Marker training is a reward based method of animal training in where a very clear or distinct signal (usually audible) is produced upon the execution of a behavior the handler approves of, or is trying to elicit. The signal must always be consistent in sound (pitch and tone) and must be followed by a reward. The signal also must not be accompanied by any other signal be it visual or audible.
This audible signal essentially means three things to the animal:
1.What they are doing at the precise moment of hearing the signal, is correct
2.They will always receive a reward
3.They are released from the current behavior (subject to variation)
The signal itself, is only produced when accompanied by a reward, maintaining the value of the signal to the animal. Thus, the animal is very likely to offer the desired behavior again, in search of another signal, which in turn means another reward.
These concepts are rooted in the psychological studies based on the theories of classical conditioning, and operant conditioning. These theories and findings were then applied by dolphin trainers, followed by a handful of dog trainers in the 1980’s, and have since been applied to animals of all kinds, with successful results.
When we apply this concept of communication to our dog training, it is most often familiarized with clicker training. While clicker training may be the most popularized method, there are many trainers who instead choose to use verbal marks. These are most commonly words like “yes”, or “free”, or “OK”. Both clicker marks and verbal marks are extremely effective, and should have the same meaning. But of the two, the verbal marks are more subject to human error in terms of the consistency of the sound or signal. Where as in the case of the clicker, the sound or signal is always the same, and cannot be changed. Creating more clarity in your communication.
Marker training can also be paired with any other technique used in dog training like luring, free shaping, and even compulsion methods. It is the simple matter of producing the audible signal, or mark, at the moment the dog executes the desired behavior. After a brief moment (usually a second or two) you then produce the reward.
One of the main reasons marker training is so effective is because of the clarity of the signal and its association with the reward and completion/release of the exercise or behavior. In order to better understand this point, lets examine a handler who does not mark with a clear signal, but instead just delivers the food from his or her pocket along with a variable sounding “good boy”. What the dog perceives at this point is that the hand going into the pocket is the signal for reward. This is because the hand going in the pocket is consistent in perception, where as the “good boy” has many different tones and variables. This is where many problems start. The dog generally will interpret the signal at the wrong time, causing conflict in our training. The dog will also not understand a correct repetition if it is unable to see the hand going into the pocket. This leaves you unable to capitalize at rewarding the dog at the precise moment you will need to in order to advance your training.
By correctly using marker training, not only are we able to teach new behaviors much more easily, we are also able to avoid areas of conflict in our training that we almost certainly would encounter using less precise methods. The dog learns that it is not finished with the exercise or behavior until it hears its audible mark. This allows us much latitude in our training, especially when it comes to advancing behaviors and chaining behaviors together.
Take care and safe training