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What is a Marker Word and How do you Train it?

First, why should you use a marker word and what even is a marker word? A marker word is a training tool used to communicate with your dogs. When trained properly, it tells the dog two things:

  1. They are doing the right thing the moment you use your word.

  2. They are going to get reinforced/rewarded after they hear the marker word; how they get reinforced/rewarded depends on the marker word you use.

Why should you use marker words? Why not just give the treat? It has to do with timing. By using a marker word, we are able to precisely mark the moment the dog does the right thing. Rewards can rarely be instantly delivered.

Often, when rewarding a dog with a treat, the dog actually stops doing the behavior we want to encourage in order to get the treat. At that point, dogs tend to be confused about exactly what they are being rewarded for.

For simple behaviors - like a dog sitting right in front of us - we can give the treat to the dog while the dog is still engaged in the behavior (sitting). In those types of cases, the reward is clear without the use of a marker.

But as soon as you try to encourage more complex behaviors, you lose this association. For example, if you take a few steps back and then ask the dog to sit, the dog will have to stand and come to you to get the reward or you will have to move to the dog to reward. This starts to get really confusing for the dog.

Using a marker word allows us to mark the exact time the dog is doing the right thing and tell them that reinforcement is coming and how it will be delivered. For more complex behaviors or shaping behaviors this skill is practically essential.

Dogs do not innately know what words mean so we have to teach them that words have meaning and value.

The first thing you need to do is called load the marker word. Which means you need to pair the word with how the word will be reinforced. Remember good old Pavlov from Psychology 101? He rang a bell before he fed the dogs in his experiment. Eventually, the dogs started to drool when he rang the bell even if food wasn’t presented. They were anticipating the food. The bell was a marker that told the dogs that food was going to be served. That is what we need to do with our marker words.

There are dozens of established marker words in the dog training world and truly they are only limited by the ways we could reinforce a dog. That being said, I mainly use four with my dogs and these are the ones I will talk about today.

I use:

"Yes" to tell my dog to take a treat from my hand.

"Get it" means I will toss one treat on the ground.

"Scatter" means I will toss 3-4 treats on the ground for the dog to search for.

"Take it" is specific to toys and it means you can bite the toy I am presenting to you.

The process to train each marker word is essentially the same. We start with no expectation of behavior with the dogs. You should stand neutrally and say the marker word you are training, and then pause and reinforce based on the marker word you are using.

So, for "Yes" we would stand neutrally, say the word, pause, and then reward the dog with a treat from our hand. It is important that the reinforcement (treat in most cases) happens within about 3 seconds of the marker word. If the time between the marker word and the reinforcement is too long, then the dog might not make the connection.

The dog should start to anticipate the reinforcement. If you are training the marker word "Yes" then the dog should start to go straight to your treat hand after you say "Yes." This is a good test to make sure the dog is starting to understand the relationship between the marker word and the reinforcement.

Once the dog understands what the marker words mean, we can really start to incorporate them into our training sessions for clear and precise communication. I use these marker words to teach everything from precision heeling to silly tricks. In the video below, for example, I taught Freya my female dog to pretend to lift her leg to pee.

Do you want to learn how to teach cool tricks or just improve your dog's behavior? Click below to contact me!

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