My Beauce Shepherd is now 9 months old. We have followed some behaviour education classes with a personal trainer and everything went very well. Before the dog would do as he wanted and now, he just listens really well!

From the trainer's suggestions, some behaviours were reinforced positively, and some negatively. The problem we are having now is with the behaviours we reinforced negatively. We are using a metal box to make a sound. The dog hates it and obeys. It is always used after a "no" as a second sanction. Everything works perfectly, and now we do not need to use the box any more as he behaves correctly.

The problem is that we think we will need to replace the box with something else as he's now learnt that if we don't have the box, there won't be any sound and so he engages in the unwanted behavior. It is starting to be a problem as we need to carry the box everywhere now, because if we don't have it he will use the opportunity.

Is there a way we can rectify this by replacing the box with our body or something?

Note: He has been desexed a month ago and he is testing us a bit less but still does it when we don't have the box handy.

Thank you!

  • 1
    Probably you should ask your trainer this question, but once the negative reinforcement (metal box) worked in curbing his unwanted behavior, shouldn't you now start reinforcing good behaviors? As an example, if my dog kept going up on the couch, I might (1) shake the metal box to discourage it, and then once he learned going on the couch was unwanted, I would (2) praise and treat generously whenever he laid on the floor near the couch or similar.
    – Steve D
    Commented Oct 10, 2013 at 7:58
  • 1
    :) I love how dogs can learn those things by themselves, after some observation... "no box, hey, I can do whatever I want!" :) :) :) Commented Oct 10, 2013 at 12:47

2 Answers 2


Whenever discussing operant conditioning it helps to speak the same language:

  • Reinforcement: An action designed to increase the frequency a behaviour
  • Punishment: An action designed to decrease the frequency of a behaviour
  • Positive: Presence of a stimulus
  • Negative: Absence of a stimulus

These terms can form four different combinations (N.B.: Examples in brackets are examples, not advice!):

  • Positive reinforcement: Present a stimulus to increase the frequency of a behaviour (e.g. give a treat when the dog sits on command)
  • Negative reinforcement: Remove a stimulus to increase the frequency of a behaviour (e.g. The mailman goes away after the dog barks at it)
  • Positive punishment: Present a stimulus to decrease the frequency of a behaviour (e.g. hit the dog when it's urinated on the carpet)
  • Negative punishment: Remove a stimulus to decrease the frequency of a behaviour (e.g. leave the room when the dog jumps up on you)

In practice, these can get muddled. For example, you making noise with the box is a stimulus designed to decrease the frequency of a behaviour, so it's technically an example of positive punishment, but if you stop the noise once the dog performs the correct behaviour, you also remove a stimulus to increase the frequency of the correct behaviour, hey presto!, negative reinforcement.

But that presupposes that there is a correct behaviour for your dog to perform. You don't specify what the undesired behaviour is, or if there is a desired alternative behaviour that you are trying to reinforce. If all you do with the noise is trying to stop him doing something, then you are providing punishment rather than negative reinforcement.

In either case, part of your problem is probably that you are only using primary reinforcers and punishers, i.e. ones that the dog doesn't need to learn. Food, for example, is a primary reinforcer. The dog knows food is a good thing without having to learn it. By extension, the noise is a primary punisher, as it is uncomfortable for the dog to hear. Secondary reinforcers and punishers, by contrast, are those that the dog has learned.

The classic example is Pavlov's bell that he would ring everytime he provided the dog with food. By consistently pairing a primary reinforcer with a stimulus, the stimulus can start to act as a secondary reinforcer. That is, the dog learns that the bell signals the arrival of food and will react accordingly.

You mention that you use the word "no" (hopefully in a stern voice, dogs are quite adept at discerning intonations) when telling your dog off, along with the noise. The "no" should act as a secondary punisher, the same way praise can work as a secondary reinforcer. But you probably failed to phase out the actual noise gradually, by starting to sometimes only say "no" but not do the noise.

The problem is that, by now, your dog has picked up on the fact that "no" with no box around means no primary punisher, i.e. the two are not related, and he, therefore, is save when it's not around.

I suggest that you open a new question describing the actual behaviour(s) that you want to discourage, and we might be better able to help you find a way using the whole spectrum of operant condition to get your dog to learn what you want it to do.


@ThomasH has an excellent answer and touches the question of using secondary punishers in a very precise way.

Here I'm just adding some comments on two aspects of the problem.

Punish the wrong behaviour vs. reinforce the correct behaviour

Even if the "theory" works the same on the "reinforcer side" and on the "punisher side" and it is effective, we should not forget that suppressing a behaviour does not teach the dog what to do instead and focuses mainly on the "no" part of the training leads to micromanagement: you constantly need to teach the dog what he should not do. Even if the dog learns that he should not do X in a given situation, he's still free to perform Y, Z, etc. If you positively teach him (reinforce him) to do W instead that will probably stop some kind of vicious circle and make everyone happy.

Variable rate reinforcement / punishment

@ThomasH explained the concept of secondary reinforcers or punishment.

One aspect to keep in mind is that, contrary to primary reinforcers/punishments, secondary ones have to be rewarded (in one way or the other) using a variable schedule.

The food is a primary reinforcer. Each time the dog gets a piece of food he is reinforced.

But a keyword like "yes" or a click can become a secondary reinforcer. It is linked to a subsequent primary reinforcer. The key point is that it works because the dog learned that the secondary reinforcer is rewarded, by the primary reinforcer. Once this is learned, the link has to be maintained with actual rewards. At the begin (during the training) the reward will come every time, then it can be rewarded with a variable schedule. The variable schedule is actually strengthening the link as the dog can't anticipate when the primary reward will come.

Note that this is usually applied to tertiary reinforcers: the cue "sit" is actually a reinforcer, as it may lead to another reinforcer (a click for example) which then lead to an actual reward.

We usually never dissociate the secondary reinforcer (the click) from the primary reinforcer (for example the food reward). That keeps the link between the two extremely strong, and the variable rate is applied between the cue (tertiary reinforcer) and the click.

However in the case of the punishments you don't have a real "tertiary punishment", so the variable rate of "reinforcement" (understood as punishment in this case) is between your secondary punishment ("no") and the actual punishment (the box).

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