Marker words

Today I am going to focus on an element of training that applies to everything we do and has been the most useful concept for me so far. Using a marker word to signify your dog has done the correct action. We may like to think that our best bud understands everything we are saying to them but a little active effort is needed to reinforce the marker word.

The general idea of marker training, or operant conditioning if you want to be all fancy about it, is that certain behaviours are linked to certain results. We use a selected word to tell our dogs that they have completed the action correctly, and in turn they will receive a reward. While they do not understand the english language in the same way we do, they can identify sounds and link them to experiences. Your dog will soon learn to associate the word with a tasty cube of cheese or his favourite ball.

What word should I use?

The word should be short, sharp, not too similar to other commands, not too similar to your pets name. It should also be a word that you do not use too often around your pet, unless you want to be mobbed for a treat every two minuets. Here are some examples…
  • Yes
  • Good
  • Nice

When should I use the Marker?

Once your pet has completed the action, your reward should come as quickly as possible. I’m talking 1/2 a second quick. Seconds are ages in your dogs world, especially if he or she is waiting for their most favourite snack. However it is not always possible to reward within half a second, unless you have magic, super speed powers. So unless you are The Flash, you can use the marker word to bridge the gap between the action and the reward.
Also the motion of giving the reward will often disrupt the action itself. For example, my dog is sitting in the correct position but as I move my hand to give the reward she moves out of the perfect sit she was in to get the treat. This means I just rewarded her for being in the wrong place. Using the marker word fixes this problem.
In short, issue the command (sit etc), then immediately after the dog has completed the action correctly use the marker word (yes, if that’s what you have chosen) and then reward the behaviour with a high value treat. If your dog is unsure of the command some waiting and physical positioning from you may come before the action is completed. But once they do it your use of the marker must be at light speed. Then you have time to reach into your pocket for a treat, or get the ball ready to throw because you have marked the correct behaviour beforehand.
It is important to remember that the marker word is not verbal praise. It is just to mark the exact moment that a desired action has been completed, verbal praise belongs in the reward box.

How do I start?

You can start this kind of training by introducing the idea of the word. This can be done anywhere you like, preferably with minimal distractions. Begin by using the marker word and issuing a super tasty treat. They do not need to be performing an action in the beginning but they will very quickly learn that the word means a reward is on the way.

There should be around a half second delay between saying the marker word and giving the reward.

In my experience it is better to use food to introduce the word as a high drive dog will loose his mind when a tug is in the mix. My Rottweiler Stella used to dive all over me to get to a tug in the beginning. Food is a calmer way of issuing the reward and keep your dogs mind on learning.

Marking incorrect behaviour

Just as we have marked the correct behaviour, we need to also let our pooches know when they have not done what we asked, for example they jump on us when we asked them to sit. Simply using a word like ‘nope’ is a good way to signal this, and in turn they do not get a reward. They will soon understand that once they hear this word they don’t get anything. One thing to note is we are not yelling at our dog in an angry way, we want to maintain a positive feeling in the training. The ‘nope’ is there to tell the dog they need to do something else for the reward.

So practice what has been mentioned above and look out for future posts about marker words and the next steps of this method.

Good luck and happy training

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