And to punish a dog for bad behaviour so as to decrease the probability of the dog repeating that behaviour, you can administer something the dog does not like (e.g. physical punishment) or simply take away something it likes (e.g. a withdrawal of privilege say in the form of a time out). The former in this case is called positive punishment (P+) and the latter negative punishment (P-).

As can be seen from the above examples, the word positive and negative is simply used to indicate if something is being administered or taken away. And because you can reinforce or punish a dog by adding or taking away things, we end up with 2 distinct types of reinforcements and punishments each or in short, the 4 Quadrants of Operant Conditioning.

Examples of the 4 Quadrants Being Used in Dog Training

Here are common examples of the four quadrants in action during dog training:

Positive Reinforcement (R+): Asking a dog to sit and giving it a treat when it sits

Negative Reinforcement (R-): When teaching a dog to retrieve, to pinch the dog’s ear (aversive) and releasing it (taking away aversive) only when the dog retrieves the object.

Positive Punishment (P+): Using a leash pop to correct a dog for an undesirable behaviour.

Negative Punishment (P-): When a dog is happily playing with another dog, to Instituting a time out by taking a dog to a boring corner (taking away play time) the moment it becomes too rough or aggressive (undesirable behaviour)

Clicker Vs Compulsion Dog Trainers and how they use the 4 Quadrants

Clicker and another positive rewards based trainers generally apply lots of R+ in their training. On rare occasions where punishment is required, they typically administer P-. In clicker training, dogs are frequently set up to succeed, giving trainers the opportunity to mark, reward and reinforce desired behaviours. Such training is therefore generally termed as more humane and dog friendly.

Conversely compulsion trainers focus a lot on using P+ and R- to get the job done. Dogs are at times deliberately set up to make mistakes, giving the trainer the opportunity to correct the dog. Hence the term correction and compulsion are commonly associated with such form of dog training.