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Train Your Dog: Marker Training (Clicker Training) in Operant Conditioning

Updated on October 30, 2017
Miranda Hebert profile image

Miranda is a professional dog training instructor and has been actively training dogs for competition and companionship for over 12 years.

Have you ever seen a whale or a dolphin show? The whale or dolphin performs a trick (behavior), the trainer blows a whistle, and the whale or dolphin swims over and receives a fish? The use of the whistle in this arrangement is an example of marker training.

Marker training is a tried and true method of marking the moment in time when a dolphin (or dog), for example, performs the correct behavior to earn a reward for the behavior.

Why Mark the Behavior?

Dog’s are quick. Quick-minded and quick-bodied. They require precision and clarity of information, not unlike the required clarity of semantics in any other language required for effective communication.

The example I use with clients is this: teaching your dog how to sit and rewarding with food. Regardless of how you prompted your dog to sit, by knowing it is time for a reward for the correct behavior, you fumble around with your treat pouch or simply reach out your hand to deliver your food tidbit to your dog. Just as your hand reaches your dog’s mouth, his rear ends pops up as he receives the treat.

I then ask my clients, “So what did we just reward the dog for?” Answer: “Not sitting.”

Regardless of our intentions to reward the sitting behavior when it happened, in the end, what the dog was rewarded for was popping up out of a sit.

Capturing the Right Moment and the Right Behavior

This is where the mark comes into play.

The marker serves not only to mark the moment in time that the behavior we want to reinforce was performed, it serves as a bridge in association between when the behavior occurs and when it is rewarded. A good general rule of thumb is that the mark ends the behavior, and in this way works the same as a release cue. I personally use a mark to signal the end of the behavior to be performed, and use other cues, such as a verbal cue “good” to let my dog know that he is doing well and is on the right track.

Marker training is most efficiently utilized in the process of teaching new behaviors. Nothing beats the clarity of information of a well-timed mark backed up with a reward. For this reason and for best results, you never want to mark a behavior the same way as you would mark new behaviors without following up with a reward. This would work to dwindle your dog’s built up association with the mark meaning the correct solution to the reward.

What Can You Use as a Mark?

A common dog training tool is a device known as a "clicker." A clicker is, and does, exactly what you might expect. This simple device is favored for having a clear "click" sound when depressing and releasing a metal tab or button.

If ever you feel the need as many owners and trainers do for a third hand when attempting to handle the clicker during training, you might be a fan of using a verbal marker word, such as “yes.” Keep in mind that if you’ve ever heard the short blast of a trainer’s whistle or a clicker’s "click," keep your mark as clear and concise as possible; never vary in tone or pitch.

Building the Association

Making associations is a step by step process. There is such as a thing as "overshadowing" when it comes to stimuli involved in the process of association. Step by step learning is done through association of consequences, so remember to keep things one after the other in the "order of operations."

Charging the Clicker

You will need your dog, a marker (a clicker or a marker word, “yes"), and a reinforcer (I suggest using food).

To build an association with your mark is quite simple, and requires nothing more from your dog than to take in the process to the best of his/her ability.

  1. With your dog intrigued by your reinforcers and looking to obtain it, sound your mark (whether it be a click, or the word “yes”).
  2. Wait a half of a second, and deliver your reinforcement.

It’s that simple. Remember, all we are asking from our dogs at this point is to take in the pattern of events that is hearing the mark and receiving the reward. It doesn’t take long and much more than a handful of treats for the majority of dogs to start showing signs of acknowledgment when they hear the mark that a reward is coming.

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