No-reward markers; a way of saying no to your dog? – Cambridge Puppy Training


I always talk about marking desirable behaviours. All the time. In my experience, marking a behaviour (I mostly use a verbal marker), even if your timing isn’t the best, still works fantastically well. I find it encourages a dog, makes him keener, you can almost see the dog just waiting to hear that ‘YES’. Of course they DO want to hear that ‘YES’, because it means a reward is coming. So, we’ve got it established how to say ‘yes that’s right a reward is coming’, but do we need a ‘no that’s not what I want a reward isn’t coming’? If we mark correct behaviours, should we not mark incorrect ones?

Well this is a very tricky subject. There are strong views on both sides. To put it simply, a ‘no reward marker’ (NRM) is a way of saying to a dog ‘no that’s not the correct path you’re going down, try again’. The difficulty with a NRM is if you say ‘ah-ah’ or ‘no’, you must keep a completely neutral tone of voice. I find that extremely difficult, and I know others will too. There is no ‘telling off’, or annoyance with the dog, it is merely a word to indicate ‘that’s not right, no reward is coming’. These NRM’s are not designed to be aversive, they are not designed to startle or punish a dog in any way, it is merely a signal, exactly the same as a verbal marker (or clicker) for marking desired behaviours, to give feedback to a dog that he has (or hasn’t) done what will gain a reward. But how easy is it to keep a completely neutral tone? Not very easy I feel.

Also, if using a ‘no’ as a NRM, it needs to be conditioned. We need to condition the ‘no’ so it has meaning, otherwise it is merely a word like any other, no? We’re not using it with any force so it won’t mean much without any pairing will it? We could say anything, ‘bananas’ if you like, it doesn’t mean anything to a dog unless it has been paired with a good/bad ‘thing’. So, when thinking of conditioning a ‘no’ or ‘ah-ah’, how would we do that? We’d likely have to remove something ‘nice’ ie. a treat/toy etc and pair that with a neutral ‘no’. A way of showing your dog, when I say ‘no’ it means no reinforcement is available. This, to be honest, is no easy feat and I would be reluctant to advise or suggest the average dog owner in the street start trying to condition a neutral ‘no’ cue without professional advice on how to do so.

In principle, it seems a great idea. Does this surely not give the dog MORE information? And more information surely increases the chance of our dogs making the right choices? But, some may argue you don’t need a NRM, simply withholding your verbal marker (your ‘YES’ or click) and consequently the reinforcement, is enough to communicate to your dog ‘that’s not right try again’.

I talked about extinction in a previous post, the decrease of a behaviour through no reinforcement, and if we use that in conjunction with our markers for correct behaviours, do we even need a NRM? Say, for example, you are trying to teach your dog to put his toys in the basket. We mark and reward each correct step he takes, so he keeps performing the behaviours correctly. He then drops the toy just outside the basket, we ignore it, and he gets no reinforcement. He will then likely try again, in an attempt to get it RIGHT to gain the reinforcement. Do we really need a ‘no’ or ‘ah-ah’? Would that aid in his training? Would that increase the likelihood of him getting it right next time? Does it not make sense to keep things simple for you and your dog? Or, does giving him a NRM offer him more feedback, thereby increasing his chance of getting it right next time?

Some argue that NRM’s can even inhibit a dogs learning and do your dog harm. If you do use NRM’s without even realising, which I’m SURE a lot of us do, you may find yourself one day with a dog who doesn’t take well to them, a nervous dog, a dog who shuts down at the very sound of a ‘no’ or ‘ah-ah’. How will you deal with this then? You are SO in the habit of using a NRM it’s difficult to suddenly stop doing it! It’s routine to you now. Also, dogs will likely become habituated to a NRM, a dog may expect and indeed rely on such feedback, if you are unable to provide a NRM for any reason it can leave a dog confused and unable to learn quite so well. Also, some believe if you ‘cut off’ the opportunity of reinforcement so abruptly, a dog will then change his behaviour quite drastically to AVOID that NRM, is this then not considered aversive? Will a NRM increase frustration? Will it render your dog a tad exacerbated at being told ‘that’s wrong try again!’?

NRM’s can also be overused, if I kept hearing ‘no that’s not right’ all the time I’d be inclined to give up. We NEED reinforcement to want to continue to work or keep trying, if you didn’t get paid for your work and were consistently told you were doing it wrong, even in the nicest possible way, it wouldn’t really spur you on to continue working would it.

Or, maybe it’s kinder to your dog to give him some feedback about what does and doesn’t work? If his goal is to gain the reinforcement, does it not work in his favour to be given more feedback about what is reinforcing and what is non-reinforcing?

Also, I don’t like to be the bearer of bad news……but if you’re NEEDing an NRM, should you not examine why you need it in the first place? Was the precision, timing and quality of your reinforcement not quite good enough? Shock horror, we have made an error in our training…..something we all do by the way.

It’s a very very complicated and vast subject. It’s not something us regular dog owners need to be too concerned about, but it is worth thinking sometimes, ‘how do I tell my dog he didn’t do the right thing?’. Do you feel you even need to? If you are marking and reinforcing the right behaviour, do we need to tell a dog he went wrong? Is it just needless negativity? Will the lack of reinforcement (extinction) not serve the same purpose?

Have a think, let me know your thoughts too. I love to know what other owners feel about such subjects!

For more information about anything discussed just get in touch!



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