Non-Reward Markers… What Does That MEAN?? And, Why it Might Help You Communicate With Your Dog!
Why NO isn’t always bad but often over used.
I have the opportunity, or should I say the blessing of running a lot of our online programs. I am sure several of you are familiar with me and have taken a few of those programs, and it seems I get asked a lot about telling your dog when he has made a mistake or non-reward markers.
Just like we advocate using a clicker to tell your dog he has a reward coming (operant conditioning) some trainers also advocate using a marker to tell your dog that what he has just chosen to do is wrong.
I’m not talking about screaming NO, or punishing him, or leash corrections or really anything other than letting him know the choice he just made was wrong.
Heck, he doesn’t even have to be on a leash.
Let Me Explain
First of all you have to use marker training or clicker training to mark and reward the behaviors you want.
So you must understand the inner workings of clicker training. For more on getting started clicker training click here.
You pair the treat with the clicker so that when your dog does something right, even from a distance, you can “mark” (hence the like term marker training) THE MOMENT it happens so that your dog understand what he has just done and is more likely to do it again.
This is Important for Complex Behaviors
This kind of training is especially important for complex behaviors.
I teach my dogs to put their heads flat on the ground on command. I can’t really imagine how to do that with compulsion… don’t get me wrong I am sure I could back hand them or force their little heads down; but it would be much more difficult.
However, it is much easier to frustrate them when I am teaching them “down” and not click them for the immediate down and wait for them to begin to dip their heads down as a way of asking “is this what you want?”
Once I click the “head dip” I can then up the ante and wait for them to place their heads on the ground and then increase the duration of the behavior.
WHY do I do this?
Because you can’t stare at a passing cat or the neighbor kids if you head is affixed to the ground! It gives me control over what they are staring at; and it’s super cute for dog training demonstrations. How many dogs do you know that can put their head down on command?
Anyhow, I digress.
Back to Non Reward Markers
Why would you use them?
Just like telling your clicker trained or marker trained dog the moment he has done something right non-reward markers tell your dog when he has done something wrong.
Not WRONG really, but something that is not your goal.
What is a Non-Reward Marker?
It simply means that what you just did, will not result in a treat, toy
, praise or whatever else you are working for.
Say I am working on having my adult dog put his head down; but after he lays down and gets frustrated instead of dipping his head he gets up and sits. The sit would be “wrong” as in not what I want and moving away from what I am looking for, so I might use a word that means “that’s not what I want” and results in no toy, treat, or praise.
I use the word “Nope” said simply, happily and with no negative emotion.
So when my dog hears “Nope” he/she knows that wasn’t what I wanted, but I’m not in trouble.
Then we get up and try again.
With marker based training your dog learns to run through a gamut of behaviors to finally find “the one” or close to the one you are looking for.
He or she will run through all his “tricks” or behaviors in an attempt to give you what you want, this is natural and very much wanted with clicker/marker training. This means your dog is thinking.
But the more your dog knows, sometimes the more behaviors he has to run through before finding what you want!
By using a non-reward marker you can help put him on the right course or clear up confusion for him.
DO NOT OVER USE THEM
However, because non-reward markers are not “fun” even though they can relay information, you have to be careful about over using them in your dog training.
Using them too often without helping your dog instead will frustrate him to the point of possibly not wanting to play games with you anymore.
For instance if we are working on “head down” and my dog sits, then gets up and stands, or rolls over; instead of using “nope”, “nope”, “nope”, “nope” I would tell him to lay down again and then maybe help him dip his head toward the ground with a treat to help him have success.
And, I NEVER use non-reward markers on young puppies; it is too frustrating for puppies and in my opinion curtails their learning.
Puppies need to have success and be actively taught.
Non-reward markers are for dogs that are pretty well trained, know the clicker game in and out and have learned to deal with a little bit of frustration and keep trying.
Puppies are likely to just give up and not find training fun at all if you use them; just like using them too often.
Why I’ve Been Using Them Lately
I have taken up agility (as if I need more to do) and in agility my dog has to move out and away from me and do things at a distance. She also has to learn to perform without me being right next to her.
Right now she finds the weave poles tedious and “unfun”, it’s not fun to have to slow down and carefully make sure you weave your body through each pole; so she has been known to pop out at about the 3rd weave pole and head to the spot she knows where her treat lives.
Why not right? Why not cheat and still get your treat?
Don’t get me wrong, right now I have a helper that makes sure she can’t reward herself by cheating!! But if I were her I would try cheating too!
So the MOMENT she pops out of that third (or whichever) weave pole I tell her “Nope” as she runs to see if her treat is awaiting. Soon she realizes, number one I say it consistently when she pops out too soon and two, there is no treat waiting there if she cheats or hears the word “Nope”.
I think it is very effective for telling her WHY there is no treat waiting! I think it helps her to understand what is required of her… it is not about getting there the fastest; it is about doing it with speed AND precision.
Some Will Disagree
Some trainers will disagree and some don’t use non-reward markers at all.
I think for the most part they don’t want to create the frustration at all, they think the dog will eventually figure out WHY he is not being rewarded and HOW to get rewarded without using them and I totally agree.
I also respect those that don’t want to use them. My agility teacher actually cringes each time I use it because she doesn’t want there to be any negative in our agility game.
I personally try to use them as little as possible so that they continue to teach and have weight instead of being just another negative word that we use.
I also make sure I never use anger or emotion when I use them because that is not the purpose at all!!
It is crucial that the word have important meaning to the dog.
So as you are training consider, would a non-reward marker serve you well, or will you choose only to let your clicking tell the story?
What do you think?
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.