Technology and no reward markers (NRM’s)

I drive two cars. Each one has a GPS installed. Both cars are a huge improvement over having a spouse direct my driving. I mean, having my husband yell, “Left, left! Your other left!” after I have passed the intersection? Not helpful. The error has been made, his irritation is obvious, and now I’m not liking him very much.

The GPS? Neutral! Accurate! Timely! What’s not to love?

When I make an error in the older car, it says “recalculating route”. A classic no reward marker given in a neutral tone! It tells me I am wrong, and structures me to get it right the next time.

Recently I was driving the new car. I went through a difficult intersection, and one minute later noticed that I was in a similar place and could have taken a more direct route. And then I remembered that I had had a moment of confusion a minute earlier, and must have inadvertently missed the correct turn that the GPS has signaled to me.

And then I had a lightbulb moment. I realized that this car does not say “recalculating route”. It does not use a No Reward Marker. It just fixes my problem.

What is my emotional reaction to each car?

Well, I like the neutral no reward marker way better than being yelled at so the first car was a huge improvement over the punishment-based approach I had endured before.

But compared to the second car which uses no reward marker at all? No comparison. I much prefer driving the new car. It solves my problem and it never says a word about it! Now I find that “recalculating route” thing to be extremely irritating – I already know that. I don’t need the car to tell me I screwed up when it’s too late to do anything with that information.

How about from the point of view of initial learning? If I found myself in the same circumstance again, I would say that the first car, complete with the no reward marker, is more likely to make an impact on my learning because it brought attention to the fact that I made an error. Of course, that is only useful if I am going to be in that situation often enough that I actually need to learn it AND assuming I have enough information to make a better choice next time. Which does happen!

In the second car, it was only by coincidence that I recognized that I had made an error, so learning – when I need to operate without direction in that same circumstance later on – would be slower.

To summarize. My emotional response to the neutral no reward marker car is not good. I don’t like the way it feels, but it is better than punishment. The new car? My emotional response is very good. It does not tell me when I make an error; it simply fixes my mistakes. But for learning? The first car allows me to learn more quickly, assuming the correct answer is immediately obvious and I will have a chance to practice it again.

Dogs? Here’s what I have concluded. If your number one priority is speed of learning and bringing your dog’s attention to the behavior, then a neutral no reward marker will do that for you. That assumes that your timing is excellent and you have structured the situation such that the dog is guaranteed to get it right the second time. But be aware that your dog speed and enthusiasm for the task, and how your dog feels about you, are all going to take a hit as a result.

So in my house? Where I need basic behavior rules followed? I will use a no reward marker. “ No. Do not get on my couch” I have told the dog what they may not do and I don’t care very much that they are going to slow down when they are in the presence of the couch and not like me as much at that moment. I have an opinion about their behavior and now they know it.

And in training? Where I care very much about not only the end behavior but how the dog feels about it and how they feel about me? Where my priority is attitude and energy over everything? Where I need the dog to rely on me in a competition environment where my ability to reinforce isn’t very good, and stress might be higher than I would prefer? I will not use a no reward marker. I tell the dog what I want, I will restructure them for success, and I maintain our positive relationship above all. That is my priority.

As I pointed out earlier, it’s hard to beat a GPS for clarity, so ask yourself if you can match that. if you’re not sure, look at what happens next. You should always be successful in educating the other on the second attempt. If not – maybe a NRM is not the right choice for you. As trainers we need to recognize that rarely do we reach that standard of clarity when training our dog to do a new thing.

I am not going to say NRM’s are right or wrong, but I am going to say that all of your decisions have ramifications that may go way beyond what was in your head at the moment you made a given decision.