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. Afterall, 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.
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© 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. :)
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!