Gentle Leader Head Collar: Reinforcement or Punishment?

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Dr. Sophia Yin, DVM, MS
R.I.P. 1966-2014

Download the Operant Conditioning poster.

(from How to Behave So Your Dog Behaves by Dr. Sophia Yin)

A reader who uses Gentle Leader head collars regularly in training recently asked me about the use of the head collar. States the reader, “I have gotten myself totally confused and need help sorting it out. What category of operant conditioning does the head collar use fall under? Negative punishment? Positive reinforcement? Negative Reinforcement? Positive punishment?”

You might think that being able to correctly determine the category of operant conditioning is just a scientific exercise; however, it’s much more than that. For instance, say you read an ad for a product that says it uses negative reinforcement to stop an unwanted behavior, when the product actually uses positive punishment. The fact that the product manufacturer can’t get the categories correct indicates that they did not have educated behaviorists guiding the development of their product.

While many people are immediately perplexed when they hear the word operant conditioning, it turns out that the principles and categories are actually straightforward. That’s because operant conditioning, or trial and error learning, is simply a description of how animals learn—a description that requires a few important definitions.

Reinforcement vs Punishment

The first two definitions to know are reinforcement and punishment. Reinforcement is anything that increases the likelihood that a behavior will occur again. For instance, if you call your dog and then give him a treat when he comes, he will be more likely to come the next time you call. Thus, by giving him a treat for coming, you reinforce his behavior of coming when called.

Punishment is anything that decreases the likelihood that a behavior will occur again. For instance, if you call your dog and then yell and scream at him when he comes, he will be less likely to come the next time you call. Thus, by yelling at him, you punish his behavior of coming when called. This second scenario may seem an unlikely event, but it happens to people every day. When owners call Rover five or six times before he comes running and then yell at him for taking his time, they are really punishing him for coming when called.

Positive vs Negative

The second set of terms to know are positive and negative. Positive and negative do not mean good or bad; instead, think of them as a plus sign or a minus sign. Positive means that you’re adding something, and negative means you’re subtracting something. Positive and negative can be applied to both reinforcement and punishment.

Combining the Terms

Now we can combine the terms into four categories—positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment. Here’s what the categories are:

Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Reinforcement can be positive or negative. In either case, we are increasing the likelihood the behavior will occur again. Positive reinforcement means that by adding something the animal wants, you increase the likelihood that the behavior will occur again. For instance, if you teach your dog to come to you by giving him a treat when he comes, you’re using positive reinforcement. By giving him food, which he likes, you’re increasing the likelihood that he will come to you the next time too.

Negative reinforcement means that by removing something aversive, something Fido dislikes, you increase the likelihood the behavior will occur again. For example, you decide to teach Fido to come by putting him on a leash and choke chain. You pull on his leash until he takes a step forward, and as soon as he comes forward, you release the pressure. That is using negative reinforcement. By removing the pressure as soon as he starts coming, you increase the likelihood that he will come the next time in order to avoid the pulling.

Another trick for remembering negative reinforcement is to think of it as nagging. When I was a child and my mother wanted me clean my room, she often had to keep telling me until I cleaned it. I would finally clean my room in order to avoid her aversive nagging.

Positive and Negative Punishment

Punishment can be positive or negative, too. In either case we are decreasing the likelihood the behavior will occur again.  It seems odd, but when we talk about punishment, we’re usually talking about positive punishment. Positive punishment just means that by adding something aversive, we decrease the likelihood that the behavior will occur again. For instance, your dog raids the garbage can when you’re not looking, so you booby-trap the garbage with mousetraps. The next time Spot sticks his nose in search of a snack, he gets a mousetrap surprise, which scares him. This booby trap decreases the likelihood that he will raid the garbage can again; thus, it is positive punishment.

Negative punishment means that by removing something the animal wants, we decrease the likelihood that the behavior will occur again. For instance, when dogs greet us by jumping, their goal is to get our attention. If we remove our attention every time Spot jumps by holding perfectly still and even looking away, eventually he will stop jumping. By removing the attention that he wanted, we decrease the likelihood that he will jump again.

How to Classify Techniques in a Methodical Manner

These terms seem straightforward so far, but often when you start classifying techniques in real life, things suddenly get confusing. The reason for the confusion is that some techniques may fall into more than one category, depending on how you describe the behavior and the technique. In order to avoid confusion, you have to approach this classification in a methodical way.

  1. Step 1: Define the behavior. For example, if the behavior you want to change is your dog’s overexuberant greeting behavior, you may say, “I hate the jumping behavior,” or “I prefer he greet by sitting.” So in general we usually have two behaviors from which to choose—one we want to increase and one we want to decrease.
  2. Step 2: Next decide whether you want to increase or decrease that behavior. If you want to increase the behavior, you will, by definition, use reinforcement. If you want to decrease the behavior, you will, by definition, use punishment. For instance, if you dislike the jumping behavior and want to stop it, you’ll be using punishment (positive or negative punishment). If you’re going to train him to perform the alternate appropriate behavior of sitting, you will be using reinforcement (positive or negative reinforcement).
  3. Step 3: Lastly, decide whether you’re adding something or subtracting something to determine if you’re using something positive or negative. If you yank the dog’s collar to make him stop jumping, what are you using? You’re adding an aversive to decrease the behavior, so you are using positive punishment (Note: I’m not advocating that you yank the dog’s collar; I’m just using this as an example). If, instead, you remove the attention that he wants in order to decrease the behavior, what type of punishment are you using? You’re using negative punishment, because you’re removing something he wants in order to decrease his jumping behavior. That is, you’re removing the reward for the undesirable behavior. If you wait until the dog sits and then increase this sitting behavior by giving him a treat that he wants, you are using positive reinforcement. If you hook Fido up to a leash and choke chain and step on it so that it tightens until he sits and then release the pressure immediately when he sits, you’re using negative reinforcement.

Now we’re ready to tackle the original reader question. What category of operant conditioning are you using when you use a Gentle Leader® head collar?  It turns out that it depends on how you use the collar. For instance, say my dog sees food on the ground and makes a beeline for it. I react by holding completely still with the leash-holding hand firmly against my side (or more realistically, I’m wearing a hands free leash). When Fido gets to the end of the leash he pulls and pulls for 10 seconds, gets nowhere, and then realizes he can’t get to the food. Then he stops pulling and takes a step back so that the leash is hanging loose. Following the steps described above here’s how we would figure out the category of operant conditioning.

1.     First decide what the behavior is. You may define the behavior as pulling on leash, the behavior you don’t like. Or some people may define the behavior as stepping closer to you so he’s on a loose leash (note that “stops pulling” or ‘not pulling” does not count as a good behavioral description). In the case we are describing here, the behavior we are really focused on is the pulling towards the food on the ground.

2.     Next, determine if you want to increase or decrease the behavior of interest.  In this case I want to stop the pulling. Consequently, the category of operant conditioning will be, by definition, punishment.

3.     Third, figure out if you are adding something or removing something to decrease the pulling. The trick here is that you need to remember what the definitions are when you make this decision. With positive punishment, you are specifically adding something aversive (that the dog dislikes—because it’s uncomfortable or causes pain or is just annoying) in order to stop the behavior. With negative punishment, you are specifically removing something the dog wants or removing the ability to get to something the animal wants. In the particular case of the dog stops pulling because he realizes he can’t get to the food. So the category of operant conditioning we are using when we use the Gentle Leader in this manner is negative punishment. If on the other hand we stopped the pulling by having the dog wear a pinch collar and yanking really hard then we are adding an aversive to decrease the pulling behavior; we would be using positive punishment.

But this isn’t the only way that one can use a Gentle Leader® head collar. Let’s say that you have a dog who is staring at a cat and is about to take off in a chase. Before he has a chance, you guide his head towards you  so that you can get him to focus on you. When he is looking towards you, you immediately release the guidance and pressure. Then you can engage him in a game such as targeting and reward him for that. Let’s go through the process again.

First we define the behavior. In this case I’m using the Gentle Leader® to increase the dog’s focus on me. So the behavior of interest for me is attention on me.

Next, determine if you want to increase or decrease the behavior. We’ve already stated that my goal is to increase the focus on me, so by definition I’m using reinforcement.

Lastly determine if you are adding something the dog dislikes or removing something he wants. Remember that positive reinforcement is adding something the dog wants in order to increase the behavior. Negative reinforcement involves removing something aversive in order to increase the behavior. And, with negative reinforcement, it’s essential to remove the aversive right as the dog performs the correct behavior. In this case, we are removing the aversive pressure in order to increase the behavior of focusing on us. So, in this case, the use of GL head collar is negative reinforcement.

One point to note is that negative reinforcement can be highly aversive or mildly aversive depending on what is used.  For instance, someone could abruptly drag  or yank a dog by its head collar in anger until the dog was looking and then release pressure. That could be scary and painful to the dog. Alternatively, one can guide quickly but in a gentle manner without yanking or dragging the dog such that the dog wasn’t scared or feeling pain. This is the way I prefer. So just because the category is negative reinforcement instead of positive punishment, doesn’t make it a friendlier technique. When I use the Gentle Leader head collar, I train owners how to guide the dog in a way that’s clear and not scary for the dog. For instance, we often start by luring with treats to help guide the dog. Then we quickly switch to rewarding the focus with food.

It’s that simple

So there you have it. A fool-proof method for categorizing methods into the proper category of operant conditioning. Now it’s your turn. Think of various techniques you use or interactions you have throughout the day and see if you can categorize them into the correct category of operant conditioning. You can find more practice questions in How To Behave So Your Dog Behaves.

Download the Operant Conditioning poster.

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5 responses to “Gentle Leader Head Collar: Reinforcement or Punishment?

  1. Excellent explanation, Dr. Yin! Many people, including trainers struggle with this. I like the fact that you pointed out how positive punishment can be mildly aversive, as in this example with the Gentle Leader since many force-free positive reinforcement trainers use this or similar tools.

  2. Dr. Yin, Great post. In fact that question has been bugging me for years and I posted it elsewhere.

    We know nowadays that ultimately we need to focus on rewarding behaviors we want, or we end up getting mired down in an emotional and physical spiral with the dog; and at the least begin to sound like the Gary Larson cartoon of endless “no” “no” ‘no”. But somehow trainers are forgetting that to get to a rewardable behavior, other parts of the quadrant comes into play automatically, whether one wants them to or not.

    I’m a little confused, however, when you indicate that the consequence of the GL is different from the consequence of the prong, ie, P- vs P+, respectively. While there is certainly a difference in intensity and duration of the physical pressure on the animal in your example. However, IMO, your examples aren’t a helpful comparison when trying to understand the answer to your question, where does the use of the GL fall in the quadrant. You might consider the proper use of the prong as you already have with the GL.

    You write in your example that you consider the GL reponse to be P- because you guide the head toward you and take the dog away from the cat. (I might add that it could be seen as a P+ at the moment forward movement is stopped, but that is another comment.) In the case of the prong you don’t mention the redirect as an alternative; you just state that the prong is yanked.

    In that case the yanking would be a P+. In actuality, however, the use of the prong really should be treated equally to the GL because that is the intent of people who use it (I’m going to ignore the smaller percentage of training idiots, not to mention the people who say that the GL causes neck problems; guess how they are using it.) Not to do so just confuses the issue and focuses on the equipment to determine the place in the quadrant , GL=P- and that nasty prong is a P+, rather than on the proper use of any piece of equipment. Equipment should make getting desired behavior easier and more probable for both dog and handler so that it can be rewarded.

    With the prong most people use it the same way as a GL by directing the dog from the unwanted behavior to the desired one, and this can be done without “yanking”; although the next time some adolescent Lab yanks me off my feet, I’ll need to remind him of what I have just written. Whether one guides, waits or yanks, using any equipment just makes it more possible to train efficiently and effectively in situations that might be out of the range of the training level of the dog and physical mobility of the handler. Therefore, pressure on the head or neck should be defined by the consequence not by the equipment, nor imagined use of it.

    I am sure you know that the proper use of equipment, vilification of trainers who use this or that piece of equipment or food or clicker or don’t, and moral pronouncements about which section of the quadrant should be used has everyone confused; consequently, many trainers mis-speak what they actually do. No wonder the public is left scratching their heads.

    I really appreciate all the work you do to bring good training into the public sphere, and never worry about recommending your work to my public. In fact I believe I will be meeting you in Walnut Creek on March 10 and will be front row.

  3. Psychological state is definitely a factor. Aversives create negative emotional states. That’s how they work. They create fear and intense dislike. That’s why loud sounds can be used as negative reinforcement or positive punishment even if they don’t hurt the ears. They can cause variable amounts of fear in some dogs.

    Then the question, is, is restriction a huge aversive as it is the aversiveness of the restriction that’s decreasing the behavior or the removal of the aversiveness that increases the behavior? So is restricting the dog from getting somewhere a big aversive that will stop a dog from doing something because of its aversive nature?. Fo instance, by adding a leash /collar restriction would you train a dog to stop running up to a person he wants to greet or stationary cat he wants to chase (I’m switching to a this example because it makes more sense for people trying to imagine the situation, especially since we are not following with positive reinforcement methods in this example ) because the leash collar restriction is aversive or he’s scared/dislikes it?(positive punishment) (insert the word GL head collar in this example after you’ve though about it with regular collar first). Or is he likely giving up because he’s learned he can’t get to it when on leash because you’ve held completely still so he knows’ he’s not moving closer and you are not accidentally increasing arousal by moving a lot? (negative punishment).
    In the past, this type of dog could pull and pull and keep pulling owner to get to things he want to get to and continued to do so because owner inconsistently walked or moved towards the object (or dog perceives it can get closer because sometimes it can) . This dog’s behavior doesn’t change until the owner switches to the standing stationary type of training where the dog can figure out that nothing is happening and he really truly is not getting closer to the person or squirrel. E..g.the pulling is not working. So in this case, the leash or head collar is not actually aversive. In this case, weighing which factor is more important: neg punishment vs positive punishment—> I’d say negative punishment was the more important factor. You could make a case on paper for both, but in reality one factor in this situation (-P) is more important than the other. On the other hand, if the dog is showing signs of FEAR then perhaps the owner was using the GL in a way to CAUSE fear. (e.g. not just standing stationary) OR the owner has not properly trained the dog to enjoy wearing the GL head collar (DS and CC). So it IS always important to watch body language and response of the dog.

    In your question about why the dog chooses not to chase: he could also just be in a crate and decide he can’t get to the cat. If you consider restriction to be an aversive (causing pain, dislike/fear) that decrease the behavior, you would call crating a dog to prevent chewing items outside the crate or chasing the cat that’s in the room , or trying to get to a ball outside it’s crate, positive punishment. More likely a dog in a crate that does not paw and scratch at the crate to get to something outside the crate has learned by negative punishment that pawing and scratching at the crate do not make the ball come closer. E.g they do not lead to the expected reward. (-P which is synonymous with extinction

  4. Dr Yin, fantastic post! I have been directed here by a fellow trainer (in th USA) as we are having this discussion on a chat forum.
    Can I ask you thoughts on a couple of points you have made please?
    1) when determining behaviour, do you focus only on that which is ‘physically’ aversive to the dog, or do you also consider psychological?
    2) If the answer is psychological, would you consider that, despite the redirecting and rewarding for handler-focus in the ‘cat-spotting for a cat chaser’ scenario, at the moment the dog sees/hears/smells the cat (emphasis on the ‘dog’, not owner), if he is truly a cat chaser, then the ‘initial’ reason he choses not to break into a physical chase is owing the fact that he is aware of the restrictive capacity of the GL should he chose to do so?
    The chase behaviour may then not ‘physically’ manifest itself, and instead we have a cued or conditioned ‘focus’ behaviour. But does this remove the fact that the desire to chase has been prevented on an ’emotional/psychological’ level? If not, then by decreasing the chase (psychologically) or increasing the stay-focus (physically) by either introducing the GL, or introducing reward, it appears that the ‘entire’ behavioural picture uses both P+ and R+ elements doesn’t it?
    Surely the true way to test whether the GL is carrying P+ strength, is to remove it in the example given, and see what the behavioural option of the dog is? If he stays and gives focus, we’re training with R+. If he breaks into chase, we are training with P+ and R+ respectively!
    Much interpretation is based on how we would like to perceive our actions when training, over what they truly are I would suggest?
    Thank you for what you have shared with us Dr Yin! The manners minder is genius!

  5. Hi Dr. Yin,
    this is Evon here from Singapore.

    I’ve been reading your blog and I have found many articles very helpful. I’m a first time dog owner with a mini poodle, 1 year old, super hyper and sadly with a serious case of separation anxiety. He panicks and barks like nobody’s business when me and my husband leaves home, comes home or goes to bed (he sleeps out in the living room in his bed since puppy). And because of that, we also haven’t been able to fully have him toilet-trained. He pees and poo at the right place when we are at home, but when we are away or in bed we come back to a whole kitchen full of pee and poo on the floor. And the pee pan is untouched.

    I have made my purchase of Manners Minder, but I do just want to find out with this equipment would I be able to help train my dog to pee-poo at the right place when we are asleep in the bedroom or when away? I assume the toilet training failed because of his separation anxiety. Does it mean that when we leave, he can be calm and not show signs of separation anxiety anymore it will also solve the toilet training problem?

    I hope you don’t mind my questions, cos I’m really at my wits-end with my dog’s anxiety problem, nowadays hosting guests are such a pain cos of him as he barks excessively at any guests that comes through the door. Even my mom doesn’t dare to visit me. 🙁

    So I’m really dream of a calmer and happier dog that eliminates at his rightful place, less cleaning up etc.

    I read many good reviews and was super excited about how it helped many dog owners and even how dog therapist uses it to help dogs. But I haven’t seen or read a success case online of a separation anxiety issue upon using Manners Minder. So I’m asking because I just needed more understanding to how Manners Minder can meet my needs specifically in this area. And I’m really hoping this purchase would be “IT” to solving my dog’s anxiety problem.

    Thank you Dr. Yin!! smile
    Grateful for your advice.

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