Thursday, January 28, 2016

Dog training tip o' the day: No-reward markers

Today I want to talk about no-reward makers (aka NRMs).

In some circles, mentioning NRMs can elicit boos and hisses. This is because a NRM is technically a positive punisher. That is, it is actively applied in order to reduce the likelihood of a behaviour happening again. Many people are leery of punishment in dog training, and with good reason. So the use of NRMs is often discouraged.

But, I kind of like NRMs in certain situations.

A no-reward marker is intended to be a way to communicate to the dog that the thing they are doing at the moment is not going to earn them a reward. It's sort of the opposite of a clicker. Using NRMs comes naturally to people -- most of us say no, nope, or try again if our dogs make a mistake during a training session. It is a way to offer a bit more information to a dog if they begin to go down an undesired path during a training session.

In a perfect world, NRMs shouldn't be necessary. A dog should be set up to offer the desired behaviour during training from the very beginning through management and a conscientious approach to the session. In a perfect world, dogs should be crystal clear in what it is you are asking of them. However, I am not a perfect trainer.

I occasionally rush progression, or stall too long on a step, or just get lazy and let my criteria slide. My dog might begin to offer undesired behaviours that run the risk of being reinforced by subsequent steps within a behaviour chain before I've had a chance to address them. When that happens, mistakes can become entrenched within a chain and can be difficult to remove once there. If I remain silent and withhold a click, my dog may grow frustrated at not being offered a clear picture of what it is I'm looking for. She might grumble, stress up or grow frenzied in her responses if I remain silent. If I let her know that she is offering something that I am not looking for and that will not be rewarded, she can gain some clarity and try something else.

As the trainer, it's me who shoulders the responsibility for this lack of clarity. If I found myself having to rely a great deal on NRMs, it would be in my best interest to step back and assess where I'm going wrong in my approach. However, as the occasional stopgap measure, I find them useful.

In brief, NRMs:
... Should not intimidate or demotivate a dog. Some dogs will wilt if they are used. For these dogs, they are the wrong tool for the job.
... Should not be used to stop unwanted and/or nuisance behaviours.
... Should be cheerful & motivational or neutral. They should be free from disapproval.
... Should prompt the dog to stop what it is they are doing and check in with you.
... Should be used sparingly at best, and avoided if possible. Relying on them in every training session is unnecessary.
... Should be avoided when you are teaching a new behaviour. Errorless learning is the better choice. You want your dog to understand what is right well before you focus on what is wrong.
... Are best suited to polishing behaviour chains wherein a mistake earlier in the chain runs the risk of being reinforced by subsequent steps in the chain.

So, that's my spiel on NRMs. What do you think? When do you use them? Have you changed in your approach to NRMs over time? Have you ever put much thought into how you use them? Let me know in the comments.

Happy clicking!

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