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.