Happy Pups. Happy People. Happy Planet.

What’s the Difference Between Punishment and Reinforcement?

By Jimmy Maxwell KPA-CTP

There are a lot of terms out there that separate different training styles and philosophies. One of the first things that separate the training world are punishment and reinforcement. And at face value, we think we know exactly what these things mean. We often associate reinforcement with rewarding good things, and punishment with punishing bad things but these definitions aren’t always the case. Understanding the meaning of these terms will change the way you see your interactions with your own dog.


Punishment does not always mean that we are doing something negative to the dog when they do something bad. In terms of behavior, a punishment is anything that decreases the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated. Sometimes the punisher can be environmental, psychological, or physical. Sometimes we unknowingly punish good behaviors. How do we know if we are? Well, ask yourself, is the desirable behavior decreasing? If so, we are likely punishing it in some way. I see this often with a recall behavior, also known as “come”.

A dog is outside playing and you go out to call him in. As a puppy he often gets attention, food, and play time when he comes to you. But as he gets older, you call him in, he comes to you and expects all good things. But suddenly he learns that when he goes to you, he gets no treat, but the crate instead. Then you leave. He has now learned that “come” means that he is going to the crate, and you are leaving. These are punishing, so he stops coming to you when called.

There may be a number of behaviors that you may have noticed your dog no longer does like he used to. So, you should ask yourself, how may there be an inadvertent punishment with this behavior?


On the other side of the coin, reinforcement doesn’t always mean that something good is happening to your dog when he does something that we like. In terms of behavior, reinforcement is anything that increases the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. And like punishment, reinforcement can be environmental, psychological, or physical. Sometimes we unknowingly reinforce bad behaviors. How do we know if we are? Well, ask yourself, is the undesirable behavior increasing? If so, we are likely reinforcing it in some way. I often see this with the problem of dogs jumping on people.

Your guests come in, or maybe it’s you, and your dog immediately shows crazy excitement. Runs up to you and jumps all over you. There are likely two responses. You might say, “No, get down” and push the dog off of you. Or, your self-proclaimed “dog person” friend says it’s okay and gives Fido ear rubs and love. With both reactions, your dog is getting exactly what he wants, which is attention. The attention reinforces the behavior. So, the jumping behavior is more likely to happen each time there is an opportunity.

There may be a number of behaviors that you have noticed you do not like but they continue to get worse. So maybe you should ask yourself, how am I reinforcing this behavior.

So Now What?

At Uptown Pup, our philosophy is not about punishing what we do not like, but reinforcing what we do like. Instead of punishing (or reinforcing) jumping on people, we heavily reinforce sitting in front of people. If you need help figuring out how to recognize and troubleshoot problem behaviors, let us know. If you are in the Indianapolis area, we would be happy to help you achieve your training goals. If you aren’t in the Indianapolis area, we will be more than happy to come along side you and find the trainer in your area that can help you achieve your goals in positive effective ways.

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