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No Reward Markers VS. Cheerful Interrupters

Denise Fenzi explains these two different ways to interrupt an error in behavior in training. 


A very common way that positive reinforcement trainers interrupt an incorrect behavior chain is through the use of a non-reward marker (NRM). The goal of a NRM is to interrupt an unwanted behavior and give feedback in a neutral manner, free from disapproval. A NRM is typically a word or sound (although it could also be a hand signal or body movement) that tells the dog that whatever he just did was wrong and that there will be no reinforcement as a result.

Ideally, if you give a NRM, your dog will cheerfully and immediately return to try again. Of course, this does not always happen. You can think of a NRM like a reverse click. It marks a moment of time, but instead of saying that a reinforcer is coming, it takes the possibility of one away. This suggests that NRMs are neutral communication, right? I would say no. In addition to marking a moment in time, a NRM also interrupts the dog's behavior, which communicates that you didn't like what happened. You have an opinion and it's not neutral at all!

There's really no way around this. A NRM is a marker of both the dog's specific behavior and the opinion of the person giving it. No matter how neutral your tone is, you are clearly saying, "That is wrong." I believe that dogs care about whether or not their people are happy with them; after all, they evolved to work cooperatively with us. This means that using a NRM comes with some risk.

Some dogs will stop the behavior you didn't like, but then display a stress reaction; this often happens when the dog doesn't truly understand what you wanted. When a NRM communicates disapproval, but provides no information about how to be right, it will likely lead to a lack of motivation, shutting down, or uninspired work. Then there are the dogs who ignore the NRM entirely. These dogs just don't care enough about the trainer's opinion or reinforcers to change his course of action, making the NRM ineffective. 

Either way, you have a problem, and it's tempting to fix it by using a punisher, such as marching in (physical intimidation) or raising your voice (verbal and emotional intimidation). Look at it this way: with a reward marker, such as a clicker, if you mistakenly click, your dog gets a free cookie. While unfortunate for your training goals, it does not erode your dog's conditioned emotional response towards working with you. It's just poor training. But with a NRM, it's not just about your training goals - it's also about you and your dog and your relationship. It's more than just poor training. It's your foundation on the line.

It's not that NRMs should never be used; there is a place for them in training. But because NRMs tend to depress behavior, they should never be used during the initial teaching phase. The last thing you want to do with a dog that that is learning is to shut down his desire to try. The appropriate use of NRMs requires your dog to be trained to fluency on the individual behaviors before you pull those pieces together into chains. Don't spend energy pointing out what's wrong until the learner is clear on what's right.

Basically, a NRM should only be used when your dog is trial-ready for the exercise, and possibly learning to perform under unusual circumstances where attractive alternatives exist, or where the overall level of reinforcement may be minimal. A NRM in this circumstance is used to communicate to your dog that he is now 100% responsible for correct performance and that you will not help him. Be aware, however, that excessive use of a NRM will erode your working relationship with your dog. If this technique doesn't work very quickly, you need to consider the strong possibility that your dog is not ready for the responsibility you have given him. 

If you're interested in a more in depth discussion on NRMs wi

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