Monday, December 10, 2012


"All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world."
-The Buddha

Pretty much anyone who uses any amount of positive reinforcement in dog training regularly uses a reward marker to indicate when the dog has performed a desired behavior.  Often this marker is a click from a clicker, or a verbal "yes!"  Many of us were also taught in our early classes to also use a "no reward marker" (NRM) to indicate that the behavior that was offered was not correct and will not be earning a reward.  Most people use "no" or "wrong" or perhaps that familiar "ah AH!!" sound that seems to pierce through all sounds at a training facility.

It seems logical enough, right?  And certainly much better than jerking on a choke chain to convey disapproval with the dog's action.  But are they necessary?

I decided to stop intentionally using NRMs about three years ago, after attending my first ClickerExpo where I learned that there wasn't necessarily strong scientific evidence supporting that they promoted faster learning.  After all, the absence of reinforcement is indication in itself that the behavior is not correct.  By preventing reinforcement for behaviors we don't want, and only rewarding those that we do want, we can effectively communicate the important information to facilitate learning.  Why bother with all the extra words?  In fact, I find that when I cut out most talking and focus that energy on observing and getting timing and mechanics right, my dogs progress much faster than if I am yammering at them.

In addition, I think many people's use of NRMs is more accurately described as positive punishment.  The neutral, calm "no" that our puppy class instructor demonstrated is quickly replaced by an emphatic, shouted "NO!!!"  And frankly I find that ubiquitous "ah AH!!" sound to be so aurally offensive and aversive that I wish I could banish it right along with all shock collars.  These utterances are not trying to provide information; they are meant to stop behavior.

But the real reason I stopped using NRMs is related to the quote above - our thoughts create our world, as do our words.  I strongly believe that the words and language we use shapes our realities, our perceptions, our thoughts, and our emotions as well.  And I absolutely hate the word "No."  I want to live my life with "Yes!"

The thing about negative speech, is that it frames how you begin to perceive and feel about the situation.  If I start telling a dog "no," I can feel my perceptions shift.  I start noticing the "bad" behavior, and not recognizing the good.  I see the dog only as misbehaving.  I get annoyed and frustrated and find myself losing patience.  And I stop being able to effectively teach anything.

Sure, there are alternate NRMs to use that don't sound as bad.  I briefly used "oops" or "uh-oh," but too often my husband would hear that and think something was actually wrong.  Nowadays, if I do let an NRM slip, it is more along the lines of "try again" or "I think you can do that better."  But really, I don't believe that conveys any useful information to the dog - those are simply examples of me being true to my very verbal species and not being able to shut up completely.

So what is a better response?  Recently I watched video of a well-known positive dog trainer working on proofing her dog's performance of a difficult, but silly, trick.  Every time he made a mistake, she cracked up in pure joyous laughter.  And, really, the attempts were pretty funny, but I also thought, what a perfect reaction.  Failure in training is a good thing!  As good as it feels to do things perfect, I am learning to be glad when my dog makes a mistake as it provides an opportunity to better clarify what it is I do want.

Certainly I don't think NRMs are abusive or coercive or unethical - I am hardly going to get on my soapbox about that.  But I do encourage others to see what happens if you don't use them, because when you aren't looking for "no" I suspect you will start to see a lot more "yes."