The Use of No-Reward Markers in Dog Training


Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

What Are No-Reward Markers in Dog Training?

In order to understand no-reward markers or NRMs in dog training, we should briefly go over general marker training. What exactly is marker training and how can it benefit your dog?

According to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, marker training consists of indicating to the dog the exact moment when he performs the desired behavior. This is often accomplished through the use of a clicker or a verbal marker such as the word "yes!" followed by a food reward. The marker allows us to tell the dog he has done well and forms a brief separation between the performance of the behavior and the food. For this reason, it's often said that marker training allows us to “bridge” a dog’s behavior with a reward.

In order to be successful, marker training requires precision because you must be able to mark the exact moment your dog performs the behavior in a split second. If you fail to do that correctly, you'll risk rewarding the wrong behavior. In marker training, what you reward is what you ultimately get. Optimal timing is needed, but if you're good at it, you can get cutting-edge results.

So, if a verbal marker or an audible marker such as the sound of the clicker tells a dog he has done correctly and a reward is on its way, a no-reward marker does exactly the opposite: it tells a dog that he has not performed as desired and he won't get a reward. It's quite similar to that noise you hear when you are watching Family Feud and the person gets the wrong answer. The noise signals the mistake and tells the player he won't get a chance to earn more money. Common verbal no-reward markers used by trainers and dog owner are the quintessential "eh-eh!" or "oops!" or "try again."

NRMs can sometimes be problematic, and this is why more and more trainers aren't eager to use them. In the next paragraph, we will take a look at some issues with no-reward markers in dog training.

"In my opinion only the most talented trainers should implement such a complex method such as No Reward Markers into their training plans, and if the trainer is that talented, then they shouldn't be making that many errors in the first place to need NRMs"

— Emily Larlham

The Problems of Using No-Reward Markers in Dog Training

Ideally, an NRM is delivered in a neutral tone of voice. It should not be meant as a punisher that intimidates the dog and discourages him from trying. Ideally, it should just be a form of guidance for the dog as to encourage him to keep trying rather than giving up. However, not all dogs are created equal. Several dogs will take an NRM as a simple piece of information telling him to try again. Other dogs may get frustrated, and some may perceive it as a form of punishment and may get stressed out and possibly shut down.

On top of that, it is often difficult for trainers to give up using NRMs as it quickly becomes quite a habit. The occasional "eh-eh" may escape from the mouth of the trainer even in the case of dogs who respond poorly to them and view them as punishment.

As humans, we have the hard-wired habit to verbalize our thoughts. Many trainers, therefore, try to train without NRMs and opt instead to simply withhold a clicker or a verbal marker when the dog makes a mistake. After all, not saying anything is still perceived as information to the dog, so why make matters worse? With time, the marked desired behavior will increase, whereas the non-marked undesired behaviors will extinguish.

An alternative to NRMs is errorless training suggested by dog trainer Emily Larlham. Errorless training helps set a dog up for success. The advantages of this method are various: it doesn't inhibit learning, it creates less chances for stress, frustration, and aggression, and it minimizes the chances of errors.

Indeed, if your dog is making many errors, instead of delivering several NRMs, try to stop doing what you are doing and go back to the drawing board to see what changes you can make to help your dog be more successful.

Personal Experience: An NRM Interfering With a Dog's Stay

A problem I encountered one time involved a client who used an NRM for when her dog kept breaking a stay. Her dog apparently perceived it a bit harsh (or perhaps very harsh). This ended up interfering with the release cue the owner used to inform her dog that the exercise was over and the dog was free again to move about.

The dog, in this case, didn't get up because he was frozen in a state of uncertainty or learned helplessness. It was almost as if her dog was nervously pleading, "Am I OK to go? Are you suuuure? Last time I got up you made the sound of disapproval that startled me quite a bit! Tell me that won't happen again."

In many cases, an abrupt "eh-eh" may confuse dogs that are otherwise happy, active learners. This is because the "eh-eh" feels like punishment, and the act of getting up from the stay, therefore, assumes negative connotations causing the dog to be intimidated from being released.

Further Reading

  • Conditioned Reinforcers in Dog Training
    What's a conditioned reinforcer in dog training and how can it benefit your dog? Learn how to take advantage of conditioned reinforcers for stellar results in dog training and behavior modification.
  • The Four Quadrants of Dog Training
    Training a dog can be easy, but understanding the whole dynamics behind it is a whole different story. Understanding learning theory will make you a better trainer and your dog a better trained dog.
  • Differential Reinforcement Schedules in Dog Training
    How do you apply differential reinforcement schedules when you train your dog? This article will help you understand how they work and how you can bring training to a higher level.
  • Dog Training: Understanding Poisoned Cues
    Learn about dog poisoned cues and how to deal with them before they start becoming a problem. Tips and strategies to get your obedient dog back on track.

© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 28, 2013:

Yes, setting up for success is goal, thanks for stopping by!

Anne-Marie from Montreal on December 28, 2013:

I was thought that it was best not to use them. I wasn't sure why though, but you explained it very well! Now I know :p

My teacher told us that the animal should succeed 80% of the time, or they will lose the interest. We have to set them to success. :)

Great hub!

Gypsy Willow from Lake Tahoe Nevada USA , Wales UK and Taupo New Zealand on December 28, 2013:

Never heard of this before. Thanks for your ever enlightening dog hubs!


Podcast #27: No Reward Markers with Fanny Gott

This week through the magic of the internet, I got to talk with Swedish dog trainer, Fanny Gott. I know, right?! I’m the luckiest. Thank you, Internet (and Fanny)!

Fanny Gott is a successful competitor with her own dogs in both obedience and agility. And, she was generous enough to take the time to chat with me between traveling home from the European Open and leaving to compete in the Nordic Championships….which I believe are both agility competitions. I should get over there someday to check these events out!

Fanny basically has a pretty sweet gig as she travels all over the world teaching seminars and also offers some online classes with her husband Thomas. Yes, her husband is also a dog training! Make sure you check out all you can about Fanny by visiting her website.

On this episode, we discussed:

The idea behind a No Reward Marker is that the trainer has some signal that tells the dog that reinforcement is not available for whatever just happened. So, it’s sort of like an anti-click.

Let’s be honest, No Reward Marker can be kind of a hot topic in dog training circles, because hearing a buzzer that tells you that you are wrong, can be pretty aversive… even if nothing additionally unpleasant follows it.

Some trainers feel that the risk of emotional fallout is higher than the benefit of telling the dog that he’s wrong. Other trainers feel like it’s important to identify mistakes. And there is a wide, wide range of how this concept might be applied in practice.

As usual, a large part of the problem we run into when discussing the concept is that everyone has a slightly different definition or picture in their head of what they mean by a No Reward Marker and what that looks like. So, as you can imagine, it can be a real challenge to have a meaningful discussion when everyone is talking about something different.


Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is when a dog associates an involuntary response to a stimulus. For example if I said the word “yes” and followed with a treat, after many repetitions eventually as soon as I say “yes” the dog would start to salivate. The stimulus is the word “yes” and the involuntary response is the salivating.

We use verbal markers as conditioned reinforcers. This is part of creating a solid communication system with your dog.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning pairs behaviour and response. This involves changing voluntary behaviours. It is important to use all of the quadrants here. The quadrants are:

Positive Reinforcement

Adding something positive after a behaviour has occurred to make that behaviour more likely in the future. An example is giving your dog a treat for sitting.

Negative Reinforcement

Removing something undesirable when a behaviour has occurred. An example would be pushing your dogs butt down into a sit and then stopping that push as soon as your dog sits.

Positive Punishment

Adding something undesirable after a behaviour has occurred to make that undesired behaviour less likely in the future. An example would be a leash correction.

Negative Punishment

Removing something desirable after a behaviour has occurred to make the undesired behaviour less likely in the future. An example is walking away if your dog demand barks or jumps on you.

Dominance (what it is and why we don’t use it)

Dominance has no place in dog training. A popular method used by individuals who use “dominance” is alpha rolling. Alpha rolling only leaves dogs in fear of their owners and if generalized it could be fear of most people. This method can cause dogs to be in fear of their life which in turn could cause aggression. No dog should feel this way with their owner or trainer. Dog training is about creating a better quality of life for each dog. It is about growth!

Communication

Communication plays a key role in training your dog. If you don’t understand your dog and your dog doesn’t understand you, then you won’t get very far.

We can create a communication system through classically conditioning our verbal markers.

The verbal markers that we like to use are:

“yes”: you are released from what I asked and can come get your reward

“good”: continue what you are doing and we will come give you a reward

“ok”: you are free to what whatever you’d like other than offer poor behaviour

This is only one half of a balanced relationship. A lot of us tend to only focus on telling our dogs what to do. We need to advocate for our dogs by understanding what their body language means. A common cause for reactivity or aggression issues is because the dogs communication has been ignored. An example is while on a walk your dog may show signs of nervousness while another dog approaches and because we didn’t recognize this sign and take the proper action (creating space), overtime our dogs will take matters into their own hands because they are continuously going over their threshold (what they can emotionally handle) and become reactive or aggressive towards approaching dogs.

Duration

Duration or passive training is extremely important in all pet training programs and is very often overlooked. A lot of trainers are keen on always having a dog aroused when that is very detrimental when training the family pet. A dog that is aroused all of the time is likely to be more stressed, anxious and likely displays more undesirable behaviours than one who is not.

This doesn’t mean that a dog shouldn’t be excited in training. It means that each dog needs to have an “off” switch (learn to relax when the owner asks) and an “on” switch (can be excited when appropriate).

The ITK9 Way

During our programs we use both classical conditioning and operant conditioning. We use all of the quadrants which is a part of all animal learning. Our job is not only to take a balanced and fair approach to training the dogs we get but also educating the owners so they can understand their own dogs better and have a relationship that continues to flourish.


The No Reward Marker : Getting The Right Response

How to use a simple cue to elevate your dogs’ level of understanding and decision-making. The wrong answer can be a step toward the right answer. In this article, Stefani Fortney will show you how to use the no reward marker to get the right response from your dog.

When I was a kid, I hated going to school. I had a different learning style than a lot of the other kids in my class I also had a learning style that many of my teachers didn’t understand or appreciate. I was never content with just knowing the right answers. I had to know why they were the right answers. It was frustrating and embarrassing for me. When a teacher would call on me to answer their questions, I would ask questions in return. It wasn’t that I didn’t know the answer they were looking for and I wasn’t trying to be difficult. I just had different goals than they did. My brain worked differently.

Often, the process I followed to get to an understanding of the subject matter led through stages of wrong answers that finally led to the right one. It was time-consuming, and a lot of the time I felt stupid. I wished, over and over, that my teachers could understand that my “wrong answers” were a part of my learning process. I was taking apart the problems and trying to answer each question from the inside out. If they had given me a little extra time to complete the chain of ideas in my head, they’d have seen that my “wrong” answers were actually “try again” moments.

Sometimes thoughtful dogs can be seen as stubborn dogs

Have you ever been in a situation where you ask your dog to do something that you know s/he knows how to do, but instead of obeying, they stare at you and don’t seem to listen? Maybe you’re trying to teach your pup a new obedience behavior or cue, but they just don’t seem to be “getting it.”

Take a moment or two to think of the exercise from your dog’s point of view. Are you moving too quickly to try to teach a new behavior and your dog is confused, but trying to figure it out? Are you in a situation where your dog doesn’t feel like it’s as important for him or her to obey a cue as it is for them to check out an awesome new smell, sound, sight, or experience? A dog’s perspective is much different from ours. A dog who seems stubborn may just be confused or overwhelmed.

The No Reward Marker — the cue to try, try again

Humans and animals speak completely different languages. In order to help our dogs achieve to the best of their abilities, we need to bridge the communication gap with cues that act as road signs for them to follow. In my last article, I spoke about marking positive behaviors and correct outcomes with the word “yes.” That’s known as the “Reward Marker.” It tells our dog the exact moment that s/he got something right. Now, let’s talk about the “No Reward Marker. This is simply a verbal cue that tells our dog that they didn’t give us the answer we asked for and that they don’t receive a reward for the behavior they just offered. For the dogs I teach, we use the “eh-eh” sound for this purpose. By using the No Reward Marker and the Reward Marker properly, you create a simple communication bridge with your dog.

Here’s a simple example of the no reward marker at work:

  1. You ask your dog to sit. (In this example, we’ll assume your dog knows the “sit” cue.)
  2. Your dog looks at you as if you are speaking in pig-latin.
  3. You wait for a silent count of five seconds to give your dog the chance to think through your request and make the decision to comply.
  4. Your dog starts to turn around and walk away.
  5. You say “eh-eh” to indicate that the cue was “sit” and the behavior that they’re exhibiting is not the correct action for that cue—therefore, they don’t get the reward that they should be eagerly working toward (e., treats, praise, play).
  6. You regain your dog’s attention (usually, just saying their name or making a smooch noise does the trick)
  7. Repeat steps 1 through 6 until your dog sits when you give the “sit” cue. If it takes more than three attempts, you need to go back to kindergarten level with the cue, making sure that your dog understands what you’re asking for.
  8. When your dog sits on cue, immediately give the Reward Marker (“Yes!”) and reward your dog.

Notice that we don’t repeat the cue over and over. We want our dog to offer the cued behavior when s/he hears the cue one time. Using the No Reward Marker acts almost like a “reset button.” It tells our dogs that they didn’t get it right and need to try again to receive their reward. By giving the dog time to think (the silent five count), we’re allowing them to make positive decisions without us immediately stepping in with a correction. By giving the Reward Marker and their reward at the exact second they get the behavior right, we’re reinforcing that behavior and increasing the chances of our dog repeating the correct behavior in the future.

Need some help training your dog? Stefani offers individual and group obedience classes. Contact Guthrie Pet Hospital today for more information.


Marker (Clicker) Training

This is a known type of animal training that is expanding more and more into the world of dog training. It is very simple to learn, and dogs are quick to catch on to it. The base of this type of training is:

A Conditioned Reinforcer (which is a neutral stimulus paired with a primary reinforcer until the neutral stimulus takes on the reinforcing properties of the primary one. A clicker or other marker, after being repeatedly associated with a food treat or other reinforcer, becomes a conditioned reinforcer.)

In a nutshell, we use food (in the beginning and later the food may be replaced by a toy if the dog has a good drive and it is a valuable enough reward for him) and this is called the primary reinforcer.

This means that we use food to reward the behaviors (actions) from our dog that we like. When our dog connects a reward with his action, he simply continues offering the same behavior that brought him that reward.

Now there is a small problem, there is a “time limit” or “time window” in which we can properly reward our dog so that he knows in black and white what he is getting the reward for. It has been calculated by scientists that the best timing for this window is less than a second (around 0.8 sec.). Of course, there isn’t any way that you can deliver the reward that fast, so the problem is that by the time you deliver your reward, your dog has moved, breaking the action/behavior that you liked or he refocused on something else. In this case, when your dog gets the reward, he actually is getting a reward for the last thing he did, which is probably not what you were looking to reward in the first place. Therefore, to address this issue we use the next step.

The Bridging Stimulus (which is an event marker that identifies the desired response and “bridges” the gap in time between the desired action/behavior and the delivery of the primary reinforcer (the reward). The click from a clicker, or the marker word, is a bridging stimulus).

What we are doing here is creating something that will allow our dog to understand what he is getting rewarded for (without misunderstanding) and allows us more time to actually get the reward and deliver it to him.

This is called a marker or bridge in dog training circles. It is a sound based cue, some dog trainers use a clicker some use a specific word (for example, I use the word “Yes”).

Once we decided which marker we will use (clicker or a verbal marker), then we have to teach our dog what that marker means. If you just present a clicker to your dog or say your marker word, your dog won’t understand you. You need to train the meaning of it to your dog first. This is very simple and it is the same principle for either the clicker or for a verbal marker.

Charging the marker/Loading the Clicker

We call this teaching the meaning stage, charging the marker. It is a simple procedure.

Take a container with treats, put them on the counter, get your dog next to you and get his attention, and then simply “click” and deliver the reward right away, or if you are using a verbal marker, use your marker, for example “yes” and immediately deliver the reward.

Do this for at least 20-30 repetitions. You can repeat this step for example twice a day for a couple of days. After two days of doing this, test your dog.

Without presenting treats to your dog, have just a few of them in your pocket (do this preferably in another location away from where you normally train, and without your dog noticing the treats). Get your dog’s attention and then “click” or say your verbal marker. You will know by your dog’s response if he has connected the marker with the oncoming treat. If he acts excited, he has connected it, if he is hesitant or doesn’t react at all, he still didn’t get it. This is not a problem, simply do a few more sessions of the click-treat scenario above, before testing again.

This is a part of Classical Conditioning which means that you are teaching your dog that something meaningless, like a clicker or a verbal cue, now has meaning.. That meaning is that a reward is coming.

A very important detail of classical conditioning is timing. If you present the treat before you give your “click” or verbal cue, or if you give your marker while the dog is already eating the treat, your dog will not make the association between the marker and the reward. The simple rule is:

  • Get your dog’s attention
  • Present your marker (a click or “yes” or whatever your marker is) without any body movement or gestures
  • Now you can move your body to deliver the reward.
  • There should be a fraction of the second between giving your marker and then moving your hand to reach and deliver the reward.

I know this sounds easy, but our body gesture naturally goes with our voice, so it may be difficult to coordinate this. We need to separate these actions for our dog to understand them and learn them properly. I always suggest practicing without your dog present at first, until you are comfortable with this important timing.

Once we have our dog conditioned to the marker, we then have a very powerful tool that allows us to mark a behavior within a second of it occurring as well, we also don’t need to have food constantly ready to deliver, which is another powerful tool.

This teaches our dog that he needs to “go through us” (he needs to perform what we ask from him) in order to receive a reward.

A clicker or verbal marker (“yes” for example) has to be used only once (you don’t keep on clicking or repeating “yes, yes, yes” multiple times). It is also a signal to the dog that the particular exercise or behavior is completed and that he can move (release) in order to access his reward. For example, if your dog is sitting, and you give the click, it means that he can release the position, and come to get his reward.

Once our dog understands the meaning of the marker, the next steps will be to train the meaning of the word “wrong” or “no”, and the meaning of the word “good”.

Teaching the “good” marker

The word “good” will be our next command. This one we be used as a guiding marker. Normally, we use it for endurance and duration, for example when we want our dog to remain in a certain position or to reinforce that position.

In general our dogs connect that the word “good” will eventually be followed by the release marker (the clicker or verbal marker), which means a reward. The “good” marker will become a signal to our dog that we are happy with his performance and to keep doing it, in order to be released/rewarded.

The “Wrong” marker

This marker is to be used when the dog fails to perform a certain action or is performing an unwanted action. Normally, commands like “good” and “No” (or “nope”) are easiest to teach through some kind of training, a simple obedience training for example. Once the dog knows that performing an action correctly brings a reward, when he hears “No”, and there is no reward, it is easy for the dog to conclude that there was something wrong with his action and that the “No” verbal cue is “the end of the fun” for the moment.

If for example, we train our dog to sit, and he performs great which we mark and reward, the second time, perhaps he misses and we mark it with “no” and there is no reward, then the third time he sits correctly and again he is released and rewarded, the dog will quickly learn the difference between the two markers and the meaning of the “no “marker.

Once our dog understands these three simple markers (clicker/yes, good, no/nope) we have a tool that we can use to communicate with our dog. We can apply it in many situations of our daily life, in order for our dog to understand what is wanted and unwanted behavior.


Watch the video: Why I dont use corrections or NRM no reward markers


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