“To hear, one must be silent.”Ursula K Le Guin
I was outside the other day working on loose leash walking skills with a client. We began with me watching them together. As she and her dog were walking, a rain of praise was coming from her when she could get her dog to respond for even a second. “Good boy, good boy, good boy,” I heard often. Meanwhile, her dog was continually moving in different directions, pulling toward things he saw, and in general, not connected to her at all. Was she being helpful to her training with her talk?
No, she wasn’t.
That much talking really was just background noise to her dog. Her words weren’t serving to give her dog solid information to indicate what it was that he was doing right and what it was that was earning a reinforcer.
I get it. I am someone who uses my speech a lot. My prior career included a lot of talking (and writing), media interviews, and influencing others through communication. It is part of who I am. I still find myself using it a lot in my training animals but I also recognize that when teaching (especially teaching new behaviors), cutting back on my speech to give very specific feedback to the learner of what behavior I am looking for, is important to the lesson’s success.
There is a lot more to teaching loose leash walking than words but for the sake of this article, I want to focus on our use of words to communicate wanted behavior.
Marker training involves the use of a distinct sound (or other type of signal) to indicate to the learner that, at that specific moment, he did exactly what you are looking for. It is a science-based form of teaching/learning. That marker has value because it is followed immediately by another reinforcer.
One of the reasons for its effectiveness is because it can be delivered quickly and we know that the quicker the consequence occurs to the behavior, the quicker the animal can learn the association between a behavior and a consequence.
Some examples of markers include a click (with a clicker), Yes!, Good!, or Yay! You can use different words too to indicate different modes of reinforcer delivery. (Such as, “Yes!” may indicate to go to the food while a slow ‘Goood’ could indicate food is coming to the animal.)
If you are shaping behavior (reinforcing small steps or approximations toward a final behavior), you may mark those tiny steps with a click or word kind of like you’d play the child’s hot and cold game. You may also click in teaching simple behaviors like when a dog sits or you may mark a behavior for other criteria such as duration. That precision matters because within just several seconds time, you could be inadvertently reinforcing a different behavior if your timing is off. You can say ‘Yes!’ or click much quicker than you can deliver a piece of food.
To use markers effectively, they should be used ‘as’ the behavior is occurring. No other stimulus should be present until AFTER the click or verbal word (so no reaching for your food until after you click).
So, let’s go back to my client who was continuously saying, ‘Good boy’, to her dog. Can you see how those words were not giving her dog clear enough information to know what behavior she was looking for?
When she began using ‘good’ only at specific moments that her dog did what she wanted, guess what? Her dog began doing more of what she wanted.