Words! Good and Bad? Using No Reward Marker, It’s Your Choice!

Words! Good and Bad. Is Using a No Reward Marker Bad? If Good Is Understood Why Can’t No Indicate A Mistake! Why does everything have to be one way or the other?

Lindsay’s Alternative Theory of Reinforcement

According to Lindsay (2000), “sharp lines of distinction between instrumental and classical phenomena do not exist except under the artificial conditions of the laboratory and not really there either.” He proposes, “successful control depends on adequate prediction and adequate prediction depends on successful control” and that when “significant events are adequately predicted and controlled, the consequence is adaptive success-an enhanced state of well-being, confidence, and power.”

Within this proposed framework, the dog can meet both his “biological and motivational inclinations” that drive his behavior and coupled with his previous reinforcement history form his “disposition to learn.” He says further the need to “predict and control” his environment will be affected by his necessary “biological, emotional and psychological homeostasis and security” and his overall goals are “survival, adaptive success, enhanced power [and]…reproduction.”

The Word Good!

Can “good” used in dog training become an internal reinforcer? I say yes! If you have not experienced the “look” on your dogs face when they realize they are doing what you want, you may not be paying attention or you don’t recognize the “look” that indicates understanding and learning is taking place. The opposite to learning what we want occurs when we pay too much attention to correcting the dog and not enough attention to marking [saying good or yes] when the dog is doing what we want. This includes what we are trying to encourage like social skills and play activities.

As trainers, our best choices for marking an unwanted behavior is ignore, use a no change response or train the animal to understand a mistake using a no reward marker. The choice should be evaluated according to context, the individual dogs sensitivity, learning ability, level of learning, behavior and training goal.

Can the behavior be ignored?

This may depend on the behavior, the individual animal, context and how you’re going about training a replacement behavior and/or eliminating an unwanted behavior. The point is this is your choice. Neither choice is good or bad. We are using learning theory.

The Word No

Using the word “no” is often discouraged by some dog trainers. Why? Often when we humans use the word “no” with our dogs we tend to use it without any discrimination. This is the problem! If you use the word “no” you must be clear and use it consistently for a specific behavior. You should avoid using the word “no” for every behavior you want to change, especially IF the dog you’re working with has multiple issues and new to the learning process. There are better techniques available with these new learners. Once a dog is indicating learning is taking place, you can begin using a NRM [no reward marker]. However, be forewarned, many dog trainers, especially those espousing to be “totally positive” will scoff at this or worse!

Here’s quote from Karen Pryor

Karen Pryor, in her book “Getting Started: Clicker Training for Dogs,” revised edition, copyright 2002, page 53, answered this question.

“But doesn’t that mean I should never punish the dog? What if the dog jumpsup, or nips me, or takes food off the counter, or runs away?”
“Some people think that using positive reinforcement means you never reprimand the dog or control it physically. That’s unrealistic. Leashes are a fact of life for dogs. It’s necessary to keep a dog on a leash when you are going to strange places, or out in traffic, or amongst strange dogs. And of course your dog needs to understand the meaning of “No”. You need to interrupt behavior such as mouthing your hands and clothes, for example, or trying to grab food from the kitchen counter. Remember that timing is just as important in correcting misbehavior as it is in reinforcing good behavior. Your response should occur while the behavior is happening, not afterwards, or just before you think it might happen.

While correction and scolding can stop behavior (while you’re around, anyway) they are not efficient ways to teach the dog to do something new. For that, clicks and treats work best. As for stealing food, tipping over the garbage, and so on, it’s up to you to monitor the environment and put temptation out of reach.”

Alternative to “No” or Using a No Reward Marker

The problem with using a NRM is often unrecognized and/or ignored and simply not used or suggested. When you begin working with an untrained dog, one who has never learned using an analytical approach, it’s important you begin teaching the dog what you want using gentle applications of positive reinforcement and environmental management to prevent unwanted behavior. Once you recognize the dog is comprehending the signals [cues] you can introduce a word like sorry, oops, wrong as a NRM. I’m going to include an example to make this clear to detractors and for those who use NRM’s or want to understand how.

To some degree, anxiety and frustration contribute to ones overall learning experience, but in cases where high levels of fear and anxiety are present learning will be aversely affected. These high levels of anxiety produce unpredictability and frustration producing uncontrollability have causal effects toward potential learning dysfunctions.

Teaching Sit, Using No Change Response, Installing a No Reward Marker

For example, during training you should keep track how many times your dog successfully does what you want. I’ll use sit in this example. I begin using 10 tiny pieces of a treat or dry kibble, I lure or shape a sit. Once the dog is reliably sitting using one of the methods, I remove any cues [hand movement, body language…] from the equation and add the word sit and my hand cue is a clear signal. I then begin using the 10 pieces [or less] and ask the dog to sit. Having the counted number of treats makes it easy to keep track of successes. I give the verbal and hand signal sit. If the dog sits, the reward marker is given [good or yes] and dog is rewarded with the treat.

Uh Oh, the Dog Makes a Mistake! Using the No Change Response

Lets say, the dog repeats this successfully 5 times and doesn’t sit on the sixth time, what do you do? You need to pause [“no change response”], think about what you might have done to contribute to the dogs lack of success. Ask questions, did the dog get distracted, did I do something differently…? You are using “no change response” a term coined by well-known marine mammal trainers who trained animals contained in small pools but not on leashes! This can be considered management, these trainers were able to control the animals behavior by limiting the scope of the animals ability to not cooperate also known as controlling the environment!

You can evaluate the dogs response during the recommended three-second pause. You do nothing during the three seconds, you can turn away, remove your attention, you do not mark this verbally or physically. In the beginning, a novice trainer may not be able to evaluate the mistake as effectively as a more experienced trainer, this ability comes with experience, so be patient.

Choosing the No Reward Marker as Alternative

If you decide to use a no reward marker an alternative to the no change response, you were consistent in your signal delivery, the dog was paying attention, you can introduce a NRM at this point. You can not expect the dog to understand the NRM at this point! Once you’ve used the NRM, you pause and give the dog the signals [cues] once again. This is not repeating a cue! The short pause breaks the behavior sequence giving you the opportunity to regain the dogs full attention. If the dog successfully sits on the sixth request and after introducing the NRM the dog gets a treat, he’s rewarded for the correct response. You have a dog who completed 50% of your goal behaviors successfully before it became necessary to use a NRM. You complete using your 10 treats making note that your dog completed 5 successful sits before making a mistake. Before moving on, you should evaluate what might have caused the mistake. During the initial training phase the no reward marker is used consistently to mark an incorrect response and if the dog performs the correct behavior the dog is rewarded always followed by the word “good” or “yes” according to your choice.

If this is done with precision and consistency the dog should internalize the meaning of the no reward marker. At this point, you should observe the change, what we call an ah ha moment, the look on your dog that indicates they understand they made a mistake! They try again! You should not observe a dog who is shut down or appearing helpless. They should take the correction in stride, try the behavior again and if successful they should be immediately rewarded. The result should be the dog is internalizing the desirable behavior, performing it more often and with confidence! If you are not observing this, you are likely not doing something correctly. Remember, the dog is not a human, they do not understand expected human behaviors, they must learn these behaviors if they are expected to be successful living with us!

The point here is using a NRM, whether it is no, oops, sorry or wrong requires a training plan implemented consistently with context taken into consideration. If you choose to use or try using a NRM and you can read your dog well, you will know by a different “look” that your dog has learned what it means when he makes a mistake. I find this to be an important element in learning and training dogs.

Dogs are capable of understanding the meaning of their behavior when the context is clear and we are consistent during training. This ability provides predictability. Predictability for all animals provides a sense of well-being essential for maintaining mental and physical health.

Additionally, the newly released (2014) Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (see link in references) supports trial-by-error learning, contrary to errorless learning, and use of positive correction. Here’s a brief description: “To most of us, learning something “the hard way” implies wasted time and effort. Good teaching, we believe, should be creatively tailored to the different learning styles of students and should use strategies that make learning easier. Make It Stick turns fashionable ideas like these on their head. Drawing on recent discoveries in cognitive psychology and other disciplines, the authors offer concrete techniques for becoming more productive learners.”

Happy training!

References and Further Reading:

Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning
Whale Done! The Power of Positive Relationships by Ken Blanchard, Thad Lacinak, Chuck Tompkins and Jim Ballard
Why is positive reinforcement a better choice?
The Effectiveness of Trial-and-Error and Errorless Learning in Promoting the Transfer of Training
Errorless learning how could that be a bad thing? by Dr. Deb Jones

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