Punishment In Today’s Dog Training

Posted on 02/08/11 86 Comments

I thought it was time to address my thoughts on the use, abuse, misuse and the misunderstanding of the “non reward marker” (NRM) in dog training

A non reward marker is usually a word or phrase that when spoken to your dog, lets him know that no reward will be earned for that particular response. It should be given without emotion or blame. The dog is not bad he just didn’t get it right and should come back to try again.

I first heard about non reward markers from Gary Wilkes and Karen Pyror back in the early 1990‘s. Phrases such as “wrong”, “oops”. “oh no (what happened)” are the more popular ones you hear today. Funny thing we all end up having tons of NRM in our every day life with our dogs and it is our dog’s that teach us about them.

How that works is we are creatures of habit. When we get frustrated, upset or even angry we will likely fall back on our habitual body language and phraselogy — regardless if we realize it. Our dogs pick up on this very quickly. It could just be a heavy sigh or how you storm around. Once your dog has picked up on the cues that predict your less favourable emotional state he will respond in the nature that best works for him be it falling into an appeasement routine (groveling and generally being sucky), getting stressed and running away, getting goofy to lighten the mood or something unique to him.

Sadly for some dog’s their name becomes a NRM. In an effort to stop a dog from doing something, in heat of the moment the trainer resorts to calling the dog back. For example while training weave poles, if the dog enters incorrectly and his owner habitually just calls him back with his name. This can create a circle of conflict for the dog in training where his names is associated with a constant lack of reinforcement.

Some NRMs I have learned about from my dogs. These are ones that I use when my dogs goof up in such a large way that it makes me laugh I will often say phrases such as “oh my!” or “I don’t think so” or “oh so no!” or “ (ex)‘cuse me?” while I chuckle.

I would say in general NRM are poorly understood and even less effectively applied.

A very young looking Stoni & Shelby circa mid 1990's

To be clear, a NRM should be completely unrelated to the “aah aah’s” of older, correction-based, dog training. Unfortunately when people progress from using corrections to a more positive approach in their dog training these verbal corrections are the one artifact  that seems to linger in the tool box for longer than it should!

I am talking about phrases or guttural sounds like  “aah aah” or “errrrr” or “NO!” or “H-E-Y!!!” hollered or growled at a dog or even Cesar’s “Pssssst” sound. These words are always conditioned with what I call the  “I” (intimidation) factor.

The goal (weather people who use these punishers recognize it or not) is to condition enough I-factor into their growl, phrase or word that they will be able to use said word in the future to stop a dog from doing something undesirable without having to get to the dog and physically correct him.

And it makes no difference if you say “ahh ahh” quietly. If you have ever followed that nice quiet “aahh aahh honey” up with some form of physically “correcting” or “helping” the dog so that it is YOU changing the dog’s response rather than the dog, then I group you all in the same I-Factor family.

I personally was raised in my dog training as a scholar in the use of I-Factor conditioned punishers. Poor Shelby and Stoni heard them constantly. However I discarded them along with my multi coloured leg warmers in the early ‘90s and I suggest each of you do the same . . .  okay the leg warmers can stay but get rid of the I-Factor would you? Loved those leg warmers . . . sniff, sniff.

More on NRM later but for now I would love to hear your views. Do you use NRMs? What word or phrase do use use? How often in any given training session do you think you use it? What is your dog’s response when she hears that word? Maybe you still use condition punishers. Would love to hear from you all . . . no judgement here.

Today I am grateful for mild weather for walking with the snow shoes:).


  1. Pam says:
    Saturday, November 30, 2013 at 6:39pm

    I use NRM when my dog doesn’t respond quickly to a command … BUT it’s a habit that I’m working hard to overcome. Seems to come out of my mouth before I’ve got myself under control. What it reinforces for me constantly is how much I am asking of my dog when I want her to change habits (that I taught her or allowed her to develop originally) – and to make sure I recognise the effort involved and reward her appropriately for her success.


  2. Anna says:
    Monday, October 15, 2012 at 9:24pm

    Thanks for sharing this post to us. This adds more info about dog training which is really helpful for dog owners.


  3. Jeni says:
    Wednesday, April 4, 2012 at 2:15am

    I find myself saying “really” to myself a lot when working with either of my dogs. It has sorta becoming a NRM for them oops on my part. I didn’t actually notice myself until I was video taping a session a few months ago. So I tape a lot more of my sessions to watch myself more than either of my dogs most of the time lol. The really has disappeared now luckily. I try not to use them at all because both of my dogs are very sensitive and it is harder for my three year old to tell the difference from a verbal correction (I’m so happy to be away from those, but she heard them a lot when she was under a year). The younger dog doesn’t mind them much if I ever have to use them because she gets into patterns of her own that she just can’t seem to stop like, she’ll just keep repeating the same behaviors she knows without offering new ones because she likes them so much I suppose. Really I’m not sure. I didn’t save the last video, but basically it looked like to me when she gets confused on offering anything knew she just wants to sit, down, spin, sit, spin, down, in various orders hoping to get a response out of me. Then once I stop the chain she tends to do something else. I’ve learned now to start even smaller with her because she can get obsessive over training so we keep her sessions super short. My three year old likes two to three minute sessions and my one year old likes one minute sessions lol. Fine by me gives me time to work on switching dogs and rewarding the one year old for good crate game behaviors while I go off to work with my three year old.

    Anyway awesome post as always Susan.


  4. sharon empson says:
    Thursday, March 22, 2012 at 1:31am

    Susan: I use oops in a light hearted manner. I do not know what else to do. I have waited and make no response whatsoever and that works when I am trying to get them to do a behavior. but when I do not want them to not move -say if I ask for a sit and wait and they move (when distractions come) I was using oops.
    Sharon empson
    P.S. I am planning on reading all your articles so I can learn the correct way to administer a nrm.


  5. Terrie says:
    Thursday, February 16, 2012 at 11:01pm

    Well, this is a pretty old discussion but since I just attended a workshop with the extraoirdinary Ken Ramirez http://kenramireztraining.com/on the topic of NRMs I want to share!
    He doesn’t use them in his own training. While he allows that a very few trainers have the skill and timing to use them effectively (he showed a couple of video examples) his opinion is that most of us don’t have the skill or timing to use them to good effect.
    He himself uses a very very brief moment of nothing…yes…nothing. He just doesn’t respond at all for a second or two, if an animal makes a mistake and doesn’t perform what he cued. Then he follows with a simple behavior he knows the animal will do effectively, rewards, does that again, rewards, and then returns to the earlier ‘failed; behaviour and asks for it again. He gets it, and rewards.
    Ramirez showed several examples of his use of this strategy and it was quite elegant in it’s simplicity.


  6. elizabeth popp says:
    Sunday, October 16, 2011 at 9:51pm

    i have a 3 year old border collie bitch who decided at 1 1/2 years that all dogs were a threat. she went to puppy classes and i took her everywhere i went. she did fine up until i took her to an agility class at 18 months. she lunged and barked at all the dogs. since then, i have worked with “positive” trainers, but she seems to have gotten worse. i mentioned this to susan at a seminar in colorado, and she said to go to the vet and get drugs. sorry, but that smacks of a “training malfunction”.
    so….she has gotten away with this sort of behavior for 1 1/2 years. no corrections, nothing. just moving away from the stimulus. (that is the reward). that is all fine and dandy, but at agility trials there are stimuli everywhere. you cannot “move away” forever.
    is this “candy and flowers” approach really effective? i really do not think so. at some point, there has to be consequences for unacceptable behavior. this particular behavior is not just ignoring you on the course or “getting the zoomies”. it becomes a real hazard to other dogs and yours. if your dog truly lives and breathes agility, then a “time out” may be all that is needed. a “collar grab” or a “time out” may work for some dogs, but i would like to see susan really give some serious attention to this serious problem. drugs? maybe… i, myself, will not drug my dog.


    • Karen M says:
      Tuesday, October 18, 2011 at 7:59am

      Sometimes it may be that drugs are the answer. Had you considered it may be a medical issue? Have you been to a qualified animal behaviourist? I found out the hard way that my dog was suffering. She was reactive to other dogs. In the end, it was neurological but by the time I found out, it was too late for my dog. She had a grand mal seizure and the prognosis was poor.


    • Beverly Hebert says:
      Thursday, February 9, 2012 at 11:13pm

      If your dog finds other dogs threatening and she barks at them and all you do is move her further away, you are reinforcing that behavior.
      Nothing in your post indicates that you have ever worked with a positive trainer who knows how to effectively use a behavior modification program. Behavior modification is all about the proper use of reinforcement, which includes when and how to withhold it.


  7. elizabeth popp says:
    Saturday, August 20, 2011 at 11:08pm

    you seem to be quite obsessed that we do not associate our dogs’ names with an “NRM”. you do not have to say, “n”, do not do that, or “n” that is not right. you do have to show them ,however, what is acceptable behavior and what is not. “time outs” in dog training have about as much effectiveness as in children-training. many of them hope to get just what you are offering. a chance to kick back and say, “wow! that is just what i wanted!. i don’t have to do “x” or “y”. you rely too much on terribly focused border collies to make the assumption that not being able to work is enough “punishment”. some dogs would not agree.


  8. elizabeth popp says:
    Saturday, August 20, 2011 at 7:33pm

    i am all for positive training. but(and there are always “buts” in dog training) what if your dog just decides they are not going to do what you have planned for them in a ring situation? is it stress? maybe in some cases, but not all. i have seen this over and over in the ring. (even with seasoned dogs). “mom wants me to get the dumbbell or go over the jump, but i really don’t feel like doing it today. i will do it when i feel like it, but since i know there will be no consequences, i just choose not to”.
    what, exactly, should the consequences be, if any? should we just go back and re-evaluate our training programs (some for the umpteenth time) and try to repair our relationships with our dogs? somehow, i do not think it is a training relationship. i believe it is a simple matter of “crime” versus “punishment”. kind of like raising children…” if you do not do this, then, as a consequence, you do not get to do this or get that, or whatever…” i do not view this as harsh. i am not advocating corporal punishment, but a simple “ah-ah” or “no” is certainly not going to damage your dog’s psyche forever or destroy your training relationship. heaven help you if you have this view and you have ever raised children!


  9. Viki says:
    Monday, May 9, 2011 at 8:33am

    Thanks Susan for the article, I have been using the verbal aahhh since I was thought to do so in our puppy obedience class. Thanks goodness I found you and ruff love and I have changed that kind of punishment, but in many occasions like when trying to get my dog not to jump when greeting people, many times I don’t say anything when my puppy jumps. Thanks for the ideas on which phrases you use. I will definitely use them and keep learning from you..lot’s of training, patience and love!!!take care. Viki


  10. Leigh says:
    Wednesday, March 30, 2011 at 9:42am

    Good article.. thanks for posting! All your blog entries are so informative. I do have a question though. Do you have a recommendation for a good school for dog trainers ? A few recommendations could make a good blog entry! Thanks!


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