Webster’s online dictionary(10) offers eight different definitions of the word “positive”. Unfortunately, none of them is quite what we mean – in daily use – when we talk about positive animal training.
In Operant Conditioning,(11) which is part of learning science, “positive” means adding a stimulus, while “negative” means removing a stimulus. Likewise, the term reinforcement is a stimulus that increases the likelihood of a behaviour occurring again, while punishment is a stimulus that reduces the likelihood of a behaviour being repeated.(12)

We talk about both “Positive Reinforcement” and “Positive Punishment”. In this context, “positive” means “adding a stimulus”, as opposed to “Negative Reinforcement” and “Negative Punishment”, where we are removing a stimulus.  For example, Positive Reinforcement occurs when you give your puppy a cookie for sitting. The added (positive) stimulus of a cookie increases (reinforces) the likelihood that the puppy will sit again, so long as he understands the association between the action of sitting and the cookie.

Positive Punishment occurs when you touch a hotplate with your hand. The added (positive) stimulus of a burnt hand reduces (punishes) the likelihood that you will touch a hotplate again in the future, so long as you understand the association between your burnt hand and the hotplate.

Negative Reinforcement occurs when you first pinch your dog’s ear in order to get him to open his mouth so that you can then insert the dumbbell. The removal (negative) of the painful stimulus when the dog takes the dumbbell in his mouth is intended to increase (reinforce) the likelihood that he will open his mouth to take the dumbbell in future in order to avoid the pain in the ear.

Negative Punishment occurs when your kitten bites your hand and you respond by walking away from your kitten. The removal (negative) of your attention will reduce (punish) the likelihood that she will bite your hand again when you are playing with her.

1) 2006: Thorndyke’s Law of Effect, Law_of_effect

2)    Ken Ramirez 1999: “Animal Training”, pp. 348-351.

3)    Karen Pryor 1984, 1999: “Don’t Shoot The Dog”, pp. 85-90.

4)    Pat Miller 2007: “Increase Your Dog’s Reliability”, Whole Dog Journal, Nov 2007 Reliability_15982-1.html

5)    Bob Bailey at Special Operant Conditioning Workshop, Sequim, WA, June 2010.

6)    Ken Ramirez 1999: “Animal Training”, pp. 74-75.5)

7)    American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior 2007:
“AVSAB Position Statement / The Use of Punishment for Behavior Modification in Animals”

8)    Terry Ryan & Lisbeth Plant 2011: “Aversives”, revised from the book
“Coaching People to Train Their Dogs” ISBN 0-9742465-0-9 by Terry Ryan.

9)    Ken Ramirez 1999: “Animal Training”, pp. 280

10)    Merriam-Webster, Inc. 2011:

11), 2011

12)    B. F. Skinner 1938, 1966: “The Behavior of Organisms”, p. 61.