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The science of words. Or is it the words of science?

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Here’s a puzzle for you based on the “Stroop Effect”

Name the colors of the following words.  Don’t read the words; name the colors.  For example, you would say red, blue, green, if you were going across the top line.


How did you do?  It’s hard!  That’s because our brain is wired to read words over processing colors; we’re forcing our brains into an uncomfortable position.

Which is how I feel about the four quadrants.  Let’s look:

Positive?   Science says to GIVE something to the dog!   And the average, English speaking, human brain? The brain says that positive means GOOD.

Negative? Science says to TAKE something!  And the average English speaking human brain?  The word negative means BAD.

Reinforcement?   The average human brain says it’s something we like, regardless of the effect on our behavior.  And science?   Well, not so much.  It’s defined by its effect on behavior.  If the behavior increases then it’s reinforcement.   Otherwise, nope.

How about Punishment?   The average human brain says it’s something that we want to avoid regardless of the effect.   And science? It’s not punishment, no matter how much the dog doesn’t like it, if it doesn’t decrease behavior.

Now, add the pluses and minuses to the reinforcement and punishment and you have fodder for hours of human brain puzzles.

This inherent contradiction between our innate use of language to organize the world and the words that represent the four quadrants will never go away.  It will never get better.  The struggle will continue until dog trainers internalize that we are torturing college students, future trainers and random pet people alike. And, in my opinion, to no particular benefit. Note that I said “torture” rather than punishing – that’s my nod to science cause…it’s not having the desired effect.  They don’t develop enough fluency with the concept to make it useful to their training.  They just suffer.

If you care, and you spend a lot of time working at it, you can override your natural inclination to apply the relevant word connotations, and actually master the quadrants.   Unfortunately, when things get weird, for example, a forced retrieve is negative reinforcement, then you will probably always spend a few seconds, or minutes, chewing on it before you get the right answer.

As applied trainers, there are other approaches that may work a whole lot better.

I ask myself three questions:

1. Is the dog engaged or disengaged?

2. Is the dog content or distressed?

3 Am I getting closer to my behavior goal?

If any of those are answered no, then I have a problem. I need to take a good look at my training and figure out what needs to change.

If you use the quadrants to get you to the same result, then all is well.  But if keeping the quadrants straight in your head is taking so much energy that you have nothing left for dog training?  Consider changing your approach.

If I had it my way, the four quadrants would disappear off the face of the earth. But since that’s not going to happen,  I’ll just offer up my solution.

It works for me. Maybe it will work for you.

About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.

13 responses »

  1. The most common sense 3 points I have ever come across. Thank you. I always struggled with the quadrant. As you say to the detriment of any training. Excellent points.

    Sharon Dunn 07722 002468

  2. Well said and well thought out!

  3. Love it! Makes way more sense especially when you are in the moment of training. Our dogs won’t understand that we have to check our notes to figure out which way to go. Then we will definitely have a “disengaged” dog!

  4. The struggle is real? I thought I was the only one whose brain had to work so hard to keep this straight each and every time I tried to explain it

  5. Ack…the four quadrants cause me to become distressed, anxious, and to shut down. Thanks Denise for simplifying to ask the correct questions to achieve the goal!

  6. Beautiful, lucid and practical. Brava!

    Ellie Beals 613-727-8329 (phone)

  7. It’s actually pretty normal than words mean something different to scientists than they mean to public. I learned the scientific meaning of many English words (like “shear”) before I understood what they mean in everyday language.
    Scientific training is probably why I’ve never had problem with conceptualizing the dreaded quadrants, but I also never use them when talking to people without any background in behavior. (But I’ll correct people who say “negative reinforcement” and mean “positive punishment”).
    One can be a great dog sport trainer without ever hearing about operant conditioning. But I’m very suspicious of people who attempt to do behavior modification for fear, aggression etc without even getting the terminology right.

    • Kasia, I have a severe problems with plain and well understood English terms being used for something entirely different in any discipline.
      In English “punishment’ is the consequence of the behaviour — whether it works of not is not involved in the meaning of the word itself. From the Macquarie Dictionary: “Punishment: to subject to a penalty, or to pain, loss, confinement , death, etc., for some offence, transgression or fault: to handle severely or roughly, as in a fight.” (Chamber’s and Oxford Dictionaries have similar definitions.)
      It was very unfortunate that Skinner’s command of English was so poor that he used the word to mean ‘suppression’ of a behaviour, or reduction of the occurrence of a behaviour. You should not blame ordinary people understanding English as she is spoken. We ALL know that punishment usually doesn’t work – people still speed, criminals re-offend, children are still rude and defiant, etc.

  8. I’ve had no trouble understanding the ‘quadrants’ — but by and large I do not think they are helpful. Basically they are terms best confined to ‘research’ papers — if for no other reason than a simple action on our (trainer/parent/spouse/teacher) part can fit into several different quadrants depending on the outcome perceived. Say I have trained my dog to no longer fence run. Have I positively rewarded engaging in the alternate behaviour, or negatively punished the fence running? I could write a chapter with examples, but will resist the impulse.

  9. Very much yes. A few days ago I bumped into a text file I posted in 2015:

    “The idea of quadrants is defined on top of the idea of “A -> B -> C”.
    A-B-C is the point where everyone should be able to agree … Antecedent – Behaviour – Consequence. These have a clear meaning and interpretation.

    But you don’t need necessarily to take the step from A-B-C towards the idea of quadrants.

    We talk about quadrants because A-B-C applies to *every procedure equally*, but we want to be able to distinguish somehow between leash jerking and rewarding, and other similar comparisons.

    You could instead go with, eg:
    – Force … identify if we are using it … from dragging with a leash to teaching drop near a wall or chair. Where and how are we constraining choices?
    – Motivation … identify how we are creating it. From avoiding an electric fence through to training using dinner.
    – Emotion … what associations are we creating before during and after ‘training’.
    – and more … Arousal level, frustration, behavioural side-effects, …”

    A ‘quadrant’ is only (assumed to be) shorthand for these things.
    Sometimes that works out ok.
    Sometimes we need better concepts.

  10. Love have you can take the difficult peel away get to the core , rearrange make it simpler to understand
    I have struggled for years with the jargon , felt stupid because no matter how I tried it didn’t feel natural to me but I could train a dog lol

    I have never understood why every specialized group has its own words and meaning
    Yet if you put 10 specialized people in a room you are likely to get 20 meanings for the same words
    Language is supposed to make it clear but that doesn’t seem to be so
    I know if I ask for a definition or what is meant people get upset

    I have finally gotten to the point where in my mind training anything should be logical feel right might feel new and even hard to do but it feels right
    So if it’s not logical doesn’t feel right I just don’t do it

    So thank you for saying this I think you are SPOT ON

  11. Hi Denise,
    I really love the way you ak yourself these 3 questions instead of using the 4 quadrants (not an easy model to go by).
    Would you mind my quoting you on FB pages that deal with horse training?


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