Non Reward Markers: Reducing the Use

It seems everyone has a slightly different slant on their application of Non Reward Markers (NRMs) in training. Here is a little more on my approach. First of all, I never use them in training during a value building session (shaping). Actually, I rarely use them at all while teaching anything. I can think of only one particular use I have for a NRM and currently, I can only think of two different sceanarios which would prompt me to use one while training my dog.

Don’t get me wrong, I think NRMs are a valuable tool, but for me in my training, they have a very specific use. Today I will explore more of what they are not.

As I mentioned in a “value building” stage of learning (shaping) I will never use one.  I know many of you who have written in believe it will speed up learning and there is no harm in using a NRM. Thank you for your input, I do value your opinion but let me share why my differs.

A NRM, although pretty benign, is still punishment. All punishment has fallout. Even if that fallout is mild frustration, over time that frustration will have the opportunity to grow and express itself in ways you may not be able to predict and may or may not be equipped to deal with.

With all punishment I stand by my ongoing mantra;

“You must earn the right to use punishment”

Earning the right means the behaviour you desire has a history rich in reinforcement prior to the application of the punishment.

For example; what if I asked you to shape your friend to pick up the yellow ball from the group of three balls below. What approach would you take? Linear thinking may have you look at that group of balls and say “phew, no big deal, if my friend reaches for the red ball, I just give me NRM and they will reach for another . . . eventually getting the yellow ball and viola within seconds the correct behaviour identified . . . fast and painless”

Although that line of thought may appear “painless” and as a one off approach to training you can argue that it is painless. But I challenge you, we are not just training the subject to select the correct ball here, we are actually doing something far more important. With every task we attempt to train a dog to do, the bigger picture is we are actually building our training relationship.

I encourage you to stop thinking of training individual responses as a isloated training experiences and start thinking that we are not just “building behaviour XYZ” we are establishing, in the mind of the dog, what life is like while working with you. Every session counts; particularly the early ones, you are growing your working relationship.

So back to our balls. Lets have your session now take a less linear and more lateral approach. We won’t consider introducing a NRM to the shaping session because it should be a value building session, we have not “earned the right to use punishment.” We first must establish value for the our friend selecting the yellow ball then, if required and absolutely necessary punishment may be introduced during a “value testing” phase of training.

So how do we value build? In this case, the easiest answer is to remove the yellow ball from the group of three balls. You now have one yellow ball on the table setting up easy reinforcement for your friend to choose to pick it up. Do this several times and value building for picking up the yellow ball (without the distraction of any other balls) has been established at the same time an enthusiastic working relationship has been started (due to the reinforcement given during the session of success).

Life is grand, training is fun, when can we do this again? Thinks your friend.

Now introduce a blue ball –our session is now a “value testing session” as we are evaluating the value of our yellow ball in the presence of a blue one. Now, if the new blue ball gets picked up and NOT rewarded (the mildest and, in my opinion, only form of “punishment” that is required) it will quickly be discarded for the yellow, previously highly rewarded action.

Session ends quickly, with success, no frustration and with both parties itching to get back to training with each other again. Now when you introduce a third colour it is unlikely it would even be looked at as there is so much value for the yellow ball!

Success in your targeted behaviour (yellow ball selection) and, more importantly, tons of value dumped into your working relationship!

Next time I will address the two situations where I feel a NRM is necessary in my own training and would welcome the input from those of you that can see a way I can do without it!

Today I am grateful for the wonderful, candid discussion we have going here. Non judgement, just exploring possibilities. Thanks to all for contributing your thoughts. All opinions welcome!

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