Marker (Clicker) Training

This is a known type of animal training that is expanding more and more into the world of dog training. It is very simple to learn, and dogs are quick to catch on to it. The base of this type of training is:

A Conditioned Reinforcer (which is a neutral stimulus paired with a primary reinforcer until the neutral stimulus takes on the reinforcing properties of the primary one. A clicker or other marker, after being repeatedly associated with a food treat or other reinforcer, becomes a conditioned reinforcer.)

In a nutshell, we use food (in the beginning and later the food may be replaced by a toy if the dog has a good drive and it is a valuable enough reward for him) and this is called the primary reinforcer.

This means that we use food to reward the behaviors (actions) from our dog that we like. When our dog connects a reward with his action, he simply continues offering the same behavior that brought him that reward.

Now there is a small problem, there is a “time limit” or “time window” in which we can properly reward our dog so that he knows in black and white what he is getting the reward for. It has been calculated by scientists that the best timing for this window is less than a second (around 0.8 sec.). Of course, there isn’t any way that you can deliver the reward that fast, so the problem is that by the time you deliver your reward, your dog has moved, breaking the action/behavior that you liked or he refocused on something else. In this case, when your dog gets the reward, he actually is getting a reward for the last thing he did, which is probably not what you were looking to reward in the first place. Therefore, to address this issue we use the next step...

The Bridging Stimulus (which is an event marker that identifies the desired response and “bridges” the gap in time between the desired action/behavior and the delivery of the primary reinforcer (the reward). The click from a clicker, or the marker word, is a bridging stimulus).

What we are doing here is creating something that will allow our dog to understand what he is getting rewarded for (without misunderstanding) and allows us more time to actually get the reward and deliver it to him.

This is called a marker or bridge in dog training circles. It is a sound based cue, some dog trainers use a clicker; some use a specific word (for example, I use the word “Yes”).

Once we decided which marker we will use (clicker or a verbal marker), then we have to teach our dog what that marker means. If you just present a clicker to your dog or say your marker word, your dog won’t understand you. You need to train the meaning of it to your dog first. This is very simple and it is the same principle for either the clicker or for a verbal marker.

Charging the marker/Loading the Clicker

We call this teaching the meaning stage, charging the marker. It is a simple procedure.

Take a container with treats, put them on the counter, get your dog next to you and get his attention, and then simply “click” and deliver the reward right away, or if you are using a verbal marker, use your marker, for example “yes” and immediately deliver the reward.

Do this for at least 20-30 repetitions. You can repeat this step for example twice a day for a couple of days. After two days of doing this, test your dog.

Without presenting treats to your dog, have just a few of them in your pocket (do this preferably in another location away from where you normally train, and without your dog noticing the treats). Get your dog’s attention and then “click” or say your verbal marker. You will know by your dog’s response if he has connected the marker with the oncoming treat. If he acts excited, he has connected it, if he is hesitant or doesn’t react at all, he still didn’t get it. This is not a problem, simply do a few more sessions of the click-treat scenario above, before testing again.

This is a part of Classical Conditioning which means that you are teaching your dog that something meaningless, like a clicker or a verbal cue, now has meaning.. That meaning is that a reward is coming.

A very important detail of classical conditioning is timing. If you present the treat before you give your “click” or verbal cue, or if you give your marker while the dog is already eating the treat, your dog will not make the association between the marker and the reward. The simple rule is:

  • Get your dog’s attention
  • Present your marker (a click or “yes” or whatever your marker is) without any body movement or gestures
  • Now you can move your body to deliver the reward.
  • There should be a fraction of the second between giving your marker and then moving your hand to reach and deliver the reward.

I know this sounds easy, but our body gesture naturally goes with our voice, so it may be difficult to coordinate this. We need to separate these actions for our dog to understand them and learn them properly. I always suggest practicing without your dog present at first, until you are comfortable with this important timing.

Once we have our dog conditioned to the marker, we then have a very powerful tool that allows us to mark a behavior within a second of it occurring; as well, we also don’t need to have food constantly ready to deliver, which is another powerful tool.

This teaches our dog that he needs to “go through us” (he needs to perform what we ask from him) in order to receive a reward.

A clicker or verbal marker (“yes” for example) has to be used only once (you don’t keep on clicking or repeating “yes, yes, yes” multiple times). It is also a signal to the dog that the particular exercise or behavior is completed and that he can move (release) in order to access his reward. For example, if your dog is sitting, and you give the click, it means that he can release the position, and come to get his reward.

Once our dog understands the meaning of the marker, the next steps will be to train the meaning of the word “wrong” or “no”, and the meaning of the word “good”.

Teaching the “good” marker

The word “good” will be our next command. This one we be used as a guiding marker. Normally, we use it for endurance and duration, for example when we want our dog to remain in a certain position or to reinforce that position.

In general our dogs connect that the word “good” will eventually be followed by the release marker (the clicker or verbal marker), which means a reward. The “good” marker will become a signal to our dog that we are happy with his performance and to keep doing it, in order to be released/rewarded.

The “Wrong” marker

This marker is to be used when the dog fails to perform a certain action or is performing an unwanted action. Normally, commands like “good” and “No” (or “nope”) are easiest to teach through some kind of training, a simple obedience training for example. Once the dog knows that performing an action correctly brings a reward, when he hears “No”, and there is no reward, it is easy for the dog to conclude that there was something wrong with his action and that the “No” verbal cue is “the end of the fun” for the moment.

If for example, we train our dog to sit, and he performs great which we mark and reward, the second time, perhaps he misses and we mark it with “no” and there is no reward, then the third time he sits correctly and again he is released and rewarded, the dog will quickly learn the difference between the two markers and the meaning of the “no “marker.

Once our dog understands these three simple markers (clicker/yes, good, no/nope) we have a tool that we can use to communicate with our dog. We can apply it in many situations of our daily life, in order for our dog to understand what is wanted and unwanted behavior.

Video Links:

The Importance of Timing
This link is about the importance of timing, just so that you can get a feeling for what you are looking for when working with your dog.

Practicing Good Timing
Here is one of the ways that you can practice timing (this video is done with a clicker, but it is the same thing with the verbal marker)

How It Should Look
This is a short demonstration of clicker training. You can see here how the dog keeps actively participating, of course this is a more trained dog that has already passed through the first steps of the learning phase but this is what you have to reach. It is easy to train any behaviour to a dog like this, because he is offering his attentiveness and focus.

Building Engagement
This is the perfect example of keeping the dog engaged in the early stages of training (NOTE: her timing in using the “yes” marker is way off so please ignore that part), just look at the active participation of the dog.

Engagement - The Final Product
This is what a more advanced stage looks like. As you can see, once you have your dog’s attention, it is then easy to do anything with him.

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