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  • Lisa Wright

The Problem with Skinner's Quadrants...

Updated: Feb 13

So this one makes me nervous. Why? Because it usually causes people to erupt. I'll come clean. I don't love the quadrants. I also don't love the confusion around the use of Positive Reinforcement (+R) and how this term gets confused a lot with Reward Based Training. The argument that people who do rely a lot on the quadrants use, being that you cannot decrease behaviour by using +R by definition, is a tad unfair. However, as Reward Based Trainers we need to know what we mean when we say 'Positive Reinforcement'. Why? Because I think we are talking about two things. It is time we got clearer in our terminology.


We also need to accept that all sides of the arguments are referring to Science, Skinner was a Scientist, does his work relate to me training in the Agility arena with my dogs, yes, I'm grateful for these pioneers, but if we know something that works better, I owe it to my dogs to research it and check it out. And again, I have to thank Tom for this journey because he really has been a dog that has taught me to scrutinise what is going on with his training.


As I've written here in recent weeks, some dogs make us better trainers and people, many dogs are so forgiving we can stumble through our relationship with them and they will be so generous that we never have to look too closely at how we train. Tom pushes me way out of my comfort zone. And most days I'm okay with that.


If Skinner's Quadrants confuse you, you are not alone, and it isn't your fault. We use Positive Reinforcement to say this is how we train, and we don't like referring to ourselves as punishing our dogs. In the case of the Quadrants, Punishment simply refers to decreasing behaviour. The plus (+) or minus (-) in front of the R for reinforcement or P for Punishment merely means we are adding (+) or taking away (-), in order to increase (Reinforcement) or decrease (Punishment) behaviour. Confused? I bet. So let's just leave that argument because it is so ambiguous that I don't even see the value for most of us in the every day world of dog training. The upside is that we in the dog world now are talking about these words and how they can make life confusing and often creates judgement of others. We are now realising that unwanted behaviour can simply be an expression of our dog's unmet needs, we see the calming power of letting dogs do things like sniff out their food and the effect of letting dogs be dogs. We are becoming better observers and avoiding attaching labels to our dog's behaviour and this is great stuff for all of us, but especially for our dogs. The side effects of aversive techniques with our dogs is loss of relationship, escalation of the unwanted behaviour, withdrawal from training and even for phobias to develop. Fallout is real, I've lived through it, I won't go there again.


A few weeks ago I had a chat with a lovely friend who truly adores her dog, she gives back by fostering at times and called about a foster dog introduction that went wrong, a few minutes into the chat she said, 'she (the dog) just holds grudges when she doesn't get what she wants'. The dog was a large breed juvenile who had been through three homes in 15 months. If we reframed that and looked at the scenario again, we could see that the introduction was stressful. The dog has a history of resource guarding and yet toys were brought to the meet up, with very good intentions by the people involved. The dogs were taken to an area and released off leash and all in all it wasn't a great set up for success. And now you ask 'How does this connect back to the Quadrants?', it doesn't really and that is my point, because when we observe the environment, look at the best options for success, this dog was using what life experience she had in that situation. Is there a lot to work with? Yes, but we have to stop the anthropomorphism of behaviours and look at the dog in front of us and get less hung up on the labels attached to reinforcement. We all use punishment if we are going to lock ourselves into the Quadrants, non of us are only +R trainers if we are only looking at the Quadrants, it is impossible. However, if we can step away from them and consider calling what we do as Reward Based Training, we step away from the tension, confusion, labelling and become better observers, we might just meet the needs of our dogs on their terms.


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