The Four Quadrants of Dog Training

Updated on August 7, 2019
alexadry profile image

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and the author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

Learning the four quadrants of dog training is time well invested!
Learning the four quadrants of dog training is time well invested! | Source

If you have never heard about the four quadrants of dog training, no need to worry; most likely you are using them all the time when you train your dog or work on behavior modification. You don't need to be a certified dog trainer or train dolphins at sea-world to learn the dynamics—all it takes is an understanding of how dogs react to their surroundings and how their environment affects them.

In this article, I will try my best to explain these quadrants in an easy-to-understand manner. Most of the books I have use very technical lingo and things seem to get confusing and murky when they don't need to be.

Note: In behavior terms, the words positive and negative are not used to denote good or bad. Positive simply means addition and negative simply means subtraction. Also, in behavior terms, the word punishment is meant to denote a behavior that decreases in frequency, whereas reinforcement denotes a behavior that increases in frequency.

What Are the Four Quadrants of Dog Training?

They are four outcomes, or better consequences, that occur when your dog interacts with you and the world around him. A dog reacts accordingly to these quadrants, depending on exactly what is happening.

Dogs learn through operant and classical conditioning, The term "operant conditioning" takes place when a dog associates a behavior with a consequence. According to Thorndike's Law of Effect "responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation."

Internal and External Consequences in Canines

These consequences take place internally and externally—externally, such as when you provide a consequence for barking by telling your dog to shush, internally such as when your dog feels hot and he seeks a shadow under a tree. It's important to note that consequences you perceive as pleasant or unpleasant aren't necessarily perceived the same way by your dog. How consequences are perceived is highly subjective and may vary from one dog to another.

For instance, some dogs stop barking and feel intimidated by owners who reprimand them; whereas others who crave attention because they have been alone all day, may enjoy the extra attention even if negative and will continue to bark. Another example? the heat from the sun may feel terrible from a Saint Bernard's point of view, whereas, the warmth of the sun may feel wonderful for a Chihuahua.

Positive and Negative Reinforcement and Punishment

Ready to learn more about the four quadrants of dog training? The number of websites—some even written by so-called "professionals"—that continue to promulgate confusion among the terms negative reinforcement, negative punishment and positive punishment is astonishing. We'll take a look at them one by one, which should help clarify. I will provide some examples for each quadrant for clarity's sake.

So here they are: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment.

Positive Reinforcement Explained by Victoria Stillwell

Positive Reinforcement

This is my favorite method of training. I love it because it's gentle and effective. And as Thorndike mentions, "Responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation." As opportunistic beings, dogs indeed tend to repeat behaviors that have a satisfying effect.

Have you ever wondered why dogs beg at the table? Because they're rewarded with food. Why do dogs jump on people? Because they are showered with attention. Why do dogs counter-surf? Because they find little treasures.

What's the "law" of positive reinforcement?

In positive reinforcement, the term "positive" means adding something for the purpose of making a behavior increase (reinforcement ) So if you give a dog a cookie every time she sits, you will see her sitting more often, especially if she loves cookies! If your dog felt good sleeping on the sofa, he'll likely jump on the sofa more often. If a dog jumps on his owner, and the owner pushes him away but the dog likes the attention because he has craved every bit of it all day long, he'll likely jump more.

Tools meant to deliver positive reinforcement include clickers, target sticks, treat-dispensing machines, tug toys and anything your dog loves. Methods meant to reinforce behaviors include praising, petting, giving treats, playing with a toy or any life reward that your dog perceives as good. For more on life rewards, read my article on the Premack Principle.

An Example of Negative Reinforcement vs. Positive

Negative Reinforcement

I'm not a fan of negative reinforcement, simply because it often involves things dogs perceive as bad. Yet, it's also true that at times, you can use negative reinforcement in a minimally aversive way such as in BAT training.

What are the "laws" of negative reinforcement?

In negative reinforcement, the term "negative" means removing something for the purpose of making a behavior increase (reinforcement). In this case, we're looking at removing (negative) something for the purposes of increasing behavior (reinforcement). This sounds a tad bit hard to understand but it'll make sense once you look at some examples.

For instance, imagine again your dog is under the sun. The dog doesn't like it cause it's burning his skin and making him feel very hot, since the sun is perceived as bad, the dog will want to move away to feel better. So he'll go under the shady tree for relief. Because being in the shady tree feels good, next time when he's slightly hot again, he'll likely keep on going under the tree when he's hot (reinforcement).

If you ever worked on training your dog to sit you may have applied negative reinforcement without knowing it. Say your dog wasn't sitting and you decided to hold him by the collar to guide him down or push his rump. Most dogs don't like the pressure, so they are reinforced when they sit and you remove that sort of pressure (negative). Soon, the dog will sit more and more (reinforcement) just to avoid that pressure. (I am not fond of this method, nor do I recommend it). If you like to go horse-back riding, you'll use negative reinforcement. The horse knows that you remove the pressure on the reign once he turns or stops. He also knows that you stop putting pressure on his side with your boots once he starts speeding.

Shock collar trainers use negative reinforcement a lot. They like to deliver continuous shock until the dog does the wanted behavior. For instance, when training a recall, they will call the dog and deliver shock and release it only until the dog comes running to them. These brutal training methods cause unnecessary stress in dogs and many trainers won't even take the time to train the dog, what to do in order to escape the shock.

Why Positive Punishment Shouldn't Be Used

Positive Punishment

I'm really not a fan of positive punishment, simply because it involves again things often perceived as bad by dogs. In this case we're looking at adding (positive) something in an effort of stopping an unwanted behavior (punishment). Remember Thorndike's Law of Effect "responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation." Let's look at some examples.

For instance, imagine your dog sees a skunk and he goes to pester it. He then gets sprayed, something he perceives as bad, and as a consequence, he never pesters a skunk again (punishment). Of course, there are many dogs who will continue to pester skunks no matter what, which simply confirms that not all dogs perceive things in the same way, indeed, for some dogs the adrenaline of the chase outweighs the risk of being sprayed.

Need another example? You puppy pees on the carpet and you use a rolled newspaper to punish him. The addition of the newspaper (positive) makes your puppy reduce his behavior of peeing on the carpet (punishment)

The "law" of positive punishment means you are simply adding something to make a behavior decrease.

Products meant to deliver positive punishment remotely or by the dog owner include scat mats, bark collars, electronic fences, shock collars, choke collar, prong collars , rolled newspapers and any other tools meant to be perceived negatively by a dog. Keep in mind that misused, even a buckle collar and a leash can be used as positive punishment. Methods based on positive punishment include collar grabs, alpha rolls and other aversion-based methods meant to intimidate dogs.

An Example of Negative Punishment

Negative Punishment

Despite the word "negative" I like to use negative punishment as dogs seem to respond to it and it's an effective way to stop an unwanted behavior without resorting to stimuli the dog perceives as bad. In this case, we are removing something. Let's take a look at some examples.

Your dog jumps on you, because he's happy to see you come home. Since your dog is doing this for attention, the best thing to do is to turn around and become boring. By turning around you are removing something the dog perceives as good (the attention), for the purpose of eliminating a behavior. (punishment)

Need another example? You are training your dog to perform a behavior but he fails to perform it. In this case, remove the treat you were about to give him and give it to your other dog or eat it yourself. In this case, you remove something your dog likes for the purpose of extinguishing a behavior.

The "law" of negative punishment means you are removing something to make a behavior decrease.

Methods meant to use negative punishment include, time-outs, removing attention, removing treats, withholding the click of the clicker. This is often accompanied by a negative marker.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli


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    • profile image


      3 years ago

      I always try to handle my three dogs in the positive manner and 99% times, it works. Sometimes, they get into fight with each other and becomes quite difficult for me to relax them down. One of my dog is just three months old and he is just too difficult sometimes. It is next to impossible to stop him, when he barks. This Hub is helpful, I hope I can cover that 1% as well with the positive punishment.

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      5 years ago

      Positive punishment is adding something to stop an unwanted behavior. In a sort of way, yes, you are setting them to fail to correct the behavior. No bark collars are often used this way, the shock/spray/sound is delivered when the dog barks in order to reduce and stop the behavior of barking. It can be used as negative reinforcement too though, if the shock/sound/ continues until the dog stops barking. The effects of babying a dog depend on what happens next. If you baby a dog when he barks and the barking increases, positive reinforcement is at play. Yet, babying a dog when it is fearful has shown no increase in fear because fear is an emotion whereas barking is a behavior.

    • daxamite profile image

      James Livingood 

      5 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Positive punishment is an interesting concept. So more like letting them fail (and they reap the negative consequences)?

      I can see where babying a dog is a bad idea, but it is tricky to know when babying is a bad idea.

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      6 years ago

      Hi Sus10, indeed many dog books don't dig much deep into learning theory. One of the best books that I love that does tackle this a whole lot is Pamela Reid's "Excelerated Learning".

    • susi10 profile image

      Susan W 

      6 years ago from The British Isles, Europe

      Hi alexdry,

      This hub is very useful and helpful for me as I own a border collie at the moment and I am training him. I never knew that there were four quadrants of training, in all the dog training books I have read! Excellent article, voted up and shared.

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      7 years ago

      Thanks for the votes up Torrilyn, I am happy you found my article on the quadrants of dog training helpful, sorry I got to this now, kind regards!

    • torrilynn profile image


      7 years ago

      Hi alexadry,

      I never knew that dog training would have

      so many different quadrants. thanks

      for the great information.

      voted up.

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      7 years ago

      Hello, and thanks for stopping by Wetnose. In order for negative reinforcement to take place, you will have to see an increase in the behavior when you remove something the dog perceives as pressure. So say you're nudging her and you remove the nudging once she moves outside, then you should see an increase in the going outside behavior as she has learned how to avoid the nudging and going outside is reinforcing. As the video positivr reinforcement versus negative reinforcement shows though, you can see how positive reinforcement is much more effective and instills much more enthusiasm than putting pressure on the dogs to go down the stairs.

    • wetnosedogs profile image


      7 years ago from Alabama

      I guess sometimes I use negative reinforcement on Jennie. Sometimes she does not always want to go outside, but will bark for that door to open. I will get it open and normally both or one of the other dogs will go out and jennie will have her body in the way of the door, that nose sniffing the air. Sometimes I will nudge her a bit and tell her to go out, but if she doesn't want to, she won't. Sometimes I'll say in or out, jennie and she will either go out or move to stay in and i can close the door. I'd leave it open for her to bask in her nosey comfort zone, half in, half out the door, but I worry my cat will decide to go out. that wouldn't be a good thing. he's an inside cat and if something freaked him outside, i'm afraid he'd find that hole in the fence to get to the other side.


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