Canine Psychology & Shaping Behavior: Part 5 – The Motivation Matrix

Required pre-watching:

The Motivation Matrix (or Shaping Behavior Matrix) is far from a new concept, in fact, it has been around for about 100 years. Another name that you may know it by is Operant Conditioning. We can thank B.F. Skinner for that lovely term, Skinner was a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University from 1959 to 1974. He completed his PhD in psychology at Harvard in 1931 and coined the term in 1937. Despite its longevity in psychology circles, it is still widely misunderstood by the vast majority of dog trainers in China. It is therefore not surprising that owners struggle even more, and are often confused by trainers spouting “positive only training techniques programs”.

The very first thing we need to understand is Positive and Negative are NOT talking about Good and Bad. In this context they are used in the mathematical sense: Positive means to add something and Negative means to take something away. This video takes a look at each of the four Quadrants of the Motivation Matrix and provides clear, simple hooman and canine examples that will help you to understand how each quadrant works from the perspective of your dog.

Let’s go through them one by one.

Positive Reinforcement

We are using positive here in the mathematical sense, that is, we are adding something to the outcome that reinforces the behavior. It is NOT using positive as a synonym for “good”. What we add is a beneficial/appetitive outcome, something that the dog likes and values, which makes it more likely to exhibit the behavior again.

Hooman example:

You get a big bonus at work – the bonus was added to your standard work salary to shape your behavior to work harder in the future.

Canine example 1:

Your dog gets a treat after doing a reliable quick “sit” – the treat is over and above its normal food supply and adds a beneficial and valued outcome that makes the dog want to do that same kind of reliable quick “sit” in the future.

Canine example 2:

Your dog gets let into the bedroom after whining and scratching at the bedroom door. Being let into the bedroom shapes its behavior to whine and scratch at the bedroom door more in the future. The reinforcement here in this example is access to you, more of which was added to the outcome by being let in to the room.

Negative Reinforcement

We are using negative here in a mathematical sense, that is, we are taking away/withholding something expected that reinforces the behavior. It is NOT using negative as a synonym for “bad”. What we withhold or take away is an expected aversive outcome, something that the dog knows and doesn’t like, which makes it more likely to exhibit the behavior again.

Hooman example 1:

Next year’s insurance premium is reduced due to good driving this year. By withholding part the expected fee of next year’s car insurance premium, the insurance company is reinforcing your good behavior (driving) this year, and makes you want to continue your good driving.

Canine example 1:

A dog is in a stressful/difficult situation and is behaving badly, the owner either takes away the dog from the stressful situation, or the stressful stimuli is taken away (see my Postman example in the next video), the dog’s bad behavior is reinforced by having the stressful thing go away, therefore will be more likely to exhibit that poor behavior again.

Canine example 2:

A dog is pulling against its head harness, this is making walking awkward and/or putting pressure on its neck, when the dogs slows down and doesn’t pull, the pressure against its neck is immediately removed and walking becomes normal. Not pulling on head harness is therefore reinforced.

Professional trainers argue that last example constantly. Was it the initial increase in pressure and discomfort (Positive Punishment, which is discussed in the next quadrant) that shaped the behavior of pulling less, or was it the release of pressure (Negative Reinforcement) that shaped the behavior to pull less? In my professional opinion, I believe it was both. However, when we consider a dogs mental capabilities, its short attention span, relatively weak ability to link multiple things together, I guesstimate that it was 80% Negative Reinforcement and 20% Positive Punishment that shaped the behavior. Why? Several reasons:

Reason 1:

The dog will learn more deeply from the most recent “stimuli-behavior-outcome” chain of events that enters its brain – which in this case is the release of pressure. We must remember that if the pressure was already occurring for more than 5 seconds, then the dog is already focused on the pressure and its release, not the initial increase.

Reason 2:

The dog will learn more by understanding what is the correct behavior to exhibit (not pulling) as opposed to being told what is wrong. In this situation the release in pressure on the neck shows the dog that not pulling is the wanted behavior.

Positive Punishment

We are using positive here in a mathematical sense, that is, we are adding something to the outcome that punishes the behavior. It is not using Positive as a synonym for “good”. What we add here is an aversive outcome, something that the dog doesn’t like, which makes it less likely to exhibit the behavior again.

Hooman example:

Being scolded by your boss for poor performance. Since you don’t like being scolded by your boss, he/she is adding an aversive to the outcome of your performance review, therefore, you are less likely to exhibit the poor performance again in the future (because you don’t want to be scolded again)

Canine example 1:

Your dog is doing something that you deem unsafe, therefore you holler a very loud firm AAAHHH!!! Assuming this is something that the dog does not like, it is a form of punishment and is less likely to exhibit the unsafe behavior again.

Other canine examples:

A raised eyebrow, a hard stare, a smack on the bum, a short sharp collar correction, being stung by a bee when investigating the bushes, being hit by a car when running out on the road, getting a plastic bag stuck on its head when rooting through rubbish etc etc. The list goes on.

From the owners perspective, we need to be super aware about how we are administering any kind of Positive Punishment. We need to understand that the punishment needs to be delivered in a structured, reasonable, extremely punctual way so that the dog has the opportunity to learn from the outcome. If we don’t follow these rules and we fail in this regard it will more than likely result in the dog developing a fear of that thing instead of learning from that thing. Fear based learning, as we all know, doesn’t work, so when considering this third quadrant we need to appreciate there is nothing “wrong” with this quadrant, but it’s about how you apply it in any given scenario that makes it effective and humane, or not.

Negative Punishment

We are using negative here in a mathematical sense, that is, we are taking away/withholding something expected that causes the behavior to weaken. It is NOT using negative as a synonym for “bad”. What we withhold or take away is a beneficial or valued outcome, something that the dog knows and likes, which makes it less likely to exhibit the behavior again. We use this to reduce unwanted behavior.

Hooman example 1:

You do something society doesn’t approve of or want, so you are sent to jail. Having your freedom taken away will result in you thinking twice about exhibiting that behavior again.

Canine example 1:

The dog is dragging you down the street to get to the dog park which is just around the corner. Instead of letting it get what it wants (which would be positively reinforcing the unwanted behavior of dragging you down the street) we turn around and go back in the other direction towards home. The dog is now moving further away from what it wants, its pulling behavior resulted in the beneficial outcome of the dog park, being taken away.

Canine example 2:

You tell the dog to sit (it knows how to sit, you have taught it how to sit a hundred times) it looks at you and gives you a slack, lazy, slow sit after first ignoring you for 5 seconds. Instead of giving it the training treat that you normally give it, you withhold the treat. We are withholding the beneficial outcome of the treat, which makes the dog less likely to deliver a slack, lazy, slow sit next time.

Some key things to keep in mind as you digest your way through this video and article:

If you want to teach a new behavior (this includes modifying an unwanted behavior to something useful – more on that later) or increase the intensity or frequency of a behavior, you should be using Positive Reinforcement and Negative Reinforcement. If you want to reduce the intensity or frequency of a behavior or eradicate it all together, you should be using Positive Punishment and Negative Punishment.

Generally speaking, using the four quadrants in concert get the fastest and most reliable results when looking to shape behavior over the long term.

Again, all the examples given throughout the video and article need to be considered from the dog’s perspective, not a human perspective. We must not forget that the dog’s attention span, ability to deduce relationship or link together patterns is far far far weaker than humans. Subsequently, we must break down any learning we do with our dog into very very very small bite size chunks that they can process and understand in their own wonderful, beautiful way.

Finally, no one knows your dog better than you. What motivates your dog and makes it happy, what demotivates your dog and makes it unhappy are things that only the owner really knows. Every dog and every family structure is unique. Chateau Canine’s goal is to give you a basic but strong framework in canine psychology so that you can identify and tackle most problems on your own.

If you get to the end of this article and feel a bit overwhelmed, don’t worry, this is entirely normal. It is very common to have trouble taking on board all these elements the first time around. Go grab a cuppa and sit back down and watch it all again, the second time around you will get a much better handle on it.


Found this article interesting or useful even? Support our CSR efforts by taking a look at Chateau Canine’s Social Responsibility Initiatives and see how you can change a street dog’s life, just by buying a toy / treat / food for your own dog! That sounds Barking Awesome doesn’t it 😉

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