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:).