It often happens, especially when training with food reinforcers, that there is absolutely no way you can get the reinforcer to the subject during the instant it is performing the behavior you wish to encourage” (Karen Pryor, Don’t Shoot the Dog)

What is a marker word?

The marker word, or conditioned reinforcer, is the first thing I teach every single one of my students, it is the foundation of any reinforcement based training and it is also one of the practices that is most commonly overlooked by dog owners.

Many ask me: “Do I need a clicker to train my dog?”

I say: “Not necessarily, no….” (Some will show up using the clicker to try to get the dog’s attention, which is not its purpose whatsoever though)

“… but you do need to mark your dog’s behaviour.”

Why mark?

A lot of people confuse positive reinforcement training with bribing the dog, however, they are not the same thing.

A reinforcement is something that, combined with the act performed by the dog, will enable that action to become more frequent.

What the…????

We understand as a reinforcer everything that intents to make a behaviour more frequent. A reinforcer can be anything that the subject desires: food, attention, a walk, a pet; and they are given to the dog at the moment they perform an action, in order to encourage them to perform that same action more often.

Does it make sense now?

For example, your dog wants sausage, you want him to sit, so you tell him to sit and give him the sausage as he does it. He will be more likely to sit on command after that.

The thing is that the reinforcer should be given at the exact time in which the behaviour is being performed.

Late reinforcers don’t work nearly as well.

You can praise, but praise and reinforcement are, again, very different things!

As stated in the very begining of the text, by the brilliant Karen Pryor (author of a dog training bible), there are circumstances in which is virtually impossible to reinforce the behaviour at the precise moment it is happening.

Maybe your dog is far, or performing a series of trained movements… maybe you want to reinforce only one specific action among many.

For that reason the conditioned reinforcers are used.

What exactly are conditioned reinforcers then?

A conditioned reinforcer, marker, is something that initially has no meaning to the dog, but, with the help of classic conditioning, will be used to inform the dog “you will be reiforced for this behaviour”.

Any serious training should start with the establishment of a conditioned reinforcer.

Well, finally the marker word!!

A conditioned reinforcer can be anything, a click, a whistle , a word…. they are all markers.

I particularly always recommend using a marker WORD, simply because it is always available to you.

Use your words, my friend

You may not have a clicker in your hand and, uh…. I can’t whistle haha. So I always recommend that my student’s parents use the word “Good” or “Yes”, because they are short and intuitive.

Once you have picked your marker word you must then teach your dog what it means.

It means “You are going to be reinforced”, so, without asking your dog to do anything, you will start using your marker word and giving your dog their reinforcers.

“Good”+ food , “Good”+ belly rub, “Good”+ go outside and so on…

Until you feel your pup is starting to react to that sound.

Once they do, it’s time to start using it in training. You have to remember using it when you want to reinforce a behaviour, you have to remember using it when the behaviour is happening and you have to refrain from using it too freely.

Your marker work is no praise, it is effectively communicating to the dog what are the actions you want to see more often, so be carefull!

And that’s it!

Now you know…

Now you know what a marker word is!

It is the foundation of your communication with your dog…. it’s free and it’s available to you all the time.

Train it well, use it wisely and don’t take it for granted just because it doesn’t feel like you are training some sophisticated move to show to some of your friends on the next Christmas party.

With a solid conditioned reinforcer (marker word) you will be able to train your dog to do more than you can imagine, but start from the begining, cause there’s a long road ahead of us.

And remember to have fun!

15 thoughts on “What is a marker word? Conditioned reinforcers and other scary sounding stuff

  1. Thiago says:

    Very good and detailed info there, thanks for sharing Marina!

  2. Rhain says:

    Oh well, this is as in-depth and informative as it comes. I think I fall into the category of those who actually confuse positive reinforcement training with bribing my dog 🤦🏻‍♂️. I actually thought it works to a degree but clearly, it’s not the same thing. This really opens my eyes to the possibilities that I once overlooked. This has been really informative. Thanks 

    1. marina says:

      Hi Rhain,

      I am glad this has been an eye opener for you. Bribery has lots of limitations, while correct reinforcement goes a long way. You’re very welcome and I hope you enjoyed following the post for more info.


  3. Sue says:

    This is very good info. I believe you can train a dog with treads and words like “good boy” and a rub on the head. I have 3 little Yorkies and all of them are trained and gave them each a tread if they did something right.

  4. Juan Saladin says:

    There could be something like a second-hand reinforcement by association? 

    Let me elaborate on my question. Following Pavlov animal conditioning principle, you could play a sound whenever you know your dog is really happy and afterward using this sound to remind your dog about these good feelings, as he would be conditioned already, just by playing that specific sound.

    The chemicals in our pal’s brain will become the cookie, this way you won’t need to be close to them (just play the sound).

    1. marina says:

      That is exactly right. 

      The marker word, as any sound, can be associated with not only one type of reward, but anything that brings joy to the dog.

      You can use that sound being close or away from the dog. I do not know though, whether a longer sound could be used to generate a prolonged feeling of happiness though. Like playing music to keep you dog happy when you are away? I that what you meant?

  5. shariful islam says:

    Many thanks to you for sharing such an excellent article with us .Dogs are one of my favorite things I like to do when I run a dog and I have a dog in my house.And I love treating dogs using different symbols.I use a word that is marked for my dog, using a word that no one else understands the harm to my dog.And it feels good to me.After you read this article, everyone will know about the dog marker word and they can teach their dogs. Share new experiences with you.

    1. marina says:

      Thank you for you comment!

      I will be happy to hear of your experiences with your dogs.


  6. MrBiizy says:

    Hello Marina, thank you for sharing this post explaining what marker words or conditional reinforcers are and how to establish and use them effectively to communicate with our dogs. I really got amazed seeing some dog owners communicating with their dogs; now I know how it works. Reinforcers are cool too. Awesome information!

    1. marina says:

      I am glad you enjoyed the post!

      Thank you for your comment.


  7. Karen Fourie says:

    Thanks, Marina, 

    I enjoyed this great article.  I have never even heard of marker word.  Today I learned something new.  I can see in this article that I will be learning here from a pro.  You really know dogs.  Now, I know what a marker word is and I know that I can use it anywhere.  Unlike a whistle that is not always with me.  I have friends that also have dogs but don’t know about this and I will share your post with them.  Again, thank you!

    1. marina says:

      Hi Karen,

      I am really glad you learned something new today and I hope this website can bring you a lot more information you may find useful in the future!


  8. Shanta Rahman says:

    Many thanks to you for sharing such a beautiful article with me .And I’ve had the chance to discuss a wonderful topic through your article .You have discussed a very nice way to train a dog in your article and I think if anybody want to train a dog then this article will be very useful because many people do not know how to train a dog. I have a dog of my own and I want my dog to have some good habits and I learned from the article that .How can I create some good habits for my dog? I think your article will be a useful article for everyone and And I also hope they each share their experience with you .

  9. PurpleLioness says:

    Hiya Marina,

    That was fascinating! I don’t have a dog but I do have several children, I wonder if this would work on them? Not sure belly rubs would have the same effect though! 

    Can you use any word? Do they then have to come to you for a treat? I also have cats who come when my man whistles for them but it’s because they know he’s got food. I am bookmarking your site in case we get a dog in the future as you’ve taught this old dog a new trick, thank you! 

    Krs PurpleLioness 

    1. marina says:

      Hello PurpleLioness,

      I have laughed reading your comment!

      I do believe positive reinforcement works for children but I am not and expert on how. As far as I understand, it is mainly the idea of praising the good behaviour instead of punishing the bad that works on people!

      Please let me know if you try and how it goes! 🙂


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