A Marker or Clicker is a unique and distinctive sound that can be used to help facilitate learning. A short word like “Yes” or “Yip” or a click from a clicker (a small noisemaker usually plastic with a bit of metal which flexes to produce a click sound) may start out as meaningless to you and your dog. But this little sound can produce big results. Think of the sound as a promise to deliver a reward. It is also like the click of a camera, capturing a particular scene and what your dog is doing at a particular moment in time. The sound allows us to help a dog learn exactly what behavior we like and will be rewarded, speeding up the learning process. In fact, this is exactly the reason video games have sounds and lights that trigger when you do something right – they all work as markers to help your brain recognize the thing you did that got you points or coins or a higher score.
Dogs (and people, chickens, llamas, etc) are more likely to repeat behaviors that have been reinforced (or rewarded). Dogs do what works. If there is a particular new behavior we would like to teach, it can be difficult to help our dog understand exactly what we like and what will be rewarded. From your dog’s perspective, learning a new trick can be a huge and frustrating guessing game. Using a marking can help clarify and speed up the learning process by allowing us to have a great deal of precision in our communication.
Introducing a Marker
1) Choose either a short word (like “Yip”) or get a clicker.
2) Have a small handful of very tiny treats that your dog will be excited to eat.
3) Make the sound once (either say “Yip” or click the clicker) and IMMEDIATELY follow the sound by giving your dog a treat.
4)Repeat 5-20 times with short breaks, and changes in your position or location. So Click and treat. Take a few steps away and pause for 2 seconds and click and treat again.
5)You should only need to do this process when introducing your marker the first time or if reintroducing after not using it for a very long time (months/years). You’ll know your dog has caught on when they perk up or look for their treat as soon as they hear the sound.
Training with a Marker
Now that you’ve got a sound that tells your dog to expect a reward you can begin putting that tool to work. When you set out to practice a new trick, or fine-tune an old skill you can use your marker to pinpoint the moment your dog is getting it right. Markers are not always the right tool for the job, however, and there are some situations where they are either not necessary or could be confusing to you or your dog. Just because you’ve taught your dog that a click means treat doesn’t mean you have to CLICK before you give every treat. You can always reward desirable behavior.
The reverse, however, is not true. If you have clicked or marked something, even if it was accidental or a mistake on your part, you MUST follow up with a reward. Every mark must be rewarded. The process is always mark-reward, mark-reward, mark-reward. Never mark-mark-mark, reward.
Emily Larlham of Dogmantics for the win:
And on using verbal markers rather than a clicker:
Link to a nice video by Dr Sophia Yin on using a clicker to shape a new trick:
A great overview of why choice and shaping are so important in animal training:
Trouble Shooting clicker training – Lumping vs Splitting