Punishment and discipline get a fair bit of attention in both D/s relationships as well as in BDSM. Scratch the surface of BDSM, and you’ll find plenty of arguments that discipline is better than punishment; punishment is necessary to maintain discipline; that the two are mutually exclusive; or that they’re separate but equal mechanisms for changing behavior or establishing order. There’s plenty of truth to any of these arguments depending on how you view the topic.

But what about Doms who want discipline from their submissive – better behavior, followed tasks, adherence to rules – but aren’t comfortable with punishment? The alternative, which gets little attention, is positive reinforcement. Instead of punishing bad behavior, reward the behavior you want to see.

For John Brownstone, who uses positive reinforcement with me regularly, it’s a tool for behavior modification. In our relationship, punishment comes into play when I fail to complete a task in service to him. If you choose positive reinforcement, you don’t have to reject punishment. Nor do all kinksters have to use punishment as a way to teach or enforce discipline. As with everything, the choice is between the Dominant and submissive and has to be based on what works in your dynamic.

If positive reinforcement is a new idea for you, here are three ways to use it in your D/s relationship.

Track Good Behavior

What behavior are you trying to change in your submissive? Waking up on time? Going to bed at an early hour? Working out? Eating healthy? Not saying mean things about themselves? Tracking each time a positive behavior is completed is a concrete way for a submissive to see progress.

Think about it. How many submissives (myself included) feel like a failure when we forget or screw up one time? We immediately forget all the times we did something right. Tracking with stickers, gold stars, a check mark, or any other symbol or sign is concrete, visible proof of progress. We can see how many times wevee doing the thing that changes our behavior or makes our Dominant happy. Sometimes that’s enough to keep a person going – a reminder of how often they get it right or the desire to keep earning more “good marks” for good behaviors.

Create a Reward System

If you go with a tracking system, the next (and most common) step is to create a reward system around it. You’ll see this most commonly in the Caregiver/little dynamic as stickers and treats tend to be motivators for some of us. And yes, I include myself in this. The reality, though, is that a goal-oriented person who can list a few “indulgences” they’d like to enjoy could benefit from this.

The rewards and the frequency in which they can be earned has to be decided between both of you. A reward should be something the submissive would not get otherwise (at all or rarely) while the frequency needs to be enough to motivate them to keep going. Here’s an example of how my reward systems have been done in the past:

  • A sticker (because I like stickers) for each time I completed the new behavior like going to the gym
  • After five stickers, I was rewarded with a small treat like the Starbucks coffee I’d avoided because I was working out.
  • When I earned 10 stickers, I received a bigger treat like a new pair of cute yoga pants I really wanted.
  • After 20 or 30 stickers, I was allowed to buy something that I didn’t need but definitely wanted like an expensive water bottle, new gear for my workouts, a dress (because after that many workouts, I’d lost a little weight).

What a submissive earns has to speak to them on a personal level. If it’s something they can go get for themselves whenever they want, it’s not an effective reward.

Give Praise

Neither John Brownstone nor I believe in fake, effusive praise. Don’t tell me I did a great job when I didn’t, and don’t praise me for doing something l consider a non-event, like breathing. What will work is a “Good job, Babygirl” when I finally remember something without being prompted. Some of my tasks for getting us ready for bed at night took forever to stick in my head. Each time I got it right without prompting from him, he praised me.

Not every submissive craves a “Good girl” or “Good boy” but some of us do. When we hear it after genuinely earning it, it’s a powerful statement. It can stick with us and help us remember next time. Sometimes knowing those two words will be our “reward” for a job well done is enough for us to change our behaviors. Quick tip: Once the behavior changes, don’t stop praising a submissive completely. It’s still an effective reminder that we’ve pleased you. 

Should You Try Positive Reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement is one way to help someone change their behavior or old habits. You won’t always get the method or reward system right the first time. And none of it works if a person doesn’t really want to change. The desire to change their behaviors, learn tasks, or perform in a certain way must come from within a submissive to a certain degree. But changing habits is difficult for many people, and what matters most is finding a method that works.

For those who find punishment too harsh for their tastes or who aren’t seeing progress in training their submissive, positive reinforcement is a kinder, gentler method. It’s also proven more effective than other methods. Like every other part of D/s, it must be talked about, agreed upon, and tweaked over time to fit both partners. Start slowly with one behavior you’d like to change and work up to a more complex or larger system for managing multiple goals and changed behaviors.

Have you ever tried positive reinforcement for training or behavior modification in your D/s relationship? What was your experience like? Did it work for you? Share with us in the comments below or on Twitter!