“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.”
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.
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!