Positive Reinforcement vs. Punishment: The Best Approach to Dog Training

Posted by Jackie Ly on

a couple teaching their dog in living room, rewarding them with treats


Table of Contents

Negative and Positive Training Types

Positive Reinforcement vs Positive Punishment

Positive vs Corrective:Treating Aggression

Positive vs Corrective: Establishing Dominance

Positive Reinforcement: Advantages and Drawbacks 

Positive Punishment: Effectiveness and Drawbacks

Which is the Best Approach to Dog Training?


The age-old debate that's been stirring up dog lovers everywhere: positive training versus punishment. You've probably heard about these two approaches in dog training, which is especially used in dealing with aggressive and unwanted behaviours. 

Positive reinforcement is all about rewarding good behaviour to encourage more of it, while positive punishment is more about making your dog feel the consequences when they step out of line. But which one's really the best fit for you and your dog? 

Let's break it down and find out.

Negative and Positive Training Types

Positive Reinforcement

This method involves rewarding your dog with something pleasant, like treats, praise, or playtime, immediately after they exhibit a desired behaviour. The aim is to increase the chance of that behaviour occurring again in the future. For example, giving your dog a treat when they sit on command reinforces the behaviour of sitting.

Negative Reinforcement

Contrary to what the name might suggest, negative reinforcement doesn't involve punishment or being mean to your dog. Instead, it involves removing an unpleasant stimulus when your dog performs the desired behaviour. For instance, if your dog stops pulling on the leash, you might stop the pressure applied by the leash, thus reinforcing the behaviour of walking nicely.

Positive Punishment

This method involves adding an unpleasant consequence when your dog performs an undesired behaviour to reduce the chance of that behaviour happening again. An example of positive punishment is using a sharp “no”, a loud noise, or an electric collar to discourage your dog from jumping on people.

Negative Punishment

Negative punishment entails removing a desirable stimulus when your dog exhibits an undesired behaviour, aiming to decrease the chance of that behaviour happening again. For instance, if your dog jumps up to greet visitors, you might turn away or ignore them until they calm down, thus removing the attention they seek as a consequence of jumping.

Positive Reinforcement vs Positive Punishment


Positive training teaches a dog what to do while preventing them from repeating unpleasant behaviour. It sets the dog up to success by guiding and teaching them to perform what the owner or trainer commanded. 

On the other hand, punishment-based trainers usually wait for the dog to exhibit unacceptable behaviour before punishing them. This sets them up for failure from the start; while it may educate the dog what not to do, it does not instruct the dog on what the person or trainer wants.  


Positive training involves rewarding, motivating, and guiding a dog's behaviour. This could include the use of food, treats, toys, games, attention, verbal praises, petting, and opportunities to sniff and explore. 

Punishment training uses intimidation, fear, physical actions, and pain to influence behaviour. This could include leash jerks, collar corrections, spraying with water or citronella, hitting, pushing, kicking, using prong collars, hanging by the collar, or using electric shock. 


Positive reinforcement training determines the underlying reason for a behaviour problem, such as anxiety or fear, and changes how a dog feels to permanently improve the dog's behaviour, rather than just in that moment. 

Punishment training rarely address this. Punishment almost always exacerbates the dog's uneasiness while diminishing the dog's ability to learn.

Positive vs Corrective: Treating Aggression

Positive trainers recognise that a dog displaying violent behaviour is usually stressed or has learnt that snarling, growing, lunging, or biting helps meet their needs in some way. Positive reinforcement training aims to address and reduce the dog's stress, which is then used to learn more positive, acceptable, and safe behaviours. 

Instead of countering aggression with aggression, positive reinforcement training may actually change a dog's attitude towards a situation for the rest of their life, rather than just how the dog is acting at the time.

Punishment training does not necessarily focus on the underlying causes, but rather on stopping a behaviour. These tactics may appear to 'work' since they actually stop the dog's behaviour at the time, but their effectiveness is usually short-lived. 

Positive vs Corrective: Establishing Dominance

Positive reinforcement training recognises that most dogs don't want to be alpha, top dog, or pack leader over us; instead, they seek safety, security, and other things that make them happy. Although social hierarchies exist among dogs, research has demonstrated that these dynamics are not fixed. They are continually shifting. 

Positive training includes regular, reward-driven learning that guides dogs to make the appropriate decisions so they can coexist well with other dogs as much as their humans. 

Punishment training often involves some form of "dominance theory" that incorrectly advocates that social hierarchies among multi-dog households and human/dog families are fixed, with a 'alpha' dog or person at the top of the hierarchy and other members of the human or canine family fitting underneath. 

The misconception between dominance and aggressiveness stems from an inaccurate and outdated theory of dog social behaviour.  Unfortunately, some expert trainers continue to believe that dominance explains dog behaviour, even though this has been proven to be inaccurate. 

Positive Reinforcement: Advantages and Drawbacks 


Positive reinforcement methods are centred around behaviour. They are under the notion that an animal's actions are influenced by their emotional state. Understanding the motivations behind your dog's behaviour will help you think of ways to replace unpleasant actions with desirable ones. 

This approach offers a significant advantage, as behaviours can be changed without causing harm to your dog. For instance, they can be taught to calm down and experience a better quality of life without resorting to punishment. Similarly, a lively and spirited dog can be trained to acquire resources without conflict between their owner, other people, or other dogs.

When you establish clear and fair boundaries, dogs quickly build trust in you as their leader. This trust is built on leadership, not intimidation, which encourages them to follow your commands. Through positive reinforcement, where desirable behaviours are rewarded, dogs feel secure in expressing their behaviours. 

As an owner, you reinforce behaviours you want to encourage and either redirect or ignore those you want to discourage, without creating drama. This approach provides clear signals to your dog about what behaviours are acceptable and which ones aren't.


The only drawback with positive reinforcement is that you need more time to see ultimate results. Slowly reduce food rewards and incorporate various real-life rewards. While food serves as a great tool, it should not be used as a bribe.

Positive Punishment: Effectiveness and Drawbacks


The most significant advantage of positive punishment training is that it's able to quickly stop and change undesired behaviours. Dogs avoid behaviours that cause pain and negative consequences. 


Punishment training is not behaviour-based, therefore while it suppresses behaviours, it does not address the root cause of them

For example, a fearful dog will growl at strangers who enter the house.  Positive punishment can halt the growling, but it fails to alleviate the dog's fear. Unfortunately, the growl is the dog's way of expressing anxiety, and cutting off his warning message might have serious consequences. If the dog feels defensive, he is more likely to bite without warning. 

A study published in the Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour determined that aggressive methods such as hitting dogs, intimidating them with punishing force, and using restraint techniques such as the “alpha roll” do little to correct dogs' behaviour and, in fact, increase their chances of being fearful and aggressive.

Which is the Best Approach to Dog Training?

Studies have found that positive, reward-based training has been more effective and minimises the chance of aggressive behaviour when compared to punishment training methods. Positively trained dogs show fewer stress signs, form stronger bonds with their owners, and respond faster to cues or directions. 

Positive reinforcement and force-free training also aim to identify and address the underlying causes, motivations, and environmental impacts of a dog's behaviour. This could include lowering a dog's anxiety, establishing more routines, teaching new behaviours, and changing a dog's emotional response to a situation.

Appropriate and Humane Punishment

Punishment can be necessary sometimes and can be given in a proper and humane manner. Many positive reinforcement trainers use negative punishment techniques, which means taking something away. 

For example: your dog approaches and barks at you to get your attention. You respond by turning away from your dog (without speaking or making eye contact). You minimise the possibility of both yourself and your dog receiving attention.

Additionally, you teach your dog that when they calmly approach you, they'll get your attention. Negative punishment teaches them to let go of ineffective behaviours and try a different behaviour that, if desirable, will work better for them. 

Bottom Line

As you weigh the options of positive training versus punishment for your dog, remember that your choice should be more than just quick fixes or immediate results. It's about building a bond based on trust, respect, and understanding. 

Positive reinforcement not only teaches your dog good manners but also strengthens your relationship by building mutual respect and cooperation. On the other hand, positive punishment may offer quick fixes, but it can also strain your bond and even cause fear or anxiety in your furry friend. 

By opting for positive training methods, you're not just shaping behaviour, you're nurturing a lifelong partnership built on love and kindness! 

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