Have you met someone who's pretty good at training their dog what to do? Do you know one way to tell the difference between that person and a GREAT dog trainer? The difference is that the great trainer uses a "marker word."
Have you heard a dog trainer say, "Yes!" after their dog has performed a "Sit" or "Down"? Have you noticed how precisely and clearly the dog trainer says "Yes"?
A "marker word" is a word that is used to communicate to a dog that they have performed a desired behavior correctly. In dog training, the most common marker word is probably "Yes!" Note that you could use a different word, or a clicker, or anything else, really, as long as you are consistent.
When a dog performs a desired behavior, such as sitting or lying down, the trainer immediately says the marker word ("Yes!") followed by a reward, such as a treat. Treats are useful because so many dogs are food-motivated. (If the dog isn't food motivated, you may have to use a toy or affection or some other reward that is slower than food rewards). This use of a marker word reinforces the desired behavior and helps the dog understand which behavior is being rewarded.
"If you say it, pay it."
Note that if you say the marker word (like "Yes!") you must follow it by giving the dog a treat. As the saying goes, "If you say it, pay it."
Using a marker word has many benefits in dog training:
- It allows for quick communication. (You can say it immediately, and then it will take a second or two to give the dog a treat. If you didn't use the marker word, the separation of time between the marker word and the treat would be pretty long.)
- It's very precise. You can say it at exactly the right time (such as exactly when the dog's butt touches the floor during a "Sit").
- This speed and precision speeds up the learning process.
- It also helps to create positive associations with training. Soon, a dog learns that it loves to train with you. After all, it's an opportunity to get rewards!
- It builds the dog's confidence. Now the dog knows exactly what it did right and it doesn't fear punishment (this is all reward-based training).
- It builds motivation. Now the dog knows exactly the reward it will get when the dog does something right.
Marker words can also be used to shape more complex behaviors.
- For example, a trainer may use a marker word to mark the correct position of a dog's paw during a shaping exercise. (Eventually, you raise the criteria until the dog can hold it's paw up for five minutes at a time, thus making nail grooming easier.)
- The dog learns that the marker word is a signal to continue with the behavior that they are currently doing.
Overall, the use of a marker word is a powerful tool in dog training that:
- Helps to reinforce desired behaviors
- Accelerate the learning process.