Markers in Training

Why and How to Use a Marker:  For a moment, let’s talk about why we are using a marker and how to use it effectively in dog training. First off, what is a marker? A marker could be the word “yes” or “good” or it could be the sound of a click from a clicker. A marker “marks” desirable behavior and predicts reinforcement. The marker comes first and the food reinforcement comes second. Ultimately markers can bridge the gap between the moment that a dog offers a behavior and the moment that the trainer is able to reinforce the behavior. Marine mammal trainers use whistles as markers when training dolphins; they whistle the moment that a dolphin offers a desired behavior, like, jumping through a hoop. The whistle indicates that the dolphin got the behavior “right” and prompts the dolphin to swim back to his trainer to receive reinforcement – a fish! Dog trainers use a verbal marker, like “yes” or “good” or the click of a clicker to mark for desirable behavior.

Clickers vs. Verbal Markers: The reason some dog trainers advocate the use of a clicker over verbal markers is because we talk .. a lot, which means that our words can easily lose meaning, particularly if we fail to make a significant pairing. Clickers and whistles are concise, distinct sounds that a dog will most likely only hear in conjunction with training sessions. When clickers are properly introduced in dog training they can rapidly shift the dog  into a “what are you teaching me today?” mindset, and thereby accelerate the learning process.

That being said, there are benefits to verbal markers. First, employing verbal markers will help us become more mindful of when and how we use our words. Second, some people have a hard enough time getting the mechanics of training right, they struggle with proper use of a leash and food, and find that it is too challenging to incorporate a clicker into the mix.

Third, verbal markers are better for dogs that might be nervous or even over stimulated with the  sound of a clicker. When in doubt stick to a verbal marker, but make a concerted effort to make a consistent pairing with high value reinforcement. It is for these reasons that I recommend using a verbal marker for this training program.

(optional) Now that you have a better understanding of what a clicker does, let’s take a moment to discuss what a clicker does not do. A clicker is not a remote control. It does not have any magical properties. It will only work if the person using it understands HOW to use it. It is a simple tool that can be extremely powerful when is is properly applied in training sessions.

Common Questions:

QUESTION: How do we introduce a marker?

ANSWER: Introduce a marker in a low stress, low distraction environment. Use your marker first, followed by a high value food reward.

QUESTION: Do we need to use a marker every time we reward the dog?

ANSWER: No. You should use a marker to create or maintain a strong association between the sound of the marker and something that is inherently reinforcing to your dog. You will also use a marker to pinpoint the moment your dog offered a desired behavior, when you are not able to immediately offer primary reinforcement. However, it’s not completely necessary to mark every time you reward, particularly when you are reinforcing behavior as it is being offered. For example, if a dog is holding a sit or down position.

In the training program I will go into more detail about how to generate and maintain a strong response to a marker in a low stress, minimal distraction environment. Ultimately, we will also discuss how to apply markers in behavioral training exercises for optimal results in training.

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