Today’s topic is markers, and not the kind you remember from coloring and drawing in your youth.
Today we are going to explore the use of markers in dog training and behavior shaping.
If you have explored dog training online, then I am sure you have seen trainers talking about positive reinforcement and clicker training. (These terms are sometimes used indistinguishably, but they are not the same. “Positive reinforcement” refers to giving the dog reinforcers — things it likes — to reinforce good behaviors. “Clicker training” refers to training — of any kind — where the sound of a “clicker” is used, usually as a signal that a dog has made a correct choice.)
The sound the clicker makes is pretty distinct, and the use of a clicker (if used properly) can be a good example of using a marker.
The concept is very simple: imagine that you are giving your dog treats when it performs a behavior you want. When your dog performs the behavior, you give it a reward. Then imagine that you are training your dog to do something far away. When it does what you want, how do you immediately give it a reward? You can’t — but you can TELL it it’s going to receive a reward. To do this, you use a “marker” — some sort of signal (often a clicker, but it can be a whistle, the word “YES!” or any other noise) which tells the dog that it has earned a reward. So, when using a marker, when the dog performs a behavior you want, you would make the noise (in this case click) then, when the dog is once again within reach, reinforce with some positive reward.
At Doglando, we primarily do not use clickers, and instead rely on a verbal marker. This is a matter of preference; we prefer to have both hands free rather than have to remember to have a clicker in one hand. We mark good behavior by saying the word we have deemed to be our marker then reinforce with a reward. We prefer to use the word “Good”, but, again, you can use any word you like. Just be consistent. An important point when using a verbal marker is not to muddle up the verbal marker. For instance, you want to make sure your marker is clear, distinct, and consistent. If my marker is the word “Good” I wouldn’t want to say “ohh, what a good girl” because then there is too much going on around the word “Good” and our dog may miss it. Simply say “Good”, keeping the tone as consistent as possible.
The marker is used to communicate to our dogs that this — the exact instant you mark with the marker — is the behavior that we are looking for. Think of the marker as you would think of saying “Hot” in a game of Hot or Cold. As the player you have no idea where you are supposed to go, but by giving you markers of “Hot” when you are going the right way, or “Cold” when you are going the wrong way, we can shape the correct behavior in you.
Before you use a marker you must tell the dog what it means! Dogs have no innate understanding of the clicking sound. You need to condition the expectation in your dog as to the meaning of the sound. Basically, make your marker sound, then reward. Do this repeatedly, until when your dog hears the sound they immediately turn to you expecting the reward. Now your dog is starting to understand.
The next step is to use the marker to mark a behavior you want. You could lure your dog to a desired position, or you can just wait and let your dog move around until they end up in a position you would like. Regardless of how the dog gets there, the important thing now is that as soon as they are in the correct position that you want, you mark and reward.
If you attend dog training class with us, I’m sure you have heard us say “Mark the behavior”. The reason for markers is that it helps to eliminate the gap in time between your dog performing the behavior and you rewarding (reinforcing) the behavior. Timing is crucial!
If you were not using a marker and you got your dog into a sit, then reached into your pocket or pouch for a piece of kibble and your dog stands up. In this instance, the behavior you were looking for was given, but went unrewarded and, as far as the dog knows, unnoticed. Your dog may stop offering this behavior to you because it received no positive response.
Markers are extremely helpful in shaping behaviors, and become very important as we begin to add distance, duration and distractions into our training regimen.