By: Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA
If we do positive training we most likely use a marker of some sort, whether it is saying, "Good", "Yes!", a tongue click, or a manual clicker. We use markers as a way of communicating to our dogs that they performed a desired behavior and will be rewarded. However, they convey much more information than just that. They indicate when and where to collect the reward. Is the dog performing a duration behavior such as "stay", or is the behavior immediately over when we issue the marker word or click? Where do they collect the reward? Do they get up to come to us, do we come to them, or is the reward somewhere else? Do you mark and not always reward? Is your dog left to guess the when/if/where/what regarding the reward?
This topic frequently comes up when training a duration behavior such as "settle" or "stay" where we want to mark that the dog has performed the correct behavior and will be rewarded, but that he is not to leave his position. Owners may become frustrated if they click or say "good" and the dog gets up while training a duration behavior. There may be a communication disconnect if thus far in training a click or a "good" meant that the behavior was over and the dog approached the owner for rewards. If that is what has happened thus far in his training history then that is likely what "good" means to a dog, regardless of what the owner intended when he/she began using that marker.
Differing markers allows us to communicate more effectively. With a duration behavior like "stay" or "settle" we need a dog to understand that the reward will come to him. For me, this is "good". If I were to say "yes!" that indicates that the behavior is complete, and the dog can approach to collect a food reward from my right hand. Learning new things is hard enough, so why confuse our dogs with one all-encompassing marker that may mean different things at different times? Clear communication is necessary for good training and good relationships.
Trainers may separate rewards into either the treat or toy camps, but the possibilities are much greater than that. While "good" and "yes" are most frequently used, I occasionally use other markers, including "sniff", "catch", "got your snout!" and "get it" to name a few. They indicate that a desired behavior was performed and where/how to collect the reward. They also indicate what reward is available to the dog at that moment. There may be bags of treats or toys around, friends nearby, and the scent of rabbits in the grass, but the reward is the one I specifically indicated and is available in a specific location.
OK...so you are probably wondering about "Got your snout". That indicates that the reward is a hand claw game, and it is HIGHLY desired as a reward by my youngest dog, Gilgamesh. I use it in certain situations where I want a high arousal level, such as during agility training, This reward helps to increase his speed and drive as well as handler-focus. The markers and associated rewards can be used to control arousal. If I have an over-aroused dog, I may switch to "sniff" (treats scattered on the ground in front of her) or "yes" (a treat in my right hand). I use "get it" if I want to encourage movement away from me to a specific location, such as during agility training. With "get it", the reward is a toy or treat on the ground in the path of the dog that he can move ahead to collect once I mark that he performed the correct behavior.
With all these possibilities, why settle for just one marker? I certainly don't use as many as some people and I should probably even make better use of the variety that I have -- but I find that using a few truly enhances communication for most teams. There are endless ways we can be communicating more effectively with our dogs while providing rewards that better meet the needs of the dog and the training goals.
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Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, MSc (in Operations Management) is a fully certified dog behavior consultant with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC). She believes the foundation of a good cross-species relationship is understanding the needs and normal behavior patterns of each dog as an individual, as he/she was bred to be. She enjoys helping humans and dogs communicate more effectively to create brilliant relationships with joy, purpose, and fulfillment for all species involved. She offers private consulting for serious dog behavior issues, obedience/manners, and agility training. Eileen developed a unique online course to help pet parents and trainers develop reliable snake avoidance behavior off-leash through positive reinforcement techniques. These techniques have been applied by trainers worldwide to teach dogs reliable avoidance of dangerous environmental hazards and off-leash property boundaries. She lives on a small ranch in Las Vegas, Nevada with her husband and their Nederlandse Kooikerhondjes.