About authors

Image of partner

Betty´s Tiertraining

This article was written by TOBALIE in cooperation with Betty´s Tiertraining

Have you ever asked yourself the question how your pet learns best? There are different methods, but which one is best suited to train your pet in a species-appropriate way? Learn the principles of learning theory here: 

The four quadrants…

First of all, it should be mentioned that in modern, scientifically based training we only use the quadrants of positive reinforcement  (clicker training) and partly of negative punishment. Positive and negative here are not meant as good or bad, but in terms of mathematics: positive =something is added, negative =something is taken away.

Basically, there are four different “methods” for training in learning theory: 
good, with caution, bad 

  • With positive reinforcement, something pleasant is added. The emotion why the animal is motivated to behave is joy. For example, the animal gets a treat, its favourite toy or a lot of praise.
  • With negative reinforcement, something unpleasant is removed. The animal has the emotion of relief. An example would be: hand pushes the back of the dog to the ground, the dog sits down, then the hand is pulled away. The unpleasant feeling is removed and the animal is relieved.
  • In case of negative punishment, something pleasant is removed. This means, for example, that the animal is deprived of the expected attention. The feeling of disappointment is caused by this.
  • With the positive punishment something unpleasant is added. This is the “classical” punishment that is colloquially spoken about. The emotion behind it is fear, pain or uncertainty.

You can see that only with positive reinforcement pleasant feelings arise in the animal. It has long been proven that under fear you cannot make clear decisions and does not remember things. How do you feel when someone threatens you and you have to solve a task? This is how it works with our pet. Only in security and with joyful feeling they can think rationally, understand and remember what they have learned. At the same time you should clarify what reinforcements and what punishments are.

Reinforcements and punishments in the learning theory

Reinforcements motivate desirable behaviour and are seen as a reward. In contrast to this, you would like to have a certain behaviour reduced by the use of a punishment. But in terms of a species-appropriate education/learning experience, positive reinforcers should always be used.

 However, the respective living being always defines what constitutes an reinforcement (or punishment) for him/her. A word of praise is often a reward for us humans, but this does not automatically have to be the case with animals. If the desired behaviour is not shown more often, the reward we have chosen is not a good reward for the respective animal or is not of high enough quality and another reinforcement must be sought.

The same applies to the punishment. For example, many people “shove” the dogs away when they jump up on them. For one thing, this is very frightening for some dogs and should not be the method of choice. But for many dogs it is a “funny game”, where they get the attention they are hoping for from us humans. So the “punishment” chosen by humans is a reward for the dog and the behaviour will be shown more often. The most sensible thing would be to reward “four paws on the ground” (pos. reinforcement). Ignoring the jumping up would be the negative punishment in this case according to the learning theory.

Put yourself in your animal’s place and think about what would be a reward in the respective situation. If the desired behaviour is then shown more often, you are on the right way.

The reward – reinforcements

Now what are positive reinforcements? They can be divided into primary and secondary reinforcements. Primary reinforcements are for example food, water or social contacts. Secondary reinforcements must first be learned by the animal, such as certain search games. The primary usually satisfies the needs, while the secondary announces a reward. Example: The clicker (secondary booster) or the handle of the treat bag announces the primary booster (food). 

Banner App

The right sequence and perfect timing

The MO-A-B-C sequence can be used as a guide to the order in which things follow each other, which is important for the training sections.

  • Motivation Operations: Conditions that make or inhibit the reinforcements more valuable. For a hungry dog is food, for a shelter dog it is more valuable to be able to run. A stressed dog can learn less and has less motivation.
  • Antecedence: Design training conditions in such a way that the desired behaviour becomes more probable.
  • Behaviour: The behaviour that the animal should show.
  • Consequence: Consequences – reinforcement favours behaviour, punishment reduces behaviour = 4 quadrants

Timing is also very important when a reward is used. Therefore, working with a marker signal or a “clicker” that announces the reward is especially helpful. EVERY click is followed by a reward, with the demands on the click increasing continuously. Thus, the desired behaviours are broken down by the animal into small steps and either trained one after the other or the individual parts are trained separately and finally put together into a behavioural chain.

lernverhalten welpen


The training with our animals can be a great challenge for us humans. In the learning theory there are four quadrants, whereby the positive reinforcement is the most species-appropriate. With joy and fun in the thing, it learns itself still best. Have fun while training.