Markers (in Dog Training)

What is a marker?

Markers are a super useful tool in dog training because they are a way to communicate to our dogs “that’s it!” “you got it right!” A marker can be a word, action or sound that we use to mark the exact moment when our dog performs the desired behavior. We are marking the precise instant our dog makes a good choice! In positive dog training this marker is followed by a reward, such as food, toy, play, touch …

What are types of markers?

A commonly used marker is a little device called a Clicker. It’s a mechanical sound that always sounds the same, depending on the type of clicker you are using. Quite often we use a specific word since we don’t always have that clicker on us. A commonly used verbal marker is the word “YES”. Some people like to use a click of the tongue instead of a device or word. When working for example with a deaf dog, a marker can be a hand signal, or a specific touch for a blind animal. A clapping of my hands can be a high arousal marker whereas a calmly spoken “NICE” would be a calm marker. We can choose the appropriate type of marker for the emotional state we are wanting to achieve or maintain.

Why do we use markers?

A marker in itself doesn’t mean anything, it’s not a cue for recalls or specific behaviors. It simply signals to the dog that a correct choice has been made and a reward will be following. Therefore, we can also call the marker a bridge between the behavior and the reward.

Because the marker becomes a predictor of a reward = something the dog values, a marker itself can become a primary reward whereas the actual reward is then the secondary reward (food, toy, etc.). This shows how powerful the use of markers can be as the dog basically gets 2 rewards for a correct behavior! This does not mean that we should be skipping the food reward or the primary marker may lose its value which will lead to making good choices less desirable.

Depending on what kind of behavior we are trying to teach, it’s possible that the dog does one or more other things after the ONE behavior we are working on. Because there is always a delay between the dog’s action and the reward delivery, the clicker makes it clear WHICH behavior gets rewarded -> clarity for the dog leads to understanding what’s expected which facilitates faster learning.

Where do we use markers?

Markers can be used anywhere in dog training. The dog’s learning can happen much quicker when markers are used in teaching new behaviors; quite often it only takes a few repetitions for a dog to understand what the desired behavior is when we use markers since they provide such clear information.

How to use markers?

I usually just start using them and my dogs pick up on what they mean as we go. However, you can introduce your marker, let’s use the word “YES” for the purpose of the exercise, by saying the marker “YES” and giving your dog a piece of food. After a few repetitions, your dog will expect a treat after hearing the marker word and you’re ready to train. The same approach can be made with an actual clicker but be aware of your dog’s response to the noise (or to your happy “YES” word for that matter). If the dog appears even the slightest bit uneasy about the marker, we have to tone it down to the dog’s comfort level: lower your voice or use a pen to make a clicking noise, maybe even behind your back to muffle the sound even more. It’s important that the marker itself is not something that scares the dog, so finding an appropriate marker can be an important first step for dogs who are easily worried. Maybe a softly spoken word, followed by tossing a treat away from the dog is all that they can handle at the beginning and more time will be spent in getting this dog used to having a positive expectation when hearing their marker.

Shaping is a great way to teach new behaviors or tricks by marking small increments towards the desired end behavior. We might mark the dog for looking at an object first, then maybe touching it with the nose or paw. Each of those steps can be rewarded a few times but it’s important to not stay at the same stage for too long or the dog will assume that this is the end-behavior! Shaping is all about progression in increments.

When I first teach a dog about jumping, I will mark the moment where my dog looks into the direction where I want her to go. Marking the split second where the puppy makes the decision to move in the desired direction is highly efficient and learning can happen super fast this way!

When talking about markers the topic of NRM = non-reward markers often comes up. I don’t use them very often as they can easily be perceived as a punisher by the dog, if not used properly!!! For most behaviors, the absence of a marker and a following reward is enough information for the dog to know that they are not on the right track. There is one place where I will use a NRM and that is, when teaching weave poles, when the dog enters the weaves incorrectly. A NRM can be something like “oops”, “try again” or similar and HAS TO BE USED IN A FRIENDLY TONE and preferably not something we say often in our daily lives! The reason why I do use a NRM in that context is that I don’t want my dog to continue weaving poles when they have entered incorrectly since I won’t be rewarding this repetition but I want them to stop and we’ll set up for another go. It’s just supposed to be information and not a punisher, so the choice of word and tone is crucial.

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