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How to Use Marker Words in Dog Training

How to Use Marker Words in Dog Training

The first step in successful training a dog is through clear communication. In order to do this, we teach the dog a set of marker words that pair a sound or word to a behavior through classical conditioning.

Dogs don’t speak English, nor is their primary method of communication verbal, like it is for humans. Most of the time, we sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher to our dogs, hence the importance of a clear system of communication.

Once the dog knows the marker words, we then tie in operant conditioning to either encourage (reinforce) or discourage (punish) a behavior through the use of negative or positive consequences. 

When taught correctly, marker training results in a motivated dog who wants to engage with their owner, which creates the opportunity to teach your dog just about anything you want, from basic obedience to fun tricks.

Understanding the Fundamentals of Marker Training

Marker words provide a way for a handler to clearly communicate with their dog to reinforce behaviors we want repeated and punish those we want to stop.

We do this through the use of primary and secondary reinforcers.

A primary reinforcer is something that the dog requires to survive, like food. Praise, play, pressure release, and freedom can also be used as primary reinforcers for dogs.

Secondary reinforcers are conditioned stimuli that acquire value when they are paired with primary reinforcers, as is the case with marker words.

One of the main reasons we use marker words in dog training is to mark the behavior, creating a bridge between the performed behavior and the reward. 

We need this bridge because we have a ½ second to mark the moment the dog performs the behavior. Marker words allow us to delay time in between marking the behavior and delivering the reward.

The Four Marker Words I use in Dog Training

YES – Yes is a terminal marker that indicates that the dog did what I asked and they may come out of that position to receive a reward. “Yes” always gets a reward. 

GOOD – This is your duration marker. It means “I like what you’re doing, keep doing that.” In this case, the handler goes to the dog to deliver the reward. In the beginning, you will pair “good” with a reward often, gradually phasing it out or giving rewards very intermittently.

NO – This is the negative marker that tells your dog that they made a mistake and must go back into the previous command. No rewards are issued for mistakes, otherwise the dog learns that they can come out of commands with no consequence.

FREE – Free lets your dog know that they can come out of a command and go away from you and do what they want. I mainly use this to release my dog during trail runs or hikes out of a heel position or after we’ve pulled over to allow people or other dogs to pass. In this case, the reward is the freedom to be a dog.

Marker words in dog training are taught though classical conditioning.

Understanding Classical Conditioning

In simple terms, classical conditioning takes a neutral stimulus and turns it into a conditioned stimulus to create a conditioned response.

Jen, wut?

Let’s back up a little bit.

Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov studied a dog’s salivation response to food during the 1890s. 

We all know Pavlov. 

Dogs. Bells. Food. Salivation.

He predicted correctly that the dogs would salivate once the food was placed in front of them. However, he began to notice that the dogs would begin to salivate at the sound of the footsteps of his assistant who delivered the food.

He then began to experiment by pairing the sound of a bell with the presentation of the food. 

The dogs would salivate, as expected.

After a number of repetitions using the bell, he took the food away and only used the bell.

The dogs would salivate.

What Pavlov did was exactly as I explained in the first sentence of this section: he took a neutral stimulus (the bell) and turned it into a conditioned stimulus (also the bell) to create a conditioned response (salivation).

Before the introduction of the bell, the dogs would salivate naturally at the sight of the food. This is what is called an unconditioned response (salivation) to unconditioned stimulus (food).

Humans might do the same with foods we like. Other examples include getting sick after exposure to a virus or bacteria, loud music blasting in your ear causing you to flinch, or sneezing during allergy season.

Conditioned responses look like refusing to eat chicken after a recent bout with food poisoning, only drinking ginger ale when you feel sick, or feeling nervous every time you park at the trailhead where your car was recently broken into.

In terms of dog training, classical conditioning takes neutral words, (marker words) to create a conditioned stimuli (the marker words) for conditioned responses (desired behaviors). When done correctly, the dog learns that when they perform a particular behavior, they receive a reward, usually in the form of food, play, or praise.

Our dogs are classically conditioned to numerous cues we give throughout the day. We may not even realize that they are conditioned to them! 

Some examples include:

  • The sound of your keys jingling insinuate that you are leaving
  • You taking the leash off the hook means you’re going for a walk
  • Decelerating in your car may cause your dog to whine from excitement indicating you are nearing your destination
  • The doorbell means that someone is at the door (that goes for humans, too!)
Once a dog has learned to associate a word or sound with a conditioned response through classical conditioning, we can then pair that same word or sound with a primary reward to teach behaviors using operant conditioning.

Understanding Operant Conditioning

All right, once you have created a conditioned stimuli through classical conditioning, you can start to teach your dog behaviors using operant conditioning.

Rather than create an association with a response as with classical conditioning, operant conditioning establishes an association between a behavior and a consequence. The consequence will either result in a reward or no reward in order to strengthen or weaken the behavior, respectively.

Put simply, we reward behaviors that we want and do not reward behaviors that we don’t want.

In order to create behavior change, the reward or punishment must occur immediately after the behavior. This is what James Clear calls the Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change in Atomic Habits: What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided. 

Using sit as the example, if we ask our dog to sit and they do, the moment their butt hits the ground, we say “yes” and reward.

If they do not sit, they do not receive a reward. 

Let’s say your dog pops out of sit before being released with the terminal marker (yes). Then we say “no, sit” and do not reward. Otherwise, the dog learns that they can break command when they want and still be rewarded. They need to learn to hold the command until they are told otherwise.

The Four Quadrants of Operant Conditioning

In operant conditioning, there are four quadrants used to either reinforce or punish behaviors using positive and negative consequences. The most commonly-known quadrant among dog owners is positive reinforcement. 

It is important to note that in operant conditioning, “positive” does not mean “good” and “negative” does not mean “bad.” Similarly, “punish” simply means decreasing the likelihood of a behavior, whereas “reinforce” means increasing the likelihood of a behavior.

Positive Reinforcement (+R) Adds something to increase the frequency of a behavior. Example: You reward your dog with a treat when they sit.

Negative Reinforcement (-R) Removes something to increase the frequency of a behavior. Example: The handler asks a dog to sit while applying upward pressure on a prong collar. Once the dog sits, the pressure is removed.

Positive Punishment (+P) Adds something to decrease the frequency of a behavior. 

Example:  Handler administers an e-collar stimulation when the dog goes after a squirrel on the trail in order to call them off the squirrel.

Negative Punishment (-R) Removing something to decrease the frequency of a behavior. Example: If your dog jumps on you, you remove your attention from them until they stop jumping.

I won’t go into it here, but there is a lot of division among dog trainers when it comes to the use of the four quadrants, namely the incorporation of punishment and aversive tools. As a balanced dog trainer, I use all four quadrants and I firmly believe that I am able to create happier, more stable, and freer dogs as a result.

Charging the Marker

Before introducing any obedience, it’s essential to first do what is called charging the marker.

This is where we classically condition the dog to associate a sound with a reward. This puts meaning behind the word so that you can then train your dog to perform obedience behaviors or tricks.

I use the word “yes.” Some people like to use a clicker because it sounds the exact same every single time.

If you choose to use “yes,” then you must say it the same way every time. 

“Yes, yes, yes” is different from “yes.” “Yessssss” is different from “yes.” Get the picture? 

To charge the marker, you’re going to use your dog’s daily amount of food. This way, they are motivated to work because they are hungry. If you use treats, then the dog may not be as willing to work because they are full. Or, if your dog is super food motivated, then using treats for the amount of reps required for proper training, can create obesity.

All you do is  say “yes” or click, and then give your dog a piece of their food from your hand. At first, you can stay stationary, but after a few reps, feel free to move around a little bit. 

It’s important that you don’t reach for the food before you say “yes” or click, otherwise your dog will learn that the movement of your arm, not the word “yes” brings the reward. We want them to understand that “yes” is the money spot.

Repeat this several times until you are sure that they understand that “yes” = food. You’ll want to do this a few times daily for five to 10-minute sessions for a few weeks.

Once your dog understands that “yes” = food, you can then start teaching them behaviors, like sit, down, place, and recall. 

Teaching New Behaviors through Luring and Free Shaping

There are two main ways to teach dogs new behaviors: luring and free shaping.

Luring is the most common way and one that you’ve probably used with your own dog. This is when you use a piece of food or your body to guide the dog into the behavior you want. 

Teaching new behaviors with this method is using direct rewards, meaning the food is in line of the sight of the dog. In this case, the dog is being told what to do by the handler.

Once the dog performs the motion with 80-90% accuracy, you can then name the command, eventually phasing out the lure once they can perform by name alone.

As an example, you might take a piece of food and move it above the dog’s nose in order to get them to sit. Once their butt hits the ground, then you mark (yes) and reward. 

This is an active handler/reactive dog scenario, meaning the handler is asking the dog to perform a behavior and the dog is responding to the prompt.

Free shaping is when a dog uses their own creativity to create a behavior. To reach the desired behavior, the handler breaks the behavior up into steps in order to teach the dog what they are looking for.

As an example, if I want my dog to go around a cone, I would set out a cone 30 feet in front of us. When my dog starts heading toward the cone, I’d mark and reward. After a few repetitions, I’d wait for him to get a little bit closer, then repeat. Next, I might wait for him to touch the cone with his paw or nose, until he makes his way around the cone.

Once the dog can perform the behavior I want with 80-90% accuracy, then you can name the behavior.

Conversely to luring, free shaping  is an active dog/reactive handler scenario and uses indirect rewards.

Indirect rewards mean that the reward can be on the handler’s body, but are not visible to the dog. This means that the dog is performing the behavior in order to earn the reward.

Both methods are great for teaching new behaviors and important to alternate between luring and free shaping. 

However, A dog that only learns through luring tends to become more robotic and doesn’t learn to think for itself. They’re always seeking to be told what to do, rather than trying to figure out what they should be doing to earn rewards.

We don’t always want to be the one engaging our dogs, sometimes, we want them to engage with us!

Building Motivation and Engagement

The whole point of this is to communicate effectively with your dog and also to have fun with them!

You must be something worthwhile to your dog and are in charge of making this a fun game that they will be excited to play with you. 

Here are a few tips for making the most of training sessions:

Shift between movement and stillness. Dogs like to chase (prey drive) so you can “yes” them out of a command by moving backwards or tossing their food to go get. The variation between movement and stillness keeps them engaged.

Use a starting phrase. I like to use “are you ready?” with my dog. This lets him know that we are entering into an engagement session and it makes him excited about getting some food and having fun with me. I end the session with “all done.”

Be engaging. Don’t be afraid to be silly or use a high-pitched voice to praise your dog. Be someone fun and entertaining for your dog. Think about your favorite teachers. Were they like the dry eyes guy from the Clear Eyes commercial or Mint Mobile commercials

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