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What is a Marker and How Do They Work?

When teaching animals something new, we can speed up the process with the use of a marker. A marker can be defined as: a distinct signal given by the handler to “mark” the EXACT moment that a desired behavior occurs. Each time the animal gets the marker signal, it is followed up with a reinforcer. With practice, the animal learns that it is their OWN behavior that earns the marker + reward. This provides a clear way for the animal to identify the EXACT behavior they can repeat in order to get more rewards. Markers are powerful communication tools!

Most often in dog training, auditory markers are chosen. Trainers use either a device that makes a click noise (called a clicker) or a verbal cue like “YES” to mark a desired behavior. For my own canine students with deafness, I like to use a thumbs-up signal or “jazz hands.” The TYPE of marker you choose is not as important as the consistency and timing of use.

In practice, the sequence might look like: The handler asks a dog to “Sit.”

The dog:

1) looks up,

2) walks over,

3) pauses,

4) and then sits.

The handler says “YES” the exact moment the dog is in the Sit position. Then, the handler gives the dog a treat.

In the above example, I made sure to include the several behaviors the dog does before they do the Sit. If we took out the marker, the dog would have to guess which of the behaviors was the “right” one. Was it the moment they looked up? The part where they came to the handler? The pause? The Sit? Perhaps the entire sequence of behaviors?

If a dog were learning the Sit cue for the first time, it would take some trial and error before they narrowed it down to “Sit” means “butt on ground.” Adding in the marker helps to reduce the guesswork.

If they’re taking a multiple-choice test, we’re highlighting the right answer for them!

Markers bring precision and clarity to our training, but that’s not all! Once a dog has been conditioned to the idea that the marker is associated with reward, the marker itself becomes reinforcing. The sound of the marker can even cause the release of dopamine (a neurotransmitter involved with reward and motivation) in the brain. This is fantastic, because we can present a marker much more rapidly than we can give a treat in many circumstances.

If you haven't tried marker training, I highly recommend this video to get you started.


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