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.

More about Training Levels


Self-evaluation is valuable for the trainer, the dog and our broader community. At Whole Dog Camp, we aim to collect valid training data so that we can evaluate training techniques and understand more about influences on behavior, shaping behavior as a science, as well as an art. Members have a file that helps them participate in training data collection. Your first training evaluation will provide you with useful data.

Look at  description training levels on the registration page to get an idea of what behaviors are evaluated. Almost every team will test out at “many levels.” Your dog might be an expert (blue!) in one thing, and a complete beginner(orange! red!) in another area. Levels are determined by a teams’ minimal level of performance.  If your dog evaluates at a level orange in social skills, but a level blue in agility, your dog has orange level privileges. Once identified “orange” skills are at least at a green level, your dog can be evaluated again, and pass to gain the privileges of Green dogs. Team level represents the lowest level of  performance, so a “Blue level” Dog will behave at the blue level or higher in every area of the evaluation.

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!

Is this my puppy?

I’m getting ready to pick out a new puppy. In my lifetime, I’ve owned 10 of my own dogs, and directly lived with and trained hundreds of other dogs (approaching 600 now), as well as heard stories and been consulted on many more. I know that choosing our dog determines so much about what will follow in our life with our dog.

Here are the things I consider when looking for my new puppy.IMG_3209

Coat: Personally, I want a smooth-ish coat. Partly that’s to avoid excess hair, grooming time and costs and so that it will be easier for me to do tick checks. But I don’t want a coat that is so short that my dog will be cold in winter. I am looking for a coat that is not long enough to get snarled and matted, but thick enough to be warm in winter. I like a non-shedding coat, but I know they cost more time and money to maintain, and snow clumps up on them, so although I’ve loved my non-shedding dogs, non-shedding is not my current choice.

Size: I want a dog who is just big enough to enjoy skjoring, but not so big that he will take up a ton of space or become too heavy as we age for us to lift up on our boat. I want a dog who I can catch in my arms or who can jump up on my back. So I am looking for a dog who will be no heavier than about 50-60lbs as an adult.

Gender: I currently have two females, including one who considers herself “Queen Bee.” Usually I choose spayed females, (intact dogs are such a pain! yuck!) because I don’t like to deal with all the leg lifting and penis conversations that often come up with even neutered male dogs, but this time, to make my dogs happy I think this new puppy should be a little boy. Same-gender dogs in multi-dog households can cause strife, so  I’m getting a boy to help ensure that my Queen Bee won’t be jealous.

The tricky decisions regard breed. Rather than think in terms of “breed,” I think in terms of behavior and personality traits. I want a very smart healthy dog, but I don’t want a dog who naturally obsesses on squirrels or cats and birds.  Been there done that. It’s so much easier to have a dog who is more interested in human beings than in prey.

Prey drive can vary a lot between dogs even within the same breed — you can have prey driven collies and shepherds and terriers, and others of the exact same breed who care not a whit about squirrels. There is some association between prey drive and shyness. Shy dogs tend to have more interest in hunting and less interest in humans. Shy dogs are more difficult to train, more at risk of becoming reactive/aggressive, and they have less predictable and more time consuming responses to training (because they would often rather be avoiding social interactions).  I certainly learned a lot from my shy dogs —  but I absolutely don’t want to choose a shy dog now.  I’m in the mood to teach fun tricks and games, not the mood to spend three to five years working to counter-condition a reactive anxious or prey-driven dog. I am not going to choose a breed that will make it impossible for me to get homeowner’s insurance, nor a breed that is unlikely to live a long heathy life.

So, I do want a super athletic dog. I want a sociable energetic puppy who tugs and is eager to play with me, who might grow up to jump through hoops and run agility for half an hour and still want to play some more. I want a puppy with healthy bones and eyes and ears. I want a smart dog who is likely to live a long time. I want a dog who is emotionally healthy, responsive and fun to train. I want a puppy who plays well with other puppies and humans.

My best dogs have all been mixed breed rescues. Buying a purebred dog might make it easier to “know what I’m getting” (and maybe that’s what I will ultimately do), but there are no guarantees in terms of health or longevity or temperament, and no one breed “has it it all.” I’m starting my search as I always have, by looking at sheltered puppies.

IMG_7205The best way to evaluate what size, coat color and behavior traits will be like as an adult is to choose an older puppy. It’s almost impossible to evaluate how a “breed unknown” 8 or 10 week old puppy will mature, but it’s even harder to know what size or shape a pup will grow up to be if you aren’t certain about the puppy’s age. If you adopt a 6 week old puppy believing it is a 10 or 12 week old puppy, you are likely to wind up with an adult dog who is MUCH larger than you expected. So I will try to find a puppy where the actual date of birth is known. If I select a BIRTH DATE KNOWN 8 or 10 week old puppy who is between 8 and 15 lbs, my adult dog is likely to grow into the “medium” size range than I am hoping to adopt.

Now evaluate temperament. The best test is just watching the pup play and interact. If you drop a metal spoon, does the pup shy away from it?  I want the dog where curiosity wins out. I want the pup who sniffs the spoon or pan (even though he maybe was startled by it at first). I bunch up a ball of paper, toss, and I like the pup who goes and gets it and brings it at least part-way back towards me. I want the pup who is very curious and interested in me, who prances and dances and seems happy and playful and cheerful. I don’t mind if he bites at my ankle and demands to play. I hold the pup and touch his paws and tail and try flipping him over. If he seems to want to play with me, if he is smart and funny and active, I like that. I’ll look at his body. Does his shape look balanced and healthy and normal? If I know the mother dog, does she seem limber? Is there any concern about vision or hearing or other functioning?

I watch how the puppy plays with other puppies. Is he happy and confident? Is he in the thick of things or staying off to the side? I want the playground leader,  definitely not the wall flower for me, but the playful cheerful littermate.

There are no guarantees. Purebred as well as mixed breed dogs have arthritis and dysplasia, they go deaf and blind, they can have thyroid and behavior problems. Purebred puppies are born with the same numbers of problems that shelter dogs have. No matter what dog I select, I am going to need to deal with his health and training issues, defend his health and happiness for the rest of his life. So at this point, it’s just a matter of enjoying the process of meeting many puppies until my heart is fully able to answer the question:  is this my puppy?IMG_5493