Learning to move in the “negative space”

Which did you notice first in this photo? The crazy creature jumping in the air, or the calm dog in the background standing nicely with “all four on the floor”?

Every discipline includes a number of fundamental concepts that help guide both novice learning and expert practice in the field.  Mathematics teachers know that students must understand the properties of real numbers before algebraic thinking is possible, and history teachers know that understanding a concept like attribution is essential for those learning the work of an historian.  Those of us working in teacher education know that prospective teachers must acknowledge and understand the role of “prior knowledge” in their students’ learning, if they are ever to be successful as teachers themselves.

In art and design, one of these fundamental concepts is the idea of “negative space,” meaning the background shapes or contrasting spaces created by the primary images or shapes on the page.  For example, in the picture below, the primary objects in the photograph might be two dogs standing on a chair.  But the negative space around them created by the windows offers additional shapes and spaces to focus our attention on, particularly if we found the shape of the dogs to be too difficult to draw.  If my preconceived notion of what dogs “should” look like is getting in the way of my drawing, then I can instead focus on drawing the shape the windows are making and, in doing so, draw the dogs correctly.  Instead of focusing on what’s right in front of my face, I can focus on everything around it as well.

A picture of Peaches and Buster guarding their posts? Or is this a picture of a view out the windows with the shadows of two dogs?

What is known as the “Vase/Faces” exercise is one of the more common ways that the idea of negative space is introduced.  The optical illusion created by the picture below–is it two faces or one vase?–is intended to help students experience some confusion or conflict in how they see things in order to help facilitate the shift from left- to right-brain, allowing them “to see” and work as an artist does.


Betty Edwards laments the connotation suggested by the word “negative” given the positive aspect of the concept, but reminds us that “negative spaces are just as important as the positive forms.  For the person just learning to draw, they are perhaps more important!” (The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, p.118)

Emphasizing that focusing on negative space can be counter-intuitive, Edwards goes on to say the following:

Art teachers often laboriously try to teach their students “the rules of composition,” but I have discovered that if students pay close attention to negative spaces in their drawings, many compositional problems are automatically solved. (p.119)

Applications in dog training

This type of “counter-intuitive” thinking is profoundly useful in the world of dog training.  By simply focusing on the “negative spaces” when we manage and train our dogs, oftentimes the undesirable behaviors decrease if not vanish completely, replaced by more desirable default behaviors.

Very similar to those learning to teach, those new to dog ownership and training find themselves eternally preoccupied with the question, “What do I do when my dog does x, y, or z?”, meaning how do I fix this undesirable behavior, whether it be pulling on leash, jumping up on people, or barking like there’s no tomorrow.  The answer:  Stop focusing so much on the primary object on the page–or the bad behavior–and start looking in the negative space.  Meaning, start looking for contrasting positive behaviors, however small or insignificant, and encourage those instead.

For example . . .

PROBLEM:  Several months ago, our typical morning routine at our house was to let all of the dogs out first thing in the morning to do their business and and play for a little while, and then bring them back inside.  Once inside, mass hysteria would unfold.  All four dogs would gallop, leap and bound all over the house, creating a pandemonium unrivaled by the rowdiest of prison breaks. How do I address this?  Rather than trying to correct that behavior as it’s happening, I need to find behaviors I’d like to replace those with, and encourage them to do those instead.

SOLUTION:  I place four or five small dog mats around the perimeter of our great room.  I then spend the next several days and weeks “catching” the dogs on the mats (sitting, standing, laying down, whatever) and rewarding them for being there with a treat.  I’ll even randomly leave treats on the mats to be found by whomever should stroll by the mat.  Within a few days, they have caught on that heading to their mat and quietly laying down will produce a treat.  As they do it more often, I up the ante and offer fewer treats, essentially engaging them in a dog treat lottery:  they know that once in a while, they’ll get something great for going there, so they might as well keep doing it as often as they can. (Most of the fundamentals of this mat work came from one or two simple training workshops with Michelle McCarthy.)

Morning chaos, organized

The end result.  Now in the morning, when the dogs come inside, instead of pandemonium, I get four dogs who quietly head to their dog mats and lay down Buddha style.  Not once did I ever attempt to “correct” the crazy behavior (no yelling, no physical abuse, no punishment, no collar grabbing, etc.).  I simply looked in the “negative space” for a more desirable behavior and then proceeded to capture and shape that, and in doing so created the original behavioral scenario I was trying to address.  Most folks only notice when their dog is misbehaving, but rarely bother to notice or reward their dog when he’s doing something right.  We need to shift our mode of operation from obsessing over bad behavior while ignoring good behavior to capturing and rewarding good behavior while ignoring and minimizing the bad.

I have yet to attend a dog training class where at least one (if not all) of the other dog handlers present failed to fully grasp this concept.  Which is understandable, because it requires letting go and accepting a certain lack of control in an unfamiliar environment.

A common scenario

I’ve seen owners in class who try futilely to get their dog to stop barking and lunging at another dog, but then completely ignore the dog during the 3-second period of time when they actually stopped barking and calmed down.  I’ve watched owners get frustrated while their dogs pull away from them on leash, but then fail to catch and reward them when they’re just quietly sitting next to them.    They’re so busy focusing on drawing the faces correctly, that they fail to see how useful it might be to draw the vase instead.  You have to look for those momentary negative spaces, however small, when a slightly better behavior is being offered, and grab that.  Reward that. And then slowly build up from there, replacing the once insurmountable drawing of a badly behaved dog with an easy sketch of the spaces in between that bad behavior.

Challenging your thinking and owning your discomfort

A few months ago I started taking drawing classes at the Ann Arbor Art Center (truly one of my new favorite places) because I not only wanted to learn how to draw, but I wanted to do something that would challenge and enhance my typical ways of thinking and operating.  Several years ago, I decided that it was important to learn more about the dogs living in my home and how best to care for and train them  . . . because I wanted to do something that would make me a better human being.

Plenty of people say, “Hey, that’s great but I don’t have weeks for my dog to calm down.  I need him to chill out NOW!  It’s way too inconvenient to have to take the time to do all this positive reinforcement training.” And then they go buy a Cesar Milan book and a choke chain at Target or sign up for training with a trainer who uses electric shock collars and leash corrections.

It’s also really inconvenient to stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk and acknowledge the presence of homeless people rather than just running them over or stepping on them.  But taking the appropriate course of action there is what, theoretically, makes us human.  Right?  New things, foreign concepts, unfamiliar contexts are uncomfortable.  But they become less and less so when we give in to that discomfort for the sake of our own learning.

A list of negative space examples for the dog owner:

  • Problem:  High energy dog constantly running around and bouncing off the walls.  Solution:  Give praise and treats any time the dog is laying down, being quiet, or moving around in a calmer fashion.  Being calm becomes associated with something positive.
  • Problem:  Dog constantly follows me and bugs me all day.  Solution:  Start looking for the rare moments when the dog is laying down and occupying itself with a toy and give them praise and treats (even if it’s only once a day to start). Entertaining himself becomes associated with something positive.
  • Problem:  Dog has acted nervous or even growled a few times in the presence of a child.  Solution:  Start giving the dog treats EVERY time he is near or looks at the child.  The presence of the child becomes associated with something positive.
  • Problem:  Dog barks nonstop when outside.  Solution:  Start giving the dog treats or Kongs full of food or peanut butter to keep them busy while outside.  Being quiet outside becomes associated with something positive.

Obviously these are simple scenarios that might have an infinite number of additional details and potential solutions.  But the point is to notice that in none of these cases is the problem behavior addressed head on, or focused on at the time that it’s happening.  It’s about working in the spaces around that behavior in order to replace it.

Another useful parallel in the English education world:

Most students hate learning to write because traditionally their essays and other papers are returned to them slathered with the stereotypical red pen of the English teacher (or really any teacher for that matter), highlighting grammatical and spelling errors, incomplete thoughts and sentences and unsupported claims.  It’s no wonder students don’t want to keep writing when all they’re shown is what they’ve done wrong over and over again, instead of someone capturing and highlighting what they did right again and again.

About emily douglas

Emily Douglas authors The Unexamined Dog blog and writes regularly about "pit bull" advocacy, humane education and the parallels between the education field and the dog world. Emily and her dog, Peaches volunteer as a registered therapy dog team in the Southeast Michigan area, where their visits are affectionately known as Peach Therapy.
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2 Responses to Learning to move in the “negative space”

  1. Catch em being good!! Great Blog 🙂

  2. Cathy says:

    I love this blog. Use this concept often but not as much as I can. Have just noticed a situation where i did this only sort of deliberately. It is goose nesting time in my neighborhood. Lots of them are everywhere. Walking my two dogs got to be a series of tight leashes and”Leave it” from me. Then I noticed Junior looking at a big gander with border collie eye and started verbal praise. I offered a happy banter of praise as large gander slowly turns and ambles away. Noticed now Junior looks at me to see if I am watching and herds geese out of our path. A new happy game without the risk of his chasing geese and himself in to traffic.

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