If you’ve done research on dog training and behavior, you’ve likely come across the four quadrants of dog training. Known as operant conditioning, the four quadrants are used as a teaching tool by many in the dog training community to modify behavior.
When understood and applied properly, the four quadrants work in conjunction to improve communication and relationships between dogs and their owners. But they’re not just for dog trainers—even owners themselves can use the quadrants throughout daily interactions with their dogs.
That’s why we’ve taken the time to break down what you need to know about the four quadrants of dog training: to help you understand how they work and how you can use them to build a better connection with your dog.
What are the four quadrants of dog training?
The four quadrants are Positive Reinforcement, Negative Reinforcement, Positive Punishment and Negative Punishment. Together, they are used to modify a dog’s behavior with reinforcement and punishment—or, in other words, by encouraging or discouraging behaviors through consequences.
What do these four terms mean? That’s an important question because some of the language used in the quadrants—like the words “negative” and “punishment”—is often misconstrued.
Firstly, “positive” and “negative” do not mean “good” and “bad” in the context of the four quadrants. Instead, the terms are used in a purely scientific sense: positive means to add a stimulus to a situation while negative means to subtract a stimulus from a situation.
The meanings of “reinforcement” and “punishment” are also often misinterpreted. Reinforcement means to increase or maintain an existing behavior while punishment means to decrease the likelihood of a behavior happening again. “Punishment” does not mean harming a dog to encourage or discourage behavior but rather adding or subtracting something from a situation to decrease the chances of an unwanted behavior recurring.
It’s helpful to think of reinforcement as “more of” and punishment as “less of.” When paired with positive, you’re adding something to get more of a particular behavior or adding something to get less of a behavior. When paired with negative, you’re removing something to get more of a behavior or less of a behavior.
So, using the definitions above, we can get a clear understanding of what each of the quadrants represents and how they apply to dog training:
1. Positive Reinforcement: Adding a stimulus to increase or get more of a behavior. For example, giving your dog a treat when they obey a “Place” command.
2. Negative Reinforcement: Subtracting a stimulus to increase or get more of a behavior. For example, stopping an e-collar stimulation when your dog responds to recall. Negative reinforcement is particularly effective when paired with positive reinforcement: your dog learns they can remove that stimulus by following your command and then you reward them with a treat.
3. Negative Punishment: Subtracting a stimulus to decrease or get less of a behavior. For example, withholding a treat when your dog doesn’t obey a “Place” command.
4. Positive Punishment: Adding a stimulus to decrease or get less of a behavior. For example, tugging on your dog’s leash when they’re pulling during a walk.
How you and your dog can benefit from the four quadrants
The most useful aspect of the four quadrants is that they’re not just a tool for dog trainers—you can use the quadrants every day in every interaction with your dog.
When you have a good understanding of how the quadrants work, you can mix them into your day-to-day life to help build a better relationship with your dog. When used properly, the quadrants will help establish a clear mode of communication between you and your dog that allows you to connect with them in a way you both understand.
Where many dog owners go wrong is they often approach dog ownership or training with the idea that their dog thinks, learns and operates the same way they do. That isn’t the case.
While humans learn through verbal communication and pick up on nuance, dogs are constantly learning and getting input from their environment. This misunderstanding can lead to owners inadvertently reinforcing unwanted behaviors without realizing it. Something as simple as petting your dog when you get home while they’re excited and jumping up on you can reinforce that type of behavior and lead to an escalation of problem behavior in the future.
That’s where the four quadrants can be helpful. Properly utilizing positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, negative punishment and positive punishment as necessary in your everyday routine can enforce or extinguish behaviors to help build the kind of harmonious relationship you’re looking for with your dog.
By understanding the four quadrants, you can use those small moments that happen on a day-to-day basis as training opportunities to reinforce good behavior and extinguish bad behavior.
Why the four quadrants should be used interchangeably
The four quadrants of dog training work best when they’re used together to meet the needs of each individual dog. There is no one right way to train dogs—whether you’re using only positive reinforcement or only negative punishment. It’s never that black and white.
Instead, every dog should be evaluated based on where they are in their learning phases before training so the right balance of the four quadrants can be established as one of the tools used to bring out the best in that dog. The quadrants that are used during training should always depend on the dog, their environment and their overall situation.If you’re unclear about the quadrants that are right for your dog’s training or the best ways to apply them so you can improve your relationship with your dog, the balanced trainers at Koru K9 have the knowledge and experience to help.