Once upon a time (back in the 1960’s I think) marine mammal trainers discovered the power of marking the behaviour of dolphins while training them. The concept was simple; when the dolphin performed the behaviour they wanted, they would blow a whistle to signal the dolphin done it correctly something and that they should come to the side of the pool to get a tasty fish. It saved having to learn how to throw fish accurately out to the middle of the pool.
The only catch to that marking system was that dolphins don’t know that the whistle means “Good job, come and get your reward” without some instruction. Thanks to the work of Ivan Pavlov and Classical Conditioning, it turns out to be remarkably easy to teach marker signals to animals. It is a simple association where the animal recognizes the pattern that every time they hear or see the marker, it is followed by something they like. It’s a simple concept that animals learn very quickly.
We didn’t know what we knew
It turns out that marking behaviour is not exactly something new for humans. We do it all the time when we interact with each other. We see it in the common courtesy of saying “thank you” in order to keep our social interactions working smoothly. While our human reward systems can be much more complex than the ones we use with animals, the elements are still there. When we request something from someone and they deliver it, we say “thank you” to acknowledge that we are happy with the results. The reward can be a smile, a generous tip, or even just the satisfaction of having done a job well.
So while the use of whistles and clickers in training dolphins, dogs, and other animals was heralded as something of a revolution, we were really just being more specific about using something we humans are very good at – signals. Perhaps the revolutionary aspect we saw had to do with the fact that animals could read and use signals too. But the animal we should be least surprised at is the domestic dog. Over the centuries we have been exchanging signals with them and they have learned them by the hundreds. We just don’t call them signals or markers.
Marking “right”, “wrong”, and things in between
One of the most common markers that dog trainers have used for decades is “NO!” It generally means the dog has done something wrong or incorrectly and that nothing good is going to happen for the dog in the immediate future. Different dog training systems have advocated variations on the marker for “wrong.” There is the choke chain with provides both a jingle noise and a tightening around the neck. There is the shock collar that delivers an electrical “stimulus” where the contacts meet the dog’s skin. We have developed various forms of verbal markers like “AAaah!”, “HEY!”, “Knock it off!”, or “Bad dog!” But they all mean the same thing. You messed up and it would be a good idea if you didn’t make that mistake again.
Our signals for “wrong” worked so well that it shouldn’t really seem like any kind of revelation that a marker that means our dog did something “right” should work just as well. After all, if our dogs can learn the meaning for one signal, then why not introduce them to more signals that could make training them easier. Trainers who use a clicker or a verbal marker like “Yes!” with consistency and provide some positive reward after that marker can see amazing results in a very short time. Expanding our use of markers can enhance our communication with our dogs and open up new training opportunities.
The rise of Techno-training babble
Thanks in part to the work of psychologists and behaviourists in universities, an entire lexicon of terms had evolved around the different kinds of marker signals that can be used in working with animals. We have moved beyond just marking “right” and “wrong.” We now have signals for more subtle behavioural responses. Unfortunately, the names of these marker signals seem deceptively simple compared to their actual use in training.
Reward Marker – This is our signal for “you did it RIGHT!” and that a reward is on its way.
Punishment Marker – This is our signal for “sorry, you did it WRONG!” and some form of punishment will follow.
No Reward Marker – This is essentially a signal for, well, nothing. Literally. It is intended to tell the animal that no reward is coming but also that no punishment will be coming either. It is meant to function as a “try again” signal. It is a marker that says, “That wasn’t it but you get another chance if you want it.”
Keep Going Signal – As I understand it, these markers were first developed by researchers working with dolphins in the open ocean and are intended as reminders to animals working for extended periods (sometimes 30-60 minutes) on search or other behaviours. Basically a Keep Going Signal says that “you are doing it right but I need you to do more of that before I can reward you.”
Dog owners and dog trainers are all familiar with Punishment Markers and many are even using Reward Markers effectively these days. That’s because they are easy enough to teach to a dog so that they understand. The No Reward Marker can be a little ambiguous to teach since you aren’t really marking anything. In essence, you didn’t do it right but you didn’t do it wrong either. You can do it again if you want to try to get it right. That can be a little tricky to teach effectively.
The Keep Going Signal is similarly complicated to teach to a dog, especially if you have already taught a Punishment or Reward Marker. The Keep Going Signal means “you are doing it right but you haven’t done enough of it yet.” Presumably, there will need to be a Reward Marker at the end or a Punishment Marker to terminate things if they go off track. But you have to get across the idea that the dog must continue doing the “right” behaviour they are doing without distracting them or knocking them mentally off track.
The markers we didn’t mean to teach
Unfortunately for us, Pavlov’s research into Classical Conditioning shows that any repeated pattern can form an association in our dogs’ minds. While Pavlov intentionally made a sound that caused dogs to involuntarily salivate, we can still see this with our pets today. We have a friend who’s dog will salivate at the sound of the electric can opener opening the dog food. She didn’t deliberately teach that to her dog, it just happened.
So what else “just happens” in our lives with our dogs? What other “markers” do we have that we didn’t intend? Well, a common one is “Good Dog!” or some variation. From our human point of view, we are just expressing affection for our dogs but to our dogs it can be a very effective marker that says “everything is going right, no bad stuff is going to happen.” There may even be rewards involved.
But we have a lot of other “markers” that we may not be intending. The family that only puts the dog in the car to go to the vet or some other unpleasant place may be setting up the car itself as a Punishment Marker. The trainer that often says “Oops! Good try sweetie!” might think she is just offering encouragement but may in fact be establishing a No Reward Marker. These unintended markers can cause reactions in our dogs that we find puzzling since we didn’t intentionally train them.
Whether we refer to this kind of passive, associative learning as “social learning” or “Classical Conditioning”, it is clear that our dogs do form associations between the signals we give out and what they mean for our dogs. It could be a tone of voice or it could be the shoes you put on when it’s time to go to the park. The world is full of signals for our dogs that they use to help them predict and understand their world.
Since we can’t escape the observations of our dogs, why not try to create the associations that we want so we can communicate better with them. Anything you do with any kind of consistency could come to be a signal to your dog about what might be coming next. If you are aware of that simple idea, then you have the ability to create a working set of signals for you and your dog.
Imagine being able to say “Let’s go” to move along on a walk or “Not right now” to get your dog to stop pestering you around dinner time. If you are consistent, signals like this are not just possible but relatively easy to teach. But it will require that you think about how you behave around your dog and decide what you want your signals to mean.
I don’t know of any comprehensive or correct list of signals that you should teach to your dog. The reality is that we all teach some signals to our dogs already. But doing it with intention and some planning can make for some really productive and interesting adventures with your dogs!
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
The first Canine Nation ebooks are now available –
“Dogs: As They Are” & “Teaching Dogs: Effective Learning”
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