Training 101: Choosing a Reward Marker

Posted by on Feb 2, 2016 in Dog Behavior and Training

Choosing a reward marker

In recent years, positive-reinforcement training has become more and more popular among families and trainers. As part of this training, it’s important to develop a reward marker for your dog.

The purpose of the reward marker is to:

  • Mark the exact moment a desired behavior is performed
  • Signify to your dog that a reward is coming
  • Help you communicate more clearly a desired behavior
  • Help your dog understand what behavior is rewarding
  • Expedite your training process

What is a reward marker?

A reward marker signals correctly-performed behavior from your dog and indicates that a reward is about to follow. The reward marker can be a spoken word, such as “yes!” or “good!”. In more recent years, the use of a clicker is used as a reward marker. A clicker is a small plastic or metal device that emits a loud “click” noise when pressed.

In traditional positive-training, a treat is used to help to signify when a desired behavior is performed. But training can take much longer with the use of treats alone. For example, let’s say you’re working on “sit” without a reward marker. You ask your dog to sit, and he does. As you’re reaching into your pouch to grab a treat, your dog makes eye contact with you, maybe scratches his ears, wags his tail, and then barks. By the time you’ve given your dog a treat, four other behaviors have been performed. To you, giving a reward for the “sit” is obvious. To your dog, it may not be so clear.

The timing of your reward marker is the most important part of positive-reinforcement training. The reward marker is given as soon as your dog completes the desired behavior. For example, if you are training “sit” with your dog, the instant your dog’s bottom touches the floor in a sit, you give your reward marker. This helps you communicate more clearly with your dog by marking the behavior the exact moment it happens. The reward marker signifies “I am rewarding you for putting your bottom on the floor”.

The sequence of events is in reward marking is:

1. You request a specific behavior from your dog
2. Your dog completes the behavior
3. You give your reward marker
3. Follow the marker with a reward

If your dog does not complete the desired behavior, you do not give the marker or the reward.

As training progresses you can switch to real-life rewards, such as being fed dinner, getting into the car, or going for a walk.

How to choose a reward marker

Choosing a reward marker is crucial, as you’ll want to remain consistent with your training from the beginning. If you are training your dog with a partner or family, be sure everyone is on the same page with your reward marker.

One of the best verbal markers is “yes”. Here’s why: “yes!” is a short word and unique in sound. The shorter the word, the quicker you’ll be able to signify the behavior. “Good” is another popular reward marker. However, be cautious when using “good” as your marker. Many people will greet your dog saying a variation of “What a good dog!”, which may indirectly reinforce your dog for undesired behavior.

A clicker is another excellent reward marking tool. Be sure you bring it with you whenever your training to remain consistent.

How to train and reinforce your reward marker

Once you’ve decided on your reward marker you can begin a positive-association regimen. In this example, we will explore using a clicker as the marker.

Begin by taking your dog on a 25-30 minute walk. This will ensure your dog is well-exercised and had an opportunity to use the bathroom. Gather up some of your dog’s favorite treats and put them in a pouch or bag.

After your walk, move to a common area in your house. Relax as you normally would (such as on the couch) with your dog beside you. If your dog is too excited about the treats, try using a less-desirable treat, such as his kibble. You may also consider feeding your dog his meal prior to this particular training. Once your dog is relaxed, click and give your dog the treat. Repeat this click-and-treat 10-12 times. Once you’ve finished your repetitions, give your release command such as “free!” or “release!” and walk away. This is to signify that your training session is completed.

The purpose of these click-and-treat sessions is to begin associating the sound of the click with a reward. Repeat this process every day for at least a week. Then you can begin using your reward marker as part of your everyday training.

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