THE BLOG
03/11/2013 12:18 pm ET Updated May 11, 2013

Positive Reinforcement vs. Positive Thinking (And Why Pollyanna Would've Sucked at Dog Training)

The kind of dog training I do, and that I teach, goes by many names. Some call it "science-based" training, or "clicker training," or "progressive reinforcement training" (the latter term even has an entire branded manifesto). Most commonly, it is called "positive reinforcement training." That's fine with me, but the fact is that many people don't hear anything past the word "positive." The word so often stops people and sends them away. Hello, are you still reading this?

I think this is because the word "positive" can summon ideas of eyeroll-inducing gooiness, hearts and flowers and incense. All of that is fine, but it has nothing to do with dog training. That's why I so often find myself trying to explain to my clients that "positive reinforcement" has pretty much nothing to do with positive thinking or maintaining a good outlook. Otherwise said: Cynics can be very good positive reinforcement dog trainers.

I got to thinking about positive thinking after reading my friend Ruth Graham's Atlantic essay on the centennial of the book Pollyanna, which is about a chaffingly-optimistic little girl who goes around attempting to show everyone the bright side of horse poop. Ruth's piece wonders why Pollyanna's 100th birthday isn't being met with more fanfare, considering the fact that happiness is so friggin' in. She writes:

Her gladness is Gladwellian: It's not a state of mind, but rather a skill that becomes stronger with practice. As the freckled little guru herself put it, "When you're hunting for the glad things, you sort of forget the other kind." Welcome to the 21st century, Pollyanna. You'll fit right in.

I was raised by two very positive thinkers, both of whom have often been called Pollyanna, although that is neither of their names. My mom is so devoted to the adage that "there's always good that comes out of bad" that I used to suspect she thought the bad things happened so that good would come. My dad is more forward thinking in his positivity. He believes if he thinks good things, they will happen. If he's running late, for instance, he insists that if he imagines a cab coming, it will better the chances that it will appear. They are both aware that others sometimes mock their efforts to be positive. When I emailed them Ruth's article, each separately, dad signed his reply email Pollydada, and mom signed her's Mommyanna.

All this led to a confusing childhood where I'd attempt to picture good things happening, and then when they didn't, I'd work to see the good that came out of bad. This was an exhausting way to try to find contentedness in the quotidian. (Smoking is so much easier).

Indeed, I've grown resistant to this way of life as an adult, although it's something that I've tried. I've mouthed compliments and offered gratitude when I didn't really mean it. I've written inspirational notes and put them on my wall. I've tried to list reasons why something I don't want to do -- see a guy I'm not into, or finish an assignment that sucks -- is really good in more ways that it isn't. But, like my friend Ruth points out, it has always been more of an attempt at tool use than something stemming from an innately sunny outlook. And positivity is a tool with a variable success rate. Sometimes things just suck. And often, there really is no cab.

So, I feel a little funny when I suspect that a new client is trying to please me by saying something like, "I've been trying to stay positive." I might be a "positive reinforcement" dog trainer, but I operate in the realm of positive in the mathematical sense, rather than "positive" like trying to find the good in the fact that your dog doesn't come when called. As someone who spends an inordinate time cleaning up poop, I can tell you that one can be pretty grumpy much of the time and still have a well-behaved dog.

Positive, in the world of animal behavior, means adding something. Reinforcement means making something more likely to occur. So, "positive reinforcement" just means adding something to the equation to encourage that a behavior will happen again. We encourage the behaviors we like, and, by limiting the possible choices the animal has to make and using good timing and rewards, we can end up eradicating a lot of the stuff we don't like.

Of course, positive reinforcement isn't always used wisely. You can easily positively reinforce stuff that isn't nice -- stuff you don't like. For instance, when my neighbor's dog goes berserk, my neighbor yells at her. And the dog keeps barking. The fact that the behavior keeps happening means that it's somehow being reinforced. Of course, barking is reinforcing in and of itself. I'm pretty sure, if you're a dog, it feels good. But the yelling might also be positive reinforcement: To the dog, it likely seems like a dose of attention. Attention is being added to the equation -- yelling is the positive -- and it's bettering the chances that the barking will continue to go on. Likewise, feeding a dog from the table is "positive" because you're adding food to the dog's mouth. And encouraging the chances that he'll sit at the table and stare at you again at the next meal.

To make the wording of this kind of behavior speak even more confusing is the fact that there is also such a thing as positive punishment. Again, the "positive" here just means adding something. Imagine you were to call me something irksome. I don't know. A whore. A mean fatty. A Cesar Millan groupie. Whatever. Well, if the consequence to that behavior was me adding my knuckles to your cheek, that'd be a positive. And, if getting punched is something that will decrease the chance of you doing the preceding behavior (calling me a Cesar lover!), then my punch would be a form of positive punishment. Of course, if you liked being hit, then it'd only reinforce the behavior. For the masochist, punching may be a form of positive reinforcement.

But here's one point that Pollyanna had right. When you're thinking about good stuff, it's hard to also be thinking about bad stuff. So, I guess if you're thinking that about how much you love your dog, you're not also thinking about the fact that he peed your bed. I guess that's one way to deal with the problem.

This post originally appeared on TheDogs.

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