No-fault No Reward Markers

IMG_6235By Jenny Ruth Yasi, Head Trainer Whole Dog Camp

This was from before we were “Nana and Papa,” when Whole Dog Camp was on Peaks Island. We were demonstrating paired walking, where we reinforced this crazy puppy Tigerlily for walking beside us by opening the space between us as a response to her hanging back, and closing the space between us (with her behind it) as a response to her surging forwards. It works really well for partners teaching a puppy!

I love the internet’s ability to allow trainers to discuss and share experiences regarding controversial geeky training devices like no reward markers. I tend to defend the use of trained NRM, while also telling trainers, “stop saying no! Stop telling your dog that he’s wrong!”

To explain that, I wanted to tell this story of my almost 4 year old grandson, who is learning to brush his teeth.

He was spending the night, and so I gave him his own special spongebob vibrating toothbrush and stood him in front of a hall mirror to brush his teeth. Weird for him to have a Nana who is also a dog trainer, because  I know I’m helping train my grandson to brush his teeth! And frankly,  he wasn’t doing it perfectly, but there is no way I would ever dream of doing anything but praising his awesome toothbrushing. After I admired the toothbrushing for quite some time and he was done, I recall I did suggest one more round! And it was the kind of toothpaste you’re supposed to swallow, so that part didn’t matter.

We didn’t have to say “no.” Bee was just checking, just in case it was for her, but it wasn’t.


We don’t need to criticize puppies, children, partners,  friends or most of all, OURSELVES. It’s empty and unhelpful when we cue disapproval, “wrong,” and turn an interaction sour, with some idea that this is wrong or not good enough, but uncertain, or even no idea, about what to do to make the wrong right.

That’s different than the way I train and use a NRM. We train reward marker signals (RMS) first of course, but animals need to know what the good choices are. Training RMS gives the dog lots of rewarding experiences in the choices you want him or her to make.   Later, when he knows at least one successful behavioral strategy or route to reinforcement, a NRM is paired with those moments when he’s not on the route, or when he is working and made a choice that is not leading to the reinforcement prize. My signal is “Oopsie!” With my dogs, a NRM is information that helps them, realize, “oh not this! It must be that!” and find the prize. It contains information my dogs want to know!  If you were accidentally headed the wrong way down a one-way street, and I hollered, “You’re going the wrong way!” You’d appreciate the information.  And you’d have a good idea about what you need to do to get back on the path. If you were looking for your wallet and I said, “It’s not on this table,” you would appreciate the information. That’s how we train and use the NRM at Whole Dog Camp, in games that could help your dog actually find that wallet.

Papa passes on pancake making wisdom to the next generation. Tigerlily supervises.



Reinforcement versus Punishment, and why they are both a bit tricky

IMG_0216In behavior science terminology, Reinforcement (R) and Punishment(P) are functions or “consequences” that either strengthen(R) or weaken(P) behavior.

You won’t see reputable zoos or marine mammal trainers trying to show their animals “who’s boss,” not only because it’s a dumb idea to try to boss around a dolphin, but because punishment stimulates anxiety and unpredictable escape/avoidance behaviors. These difficult to control, potentially aggressive, destructive, and unhealthy behaviors can emerge (and continue) well after punishment has ended.

Many dog trainers now call themselves “force-free” or “all positive.” Although I too recognize what marine mammal trainers and zoo-keepers and other behavior scientists have learned about the dangers of punishment, I don’t call myself an “all positive” trainer because I know that even a leash is not all positive from the point of view of many dogs. Any dog might understandably rather avoid a veterinarian visit, a toe nail clipping, or even ending a fun game. We can and should remove aversive things such as shock, choke, prongs from pet training programs, but the function of punishment is not so easily eliminated. Eliminating punishment, sounds like a good idea, but it’s like eliminating gravity. In spite of our best efforts, punishment happens. Our job is to recognize what punishment is and where it is happening, and do what we can to prevent it from weakening the animal behaviors we want to cultivate.

Accidental reinforcement is not quite as harmful as accidental punishment. Kindness, compassion, generosity, love does not ruin animals or make us mentally or emotionally ill, as excessive punishment does. Sure excess hotdogs are fattening, but they don’t really “spoil” a dog. What “spoils” behaviors is associating desired things with undesirable behavior, thereby reinforcing (strengthening) behaviors you don’t like.

Training is about associating the desired behaviors with desirable consequences, and undesirable behaviors with undesirable consequences. With humans, we can just explain (“after you do your homework, we’ll watch a movie”). But animals learn by experience, so training requires perfect timing for animals to clearly associate behavior and consequence. Delivering hotdogs right after the dog begs at the table? Toenail clipping right after the dog comes when called? That is a confusing.

The environment delivers rewards as well as punishments arbitrarily, sometimes reinforcing bad behavior (I found a cookie!) as well as punishing good behavior (puppy sits and someone steps on her tail). Hate it when that happens! This is why trainers place so much attention on setting the animal up for success with a carefully controlled environment. But even when you are working in a carefully planned low distraction environment, and you’ve set up your dog for success, mistakes happen. One common mistake is misuse of cues.

Ask yourself this: do cues function as rewards? Or punishment? Neither? Both?

Maybe this can gets to the crux of many training problems. To the degree that any or all cues (down/stay/sit/come etc) are disappointing/oppressing or bothering your dog (or kid!), expect those cues to fail. The function of punishment is to weaken or stop behavior and it does so because animals work to escape or avoid punishment. If your “sit!” or “down!” or “off!” cue is often functioning as punishment, your dog will be working to avoid it.

But, you’re a great trainer, and your cues are welcome opportunities, fun paying jobs that your dog loves! Your cues are music to your dog’s ears, like the tinkling bell of the ice cream truck! Like Pavlov’s dog, you cue “come!” and your dog salivates!

That’s great! But if you want that conditioned response to strengthen desirable behavior, it needs to be delivered during or just after the dog is performing a behavior you like. Conditioned reinforcement strengthens the behavior it follows. So if your dog is chasing a cat and you are yelling “come!” it might actually (oopsie!) strengthen the chase response. Or, if you say “sit” or “heel” and your dog doesn’t immediately sit or heel, and you say it again, and again, you’re strengthening the dog’s poor response. Much like feeding hotdogs when dogs beg at the table, some pet owners ignore their dog’s good behaviors, and feed them cues only when they are misbehaving!

So what does this mean in real life terms? Partly it means, don’t let your dog chase the cat. Set your dog up for success and prevent rehearsal of undesirable behaviors. You know where you and your dog are and what you are doing when your dog screws up. Don’t do that! If a plan (or no plan) is not working, change it. Make a plan to set your dog up for success and to practice and reward the behaviors you’d rather see happen. When accidents happen, as they surely do, just go get your dog and leash or crate or move her away, don’t stand there delivering conditioned reinforcement (cues) when you know she is not responding.

IMG_5500When my dog breaks a sit or a down, I avoid a re-cue. Instead I can deliver a “release signal” (“okay! all done!”) which leaves her wanting more. WHAT?! The game is over? Let me try again!

Don’t set the game up to fail. That is, don’t expect to condition your dog’s response to new cues in a highly distracting environment. Condition the response you want in a low distraction environment, and then build on that by practicing in many different environments, increasing the distractions and difficulty slowly. I also train conditioned “encouragement/discouragement” signals (“yay” versus “oopsie!”) and use them to help dogs think through and solve a puzzle. Like the game “colder colder/hotter hotter,” conditioned encouragement and discouragement (“oopsie” and “yay!”) can help dogs develop confidence in solving behavior problems and finding prizes, reinforcing behaviors that I like.

“Things” can function as both reinforcement or as punishment, depending on when and how you use them, and how you build your associations. Hotdogs are not always reinforcement. Lures, for example, often appear to function as punishment when trainers withhold food too long under the dog’s nose, and the dog gets frustrated, confused and gives up. The dog might be wondering, “Can I have that hotdog or can’t I? Am I supposed to follow the food in your hand, or will I get in trouble for doing that?”

Animals work to get information, and they work to avoid confusion. Animals aren’t born with any understanding of human language. Their response to cues is a conditioned response that develops through real-life learning experiences and associations, and not because you’ve shown the dog who is boss.

That’s enough for today! I enjoy comments or questions, and specific examples if you have them, below!

Your cues are showing!

What are cues? Cues are your dog’s language. You will want your dog to respond to your cues from a distance, in many different settings. If you train in many dog activities/sports as I do, you won’t want the cue you use in rally or freestyle to conflict with the cues you use in agility or in the kitchen or on the trail.

What is a cue? Obviously words can be (and should be) trained as cues. But also your leash is a cue, your targets are cues, your body language is a cue. Your door, crate, environment is a cue. We often talk about “fading” the cue, which in agility might mean getting rid of a target, and in real life it means getting rid of a leash. While at first you might need to use a verbal cue to have your dog sit at the door, eventually that cue is faded and simply being near a doorway is a cue for your dog to sit.

https://youtu.be/JboZy9YD-fE  76B8DCC1-3A1C-40DE-9AAA-6C50ABA57624.jpeg

Most of the mistakes I see in teaching cues happen when trainers don’t really understand how a cue is added or changed. They just lure their dog and they think they are teaching the dog. When the food or imaginary food in the luring hand goes away, the dog is clueless. I try not to laugh when I see a handler butt up, hand down, trying to cue their dog to lay down. If you are still luring your dog into a down, I am sure you can’t do that from a distance.

Another big mistake I am seeing is with people who are teaching directionals, or handling skills to their dog. The example that immediately comes to mind is when people teach dogs to turn around by using a lure and circling their hand over the dog’s head. Of course you can’t do that from a distance, but even worse, you often can’t do it from right beside your dog! If your dog is heeling beside you on the right, and you use your right hand to try to lure the dog to peel away from your body, first off your dog might not be able to even see your entire gesture, but secondly, you are sending a very mixed message: cueing the dog to heel at the very same moment you are cuing your dog to peel away from your body.

Eventually, many smart dogs learn to interpret our mixed messages.  You teach your dog to follow your body language, and he learns that he needs to ignore your body language sometimes, just as sometimes dogs learn to ignore our words because we cue our words wrong, and they follow our body language instead! But we get a much better more consistent response when we know really how and when to add or change a cue, and how to be consistent with our cuing across all of our training platforms.

That’s one reason I don’t like luring, and I avoid it in favor of operant conditioning.  Are you teaching the dog to ignore the food distractions or to focus on the food? That inconsistency takes a bite out of your dog’s performance!