You may have come across the phrase ‘marker training’ in your online searches. But what exactly is it? Marker training, or clicker training, means using a unique signal to give our animals clear, instant feedback to help them learn. It tells them exactly what they did to earn their reward.
What’s the benefit to using markers?
Why not simply hand your learner a reward when they do something correct? The problem with this approach is it’s not very precise. In many cases, by the time the animal gets the reward, its already done about 7 extra things – so what did it get the reward for? The problem is even worse if you want to reward an animal when it’s at a distance from you; the time delay between correct action and reward is waay too long for the animal to work out what it did to earn it.
New and fancy?
To overcome the confusion and clarify communication, a marker is the ideal solution. Markers have been in use for more than forty years. The method is best known from the world of marine mammal training, where people need a way to communicate with animals like dolphins and orcas that can’t be controlled physically. However, they’ve also been used by the service animal industry and the military – mainly with dolphins and birds.
How does it work?
It is very simple (but not always easy!). First, we teach the animal that the marker means it has won a treat. Then we use the marker to tell the animal when it’s done something we like. Essentially: When using markers for training your dog, and he does what you want him to do—like a sit or a down—you mark and then give him a reward. This gives your dog instant, specific feedback.
Imagine taking a snap shot of the exact moment your dog did the thing you wanted. Because you’re taking a snap shot of that instant, you need to be very focused on exactly what it is you want.
- Mark exactly as his bum hits the ground if you want a sit.
- Or exactly as his nose touches your presented hand for a hand touch.
- Or when he passes through the hoop if you’re training a hoop jump.
Once your dog understands the marker, you can teach him almost anything he is capable of doing! Most behaviours need to be taught in tiny steps, a bit like teaching a child to tie their shoe laces, read, or learn a musical instrument. This is the ‘not always easy’ part.
A basic or complex tool?
The marker itself is only a communication tool and, like any other tool, it takes time to become skilled in its use. Markers can be a lot more complicated than just telling your learner that they earned a reward. Some trainers use different markers to convey complex information such as what the reward will be and where it will be delivered.
For example, I use the word “Zurich” during heeling to tell Felix that he’s earned his tug toy and it’s in my right hand – he whips behind me to grab it. If I use “get it” the toy appears in my left hand for him to grab above his head, in heel position. In this way I can prevent him being confused about where the toy will be delivered. This results in clean communication and delivery without him always ‘wondering’ “where’s it going to come from?” and trying to keep an eye open for other clues. He can get on with his job knowing he’ll get all the information he needs to access his reward instantly.
Using specific markers to differentiate food, toys or other rewards also avoids the ‘disappointment’ affect – when your dog expects one thing and receives another. Breezy, my last competition dog, was taught to expect food for heelwork. Although he loved toys, if I gave a click during heelwork, food is what he expected. He would turn his nose up at a toy, “that wasn’t the deal!” he seemed to say! When I changed to using a different marker for a toy (in his case a ball) he immediately stopped turning his nose up, as his expectations hadn’t been violated. For dogs that find swapping between food and toys difficult, this can be a game changer!
The ‘process’ of training
So, marker training systems can be as simple as using a smart phone ‘point ‘n’ shoot’ camera or as refined and complex as using a top of the range DSLR ‘all singing, all dancing’ model. It really depends on what you want to achieve. Just like photography, most people start out wanting to learn the absolute basics – and then they get the ‘bug’ and the addiction grows! However, no matter how simple or complex your marker system, there are some rules of training that have to be followed for success. You can’t randomly say “yes!” and throw treats around! You’ll have a fat, happy dog, but they might not have learned very much – other than you’re a great treat dispenser.
The steps are:
1) Get the behaviour – find a way of ‘explaining’ to your learner what it is you want them to do. The most usual methods are:
- luring with food
- capturing when the behaviour happens naturally or
- shaping in successive baby steps towards your goal.
2) Once you’ve worked out how to get the behaviour ‘ball’ rolling, you mark and reward it.
3) Next, you have to add a word or signal (cue) to the behaviour so you can ask your learner to do it when you’d like them to. And the final step is to strengthen the behaviour so your learner is confident and quick to respond (fluent) no matter where they are. I call it “anytime, anyplace, anywhere” training. (You can find a more detailed overview of this process in this blog post.)
It also helps considerably to understand how animals learn and what your particular animal finds rewarding – and will willingly work to get. Why is this so useful? Because when it comes to training, your opinions of what constitutes a ‘reward’ are irrelevant – it’s your learner’s opinion that counts! You can learn more about how dogs learn in my FREE mini course, here.
Sarah and the Gang
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