How to use a simple cue to elevate your dogs’ level of understanding and decision-making. The wrong answer can be a step toward the right answer. In this article, Stefani Fortney will show you how to use the no reward marker to get the right response from your dog.
When I was a kid, I hated going to school. I had a different learning style than a lot of the other kids in my class; I also had a learning style that many of my teachers didn’t understand or appreciate. I was never content with just knowing the right answers. I had to know why they were the right answers. It was frustrating and embarrassing for me. When a teacher would call on me to answer their questions, I would ask questions in return. It wasn’t that I didn’t know the answer they were looking for and I wasn’t trying to be difficult. I just had different goals than they did. My brain worked differently.
Often, the process I followed to get to an understanding of the subject matter led through stages of wrong answers that finally led to the right one. It was time-consuming, and a lot of the time I felt stupid. I wished, over and over, that my teachers could understand that my “wrong answers” were a part of my learning process. I was taking apart the problems and trying to answer each question from the inside out. If they had given me a little extra time to complete the chain of ideas in my head, they’d have seen that my “wrong” answers were actually “try again” moments.
Sometimes thoughtful dogs can be seen as stubborn dogs
Have you ever been in a situation where you ask your dog to do something that you know s/he knows how to do, but instead of obeying, they stare at you and don’t seem to listen? Maybe you’re trying to teach your pup a new obedience behavior or cue, but they just don’t seem to be “getting it.”
Take a moment or two to think of the exercise from your dog’s point of view. Are you moving too quickly to try to teach a new behavior and your dog is confused, but trying to figure it out? Are you in a situation where your dog doesn’t feel like it’s as important for him or her to obey a cue as it is for them to check out an awesome new smell, sound, sight, or experience? A dog’s perspective is much different from ours. A dog who seems stubborn may just be confused or overwhelmed.
The No Reward Marker — the cue to try, try again
Humans and animals speak completely different languages. In order to help our dogs achieve to the best of their abilities, we need to bridge the communication gap with cues that act as road signs for them to follow. In my last article, I spoke about marking positive behaviors and correct outcomes with the word “yes.” That’s known as the “Reward Marker.” It tells our dog the exact moment that s/he got something right. Now, let’s talk about the “No Reward Marker.” This is simply a verbal cue that tells our dog that they didn’t give us the answer we asked for and that they don’t receive a reward for the behavior they just offered. For the dogs I teach, we use the “eh-eh” sound for this purpose. By using the No Reward Marker and the Reward Marker properly, you create a simple communication bridge with your dog.
Here’s a simple example of the no reward marker at work:
- You ask your dog to sit. (In this example, we’ll assume your dog knows the “sit” cue.)
- Your dog looks at you as if you are speaking in pig-latin.
- You wait for a silent count of five seconds to give your dog the chance to think through your request and make the decision to comply.
- Your dog starts to turn around and walk away.
- You say “eh-eh” to indicate that the cue was “sit” and the behavior that they’re exhibiting is not the correct action for that cue—therefore, they don’t get the reward that they should be eagerly working toward (e., treats, praise, play).
- You regain your dog’s attention (usually, just saying their name or making a smooch noise does the trick)
- Repeat steps 1 through 6 until your dog sits when you give the “sit” cue. If it takes more than three attempts, you need to go back to kindergarten level with the cue, making sure that your dog understands what you’re asking for.
- When your dog sits on cue, immediately give the Reward Marker (“Yes!”) and reward your dog.
Notice that we don’t repeat the cue over and over. We want our dog to offer the cued behavior when s/he hears the cue one time. Using the No Reward Marker acts almost like a “reset button.” It tells our dogs that they didn’t get it right and need to try again to receive their reward. By giving the dog time to think (the silent five count), we’re allowing them to make positive decisions without us immediately stepping in with a correction. By giving the Reward Marker and their reward at the exact second they get the behavior right, we’re reinforcing that behavior and increasing the chances of our dog repeating the correct behavior in the future.
Need some help training your dog? Stefani offers individual and group obedience classes. Contact Guthrie Pet Hospital today for more information.