Reward or Reinforce? vs Punish or Inhibit?

It is common these days to hear different terms in animal training, especially in canine training, which (supposedly) have the same applicability in practice.

Over the years I have realized that many terms are used because of their own social conditioning in using certain terms because they sound better in our ears. Many professionals use and teach these terms of future generations in the name of science itself.

Something that has identified me a lot with the Ethology Institute was the taste for dictionaries and to follow precise scientific standards when we talk about something, after all, we all apply science in practice and before doing, we need to know what we are talking about.

I think it is important for professionals first to know the definitions of the terms they use and then decide on their conscience if they consider it appropriate to use them even if they do not follow the scientific standard. Everyone is free to choose what kind of professional they want to be and what kind of professionals they want to train.

Words like “reinforcement” and “punishment”, are always spoken with certain connotations, something out of phase of science as I wrote in this article.

We need to reflect on certain terms and decide for ourselves if we want to follow scientific terms or socially acceptable terms.

One of the most common is the word “reward”.

A reward is a retribution, compensation for meritorious action; Act or effect of reward; Premium; Award.

Reinforcement is a process where a certain response becomes strengthened as a result of learning.
Is anything that increases the frequency, intensity, and/or duration of a particular behaviour when displayed—Positive Reinforcement (+)—or removed-Negative Reinforcement (-)—simultaneously or immediately after the behaviour is presented.

Occasionally the use of the word “reward” and the poor explanation of what the word means by those who use it misleads many families with pets, and not infrequently transmits the information we are “bribing” by creating labels to the work of that professional and disqualifying an entire group if something does not work.

Skinner himself in 1987 contested the use of this term by writing that “The strengthening effect is lost when reinforcements are called rewards (…)People are rewarded, but the behaviour is reinforced.”

The same goes for “Punishment”.

These words translated directly from English have very negative connotations when translated and even religious connotation in many countries.

It is also commonly said to be automatically connotated as something bad.

A punishment is an act or effect of punishment; A punishment imposed on someone.

An inhibitor is something that produces an inhibition; That or which has the ability to diminish or suppress the activity of an organic substance.
Thus, resulting from all his linguistic experience throughout the world, Dr. Roger Abrantes began to use the word inhibitor in the operant concept by scientifically better fitting the definition (“The 20 Principles All Animal Trainers Must Know” book- 2013).

In this way, an inhibitor is anything that decreases the frequency, intensity and/or duration of a particular behaviour when presented—positive inhibitor (+)—or removed—negative inhibitor (-)—simultaneously or immediately after the behaviour is presented.

All the connotations given in terms of being socially accepted do nothing to help in the transmission of knowledge both to pet owners and to future professionals who directly apprehend these terms and place them in denial as to the practical use of these terms, nor in the respect that science itself deserves. Science is neither good nor bad, science is what it is.

I defend the clarification and the actual scientific knowledge of certain terms, the extremisms and conditioning of the society itself will not help the existing professionals or future ones to have a critical thought in what they do, something that I consider essential when we are dealing with other living beings and we must respect them as such.

Without judgments, I leave to our reflection and decision:

  • Scientifically, are we rewarding/punishing the dog or reinforcing/inhibiting its behaviour?
  • Will we really be precise with us when we are working with other species to the point that we have the notion that applying a standard reinforce/inhibitor does not always work?
  • Is it correct to put labels on our work as a form of marketing or social currents, when in fact we scientifically apply reinforcements and inhibitors in interspecific interactions and doesn’t mean that we are either “good” or “bad”?
  • Is it better to use: Easy socially saturated words or simply explain the scientific definition and terms correctly?
  • Always be in doubt of what you read and hear, always look for more and always think for yourself.

ABRANTES, R. 2011. Unveiling the Myth of Reinforcers and Punishers.

ABRANTES, R. 2013. So you want to be a good dog trainer!

ABRANTES, R. (2013). The 20 Principles All Animal Trainers Must Know. Wakan Tanka Publishers.

BARATA, R. (2016). Scientific or Moralistic Training?

CHANCE, P. (2008) Learning and Behavior. Wadsworth-Thomson Learning, Belmont, CA, 6th, ed.

GADBOIS, S. (2015). 51 Shades of Grey: Misuse, Misunderstanding and Misinformation of the Concepts of “Dominance” and “Punishment”.

GROSS, R. (2010). Psychology, the Science of Mind and Behaviour, Sixth Edition. Holder Education.

JOYCE, R. (2006). The Evolution of Morality. MIT Press books.

MCFARLAND, D. (2006). A Dictionary of Animal Behaviour. Oxford University Press.

MORRIS, D. (1969). The Human Zoo. Kodansha America, Inc.

WATSON, J.C., Arp, Robert. (2015). Critical Thinking—an introduction to reasoning well. Bloomsbury Academic

Autor: Roberto Barata

Ethology Institute Tutor and administration staff member; Instructor and Researcher in Applied Mentoring and Anthrozoology in Animal Behavior and Training field.