The birth of Marker Training and its effect on Modern Day Dog Training

Publishing Author : Ches Pickering

Date Published: 26/10/18

The Birth of Marker Training

The birth of Marker training created a ‘revolution’ in dog training back in the 1930’s and fortunately opened up a completely new method for training dogs. Today, marker training is the most common method dog trainers and owners tend to use as it has proven to be incredibly successful, as well as being far more humane.

Marker training has of course evolved since the 1930’s, it was originally pioneered by B.F Skinner, an American behaviorist at the time who conducted experiments on lab rats which led to his theory of operant conditioning.

Later on in this module I will go into a detailed explanation covering operant conditioning, but to summarize: Skinner believed that by conditioning a response to a stimulus you could make the behavior more or less frequent, by controlling the outcome of an action with a positive or negative response. This determines whether this behavior is more likely to be performed again or not. Operant conditioning has four different quadrants; positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment, each of these quadrants has its time and place but many people try and use positive reinforcement only.

Introduction to Clickers

Karen Pryor introduced the ‘clicker’ tool as an extension of Skinners research and theories. Today the clicker is a controversial training tool amongst dog trainers as some find the clicker irrelevant/pointless when you can mark behaviors verbally. The clicker should be used as a reinforcer to mark correct behavior or shape behaviors towards the end goal, the method is the same as verbal marking; click + reward. The marker (click) needs to come immediately after the correct behavior was performed to prevent confusion and the reward should then follow straight after. If it takes you 30 seconds to fiddle around in your treat bag and give your dog the treat while he salivates at the thought of food, he may think he is being rewarded for salivating as opposed to the behavior he just performed correctly.

How to mark behaviors – verbally and visually

Audible: YES/NO

Clicker/no click or reward

Visual: hand signals

Vibration collars are sometimes used to positively mark behaviors too.

The most common used marker today is verbal, most people prefer to just say yes or no to mark a behavior rather than having to also work their way around using a clicker. The problem with verbal markers and a very common mistake people make when using them is that they change their marker word; sometimes they say good boy or good job or yes, and occasionally it’s a full blown sentence telling the dog how wonderful they are!  This wide variety of marker words can be confusing to dogs since they do not understand the english language. They are capable of understanding a certain amount of words most often initially associated with a body language cue, but they do not have the ability to understand full sentences. By attempting to communicate with your dog in a humanizing manor, you will simply confuse your dog and make very minimal progress.

This is where the clicker has its benefits as it sounds the same every single time you click which sends out a very clear signal to the dog letting them know that when they hear the click a reward will follow. If the dog understands that rewards are only offered when correct/appropriate behavior is executed, then the dog should find it easy to comprehend the mark and reward system.

For deaf dogs, audible markers obviously have no effect so a hand signal or a vibration collar are used to mark correct behaviors. As with the audible markers, the signal still has to be immediate with a reward following straight after and if portrayed clearly there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to train a deaf or blind dog to a very high standard.

Marker words and their individual meanings

The four marker words are as follows; yes = correct behavior accomplished.

No = incorrect behavior.

Good = continue what you’re doing until released.

Punishment marker (of your choice) = immediate stop to a potentially dangerous/ totally unacceptable behavior.

As much as we like to reward our dogs for achieving correct behaviors, it is also important to mark incorrect behaviors to prevent them from happening again. If your dog has a clear understanding that the NO word leads to zero rewards, then a simple “no” marker will be enough to make it clear to your dog that the behavior they just executed was incorrect and shouldn’t be repeated.

Continuation markers are extremely useful in duration training for extended behaviors such as down stays, eye contact and heel work. A lot of trainers will use the word “good” as a continuation marker, this lets the dog know they’re doing it right but need to continue before they receive their reward. When using continuation markers, it is extremely important not to grant rewards after the word “good” is applied because this will defeat the purpose of using a continuation marker which effectively means – stay where you are/continue walking by my side/keep running back to me. If the continuation is not clear, the dog will assume he has accomplished the final behavior and most likely break it before you say “yes” to release him.

When using a clicker, some will use one click for the continuation marker and two clicks for the final reward marker. I personally use verbal markers as explained above, “good” for continuation and reassurance and “yes” for the reward, and I find it creates a very clear understanding in the dogs mind as to what they’re being rewarded for which makes training far easier for the handler and much simpler for the dog to understand.

A punishment marker is one less frequently used in modern dog training, and not a popular form of training amongst many ‘purely positive’ dog trainers/owners. A punishment marker should be used for real life dangerous situations such as running into a road, escaping the back garden, charging at other people/dogs when off the lead, it is used to create a negative association with the undesirable behavior which in turn will make the dog not want to ever do it again. Your timing when applying a punishment marker must be immaculate,  more so than any other markers to prevent any confusion for the dog. For example; A dog begins to chase a deer and runs into the distance ignoring your recall over and over again. After 5 minutes he finally turns around and walks back to you, most likely slowly with his ears back after judging your angry body language. Once he arrives back to you you scold him, give him a hit on the nose and then walk him back to the car on his lead in silence. You have now punished him for coming back to you in 3 different ways, verbally, physically and mentally, he will now associate returning to you with a punishment as well as you ending his walk. The dog in this example will now feel more inclined to chase deer again because running away from you is much more fun and rewarding.

Although not always taken into consideration, the ok/free/break/release marker word is another important word for your dog to have a clear understanding of. You can achieve this by ending every training session with the “free” command, followed by ending all engagement with your dog immediately and encouraging them to switch off.  This will create a clear headed dog who understands when they are done working or when the game is finished, naturally switching their brain off and relaxing.

Benefits of Marker Training

Skinners Operant Conditioning theory has opened the possibilities to achieving a far higher level of obedience with our dogs, it has given us the ability to gradually shape behaviors, correct things midway, and create active vs reactive dogs. An active dog will strive to engage with their handler and actively do what they think will grant them a reward because marker training encourages a dog to problem solve. In comparison a reactive dog will wait for your guidance and command before performing a behavior, sometimes due to fear of correction or the inability to problem solve if not encouraged from an early age.

Shaping behaviors encourages dogs to problem solve, I once had the pleasure of watching a very good trainer give an excellent example of ‘shaping’ with his Staffordshire Bull Terrier. The end goal for the demonstration was for the dog to walk up to the plate, touch it with his nose and return to the handler. To begin he put a white plate face down, 3 meters away from him on the ground in an empty room, and then brought in the dog. As spectators, we were all told to ignore the dog and wait for him to figure out the task, the second he showed interest in the plate which was a simple look towards it, the trainer clicked and rewarded. This happened a few more times and the dog was now totally aware that by looking at the plate he got a reward, so the next step was to ask for more and not just reward him for minimal eye contact with the target. The dog looked at the plate again anticipating his reward but realized no marker came…so he took another step towards the plate which he was then rewarded for. Fast forward 5 more minutes and the dog had completed the final task, each time he got one step closer to the end goal we rewarded him, until he eventually figured out that the desired behavior was to walk up to the plate, touch it with his nose and return to the handler. It was incredibly interesting to watch, especially as not a single word was said for the entire 10 minute training demonstration, but this dog had been trained with a clicker since a very early age and was used to problem solving many tasks and new behaviors. This is not something a reactive dog would be able to achieve in such a short time frame.

Summary

To conclude, the revolution of clicker training immensely changed the whole aspect of dog training and created kinder and clearer methods for trainers and owners to begin using. Dominant, heavy handed methods have been pushed aside and highly faulted as it is now clear that dogs learn far more successfully through marker training. Markers must be immediate whether they’re audible or visual and the reward must follow suit to provide clear communication with your dog. The simpler the communication between dog and handler, the more success the pair will have.

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