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Dogs and Therapy#6: What is negative reinforcement?

In this post, I’ll continue my discussion of animal learning as it applies to making choices that will make you and your dog happy together. In my previous post about learning, I wrote about positive reinforcers. There are also negative reinforcers. Just as positive reinforcers do, so too do negative reinforcers increase the likelihood that the behavior that came before will occur again, but negative reinforcers do it by removing something rather than adding the reinforcer that is negative, not the behavior.

Let’s say that when your dog comes in from romping in the mud, you want him to sit on a towel until you wipe off his paws. And let’s suppose that he doesn’t like having his feet wiped, so he squirms. Finally he lets you wipe off his muddy paws and you let him run around the house. Letting him run around, as opposed to being held on the towel is an example of the effects of a negative reinforcer. You have removed something he doesn’t like (being held still on the towel) and so in the future he is a bit more likely to sit still to have his paws cleaned. Another option, however, would be to also give him small treats while you are wiping his paws whenever he sits still even for a moment, combining positive and negative reinforcement. I’ll leave it to your trainer to advise you, but my experience is that positive reinforcers are easier to administer and work better most of the time.

Some readers may be thinking, “Isn’t negative reinforcement the same as punishment?” In fact, it is completely different from punishment, as will be clear in my next post about learning.
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