The most direct method we have found to teach our dogs is Mark & Reward training. It’s a very simple process. My dog does a behaviour, I mark it with some sound, and then I reward her for doing the behaviour correctly. The principles of behavioural science say that if my dog likes the reward I gave her, she will try to repeat that behaviour. And that’s exactly what we have found to be true. Through a process of marking and rewarding the behaviours we want, our dogs learn to offer us those behaviours on cue. Clicker Training is a great example of Mark & Reward training that uses a clicker (a small noise maker) to mark the behaviour. But anything could be used as a marker – a word like “Yes!”, a short whistle, even a flash of light or a wave of the hand.
Now, the description above is a greatly simplified description of a much more intricate process that involves how to get your dog to do the behaviour you want, how to select what behaviour you are marking, how to choose the reward, and many other details. But for the purpose of this article, I want to focus on the marker signal itself. Let’s talk about why markers are useful and how they can improve your training and your relationship with your dog.
To mark or not to mark?
Here’s an interesting fact. The science of behaviour (Operant Conditioning) says that the consequence of an action will determine whether or not my dog will want to repeat a particular behaviour more frequently or less frequently. If I reward her for doing a behaviour, she will do it more. Did you notice that I didn’t use the word “marker” in there anywhere? That’s because, strictly speaking, reinforcement based training that uses rewards doesn’t actually need a marker in order to train the dog. It’s actually the reward that is doing all the work to reinforce the behaviour I want. So why are we talking about markers at all?
I frequently use small food treats to train my dog. And this works well so long as whatever it is I want to teach her is within arms reach. When she does the behaviour I want, I simply give her the treat as a reward. But what if I want to teach her something farther away from me like picking up an object or going around the chair across the room? In those situations I don’t have the option to just reach out and reward the behaviour I wanted. If I wait until she comes back to where I can reach her, it might be confusing. Did I reward her for picking up the object or for running back to me? There is no way for me to separate those events in her mind and she will very likely assume that I’m rewarding her for the most recent action – coming back to me.
Markers provide a means for me to be more precise when teaching my dog. It’s a way to say “That! That right there! That’s what I’m looking for!” So as my dog goes around the chair, I can click or say “Yes!” or whatever my marker signal is and my dog knows that they have done something that has earned a reward. There is no need to guess if it was running back to me, going around the chair, or looking at me on the way back that earned the reward.
There is a wonderful side benefit to using a marker that sometimes gets overlooked. While a marker is a great tool for communicating to my dog at the exact moment she is doing the right behaviour, it can also give an advantage. I’m only human and there are days when I’m not as prepared as I should be or as coordinated as I would like. If I were training without using a marker, getting the reward to my dog ON TIME would be critical so that she would know what she was being rewarded for. Having that marker let’s me say “That’s it! That’s the right behvaviour!” while I fumble in my pocket for a few seconds to get the treat or the toy for my dog.
Having a little time between the marker and delivering the reward makes my training much more flexible. I can work with my dog to teach behaviours at a distance, I can teach behaviours where it would be impractical to shove a reward at my dog, and I can even teach behaviours in small pieces by marking larger and larger versions of the behaviour. So that means that using a marker in my reward-based training gives me precision, time, flexibility, and the ability to teach more complex behaviours easily. Pretty good. But wait, there’s more!
The feel-good factor
Animal trainer Bob Bailey cautions trainers that “Pavlov is always sitting on our shoulder.” It is an ominous reminder that the effects of Classical Conditioning, the associations our dogs make with things in their environment, is always with us. Our dogs are always deciding what the “good stuff” is and what the “bad stuff” is. If we are consistently using a marker signal with our dogs that signals that they have “done good!” and that we are going to give them a reward, that becomes a good association for them.
These associations are sometimes called Conditioned Emotional Responses (CER). Thinking back to your childhood, perhaps the ringing of the school bell at the end of the day signaled the release to play and fun. I know for me that hearing a ringing school bell still makes me smile. It reminds me of that feeling of joy at the freedom to run and play with my friends. It’s a good feeling! I think it’s very likely that our dogs experience a similar positive CER when they hear or see the marker signal that always means something good is happening.
Making your mark
Using a marker in your training is not necessary. People have been training dogs for centuries without using a deliberate marker signal to tell the dog when they have done a behaviour correctly. But the evidence, certainly from my own experience, seems to indicate that there are a number of advantages to adding a marker signal to training with your dog.
Having my dog understand a marker signal just makes training simpler. I can say “That’s it! That’s what I’m looking for!” and my dog seems to understand. She learns new behaviours in just a few repetitions. By using that marker creatively, I can build up complex behaviours quickly by teaching them in steps and using the marker to help my dog along the way. I also get the side benefit of having a little extra time to get and stay organized during training. My dog knows that she has earned the reward and she’s quite willing to wait a few seconds for me to get her reward without doubting or wondering if something is wrong.
And then there is the bonus of the positive emotional association that seems to come for free with using a marker in training. It puts an overall positive “vibe” on the training experience for both the trainer and the dog. It can become a way to acknowledge and reinforce a positive and productive relationship.
There is some debate out there about whether clickers or verbal markers or visual signals make the best markers. I think some of that will vary based on your dog. But one thing is clear, at least to me: markers are a great addition to my training process.
Until next time, have fun with your dog!
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