Trainer’s Corner: Using Markers in Training

When I am training a dog (or other animal), you hear me use words like GOOD! and YES! a lot. You also often see me pull out a clicker. 

There is a lot more to me using those sounds than simply expressing my excitement. They are training tools, called markers, that help my student learn what I am teaching.

They help by telling the animal THAT very specific behavior it just that second did is a behavior I want to see. And also that the sound is a predictor of something ahead that the animal values (often food, at least in the beginning, but also other things or opportunities). The marker serves as a ‘bridge’ between the behavior and the reinforcer. 

When used with good timing on your part, markers add so much clarity for your student. Afterall, you can click or say YES! much quicker than you can deliver a treat or other reinforcer. And the sooner the consequence is after the behavior, the faster the animal can learn an association between those two events.  

Likewise, if you use an aversive like leash popping or shaking a can (which is not my preferred choice for behavior medication due to the negative ramifications) to try to stop an unwanted behavior, that punishment also would need to be delivered immediately following the behavior. If there is a delay in your punishment, the aversive will be associated with whatever happened just before it. This means you could easily end up teaching your pet a negative association with something you had not intended.

As an example, if you come home to find a puddle on your kitchen floor and yell at your dog hours later when you see it, you may actually be teaching your dog that it is his coming to you when you walk in the door that has caused you to yell—not the accident that occurred sometime earlier. 

There are actually lots of different kinds of markers you can use. You could teach your dog that one marker means you are bringing the food to its mouth and another one means you want it to chase the food. You could use a marker that means prepare to catch a ball and another marker means tug your toy. If you are working with a deaf dog, you will want to use a visual or tactile marker. You can also mark a behavior by giving a cue to do another behavior that has been positively reinforced. This is called chaining, teaching separate behaviors that are tied together. There are lots of creative ways you can use markers.

When I work with clients who have used traditional training in the past, I’ve found it can be especially helpful to begin with clickers as their voices in training may have become associated with negative outcomes. The clicker is a new, novel sound that is used for only teaching positive associations. 

In order for your marker to have importance to your student, there is more to it than timing. 

You also need to practice waiting until AFTER your marker to deliver the reinforcement. That means keeping your hand out of the treat pouch or holding the treats behind your back or on a counter until you say YES! or click. THEN you can get the treat to deliver it. Remember, that all needs to happen quickly. 

You also need to ensure that what you are using as reinforcement is actually of value to your pet. If it isn’t, then the marker will lose value. This is why it is important for you to know what your dog really enjoys.

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