Copyright Niki Tudge 2009

Escape & Avoidance Behavior 

First what is positive and negative reinforcement ?
  • Positive reinforcement is defined as the occurrence of a behavior followed by the addition of a stimulus or the increase of a stimulus which results in a strengthening of the behavior.
  • Negative reinforcement in contrast is defined as the occurrence of a behavior followed by the removal of a stimulus or a decrease in the intensity of a stimulus which results in the strengthening of the behavior


When we define negative reinforcement we have to distinguish between escape and avoidance behavior.  In escape behavior the occurrence of the behavior terminates the aversive stimulus. In other words the dog escapes the stimulus by doing another behavior and that behavior is then strengthened. In avoidance behavior, the occurrence of the behavior prevents the presentation of an aversive stimulus. In other words, the dog avoids the aversive stimulus by doing another behavior.

Both escape and avoidance are types of negative reinforcement, both result in an increase of the behavior that terminated or avoided the aversive stimulus. Both create emotional responses that say, phew, thank god that is over . 

Let’s look at an example of escape and avoidance training using a shock collar 


The dog would be running away from the owner and the owner applies the shock stimulus while shouting "come". The dog  stops or begins moving back to the owner. When the dog does this the owner stops the shock.  The dog learns that by running back towards the owner the pain can be removed, the shock is removed.  The dog learns to escape the shock by doing something else thus removing the pain of the shock.  (note that for the dog to escape a scary stimulus so the behavior can be negatively reinforced a positive punisher has to be put in place - the application of shock)


In the avoidance situation a dog would learn how to avoid the painful or scary stimulus. With a shock containment system the dog learns that when it hears the warning beep to stop moving forward towards the boundary.

The difference between escape and avoidance learning is that the conditioned stimulus is given before the presentation of an aversive stimulus. For example, the beep on the boundary system before the shock. The dog has learnt due to its conditioning history that the beep predicts pain if the current behavior continues.