Yes! – Using a Marker Word for Your Primitive Dog

A marker is a word that you say to your dog the second that they complete the correct behavior in a training exercise. Marker words are secondary reinforcers that are used as a bridge to tell the dog that they are correct and that a reward is coming. The word becomes important to the dog because they strongly associate the word with a primary reinforcer, which is usually food unless your dog is motivated by something else, such as toys. Markers are a great tool because it gives your dog instant feedback that they did what you asked. This instant feedback will help your dog to understand the moment that they were correct, which allows them to learn faster.

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When used properly, the marker word can be a powerful tool in training. Once your dog understands the marker word, they will almost taste the food when they hear the word, because every single time they have heard the word, they were given a reward. For my own dog, as soon as she hears her marker word, her eyes dilate. When you train your dog to respond to a marker word, you start pairing the word with food. You don’t need to ask for a sit before you say the new word…yet. We want to build value of the word to the dog before we apply it to behaviors.

Some examples of good markers are, “Yes,” “Super,” “Nice!” I prefer a one to two syllable word over a phrase because it is distinct. Some use “good dog” as their markers, but that is a phrase I say to my dog frequently, instead of just when she does the correct behavior during a training session. I want the marker to be only said when a reward is going to follow.

To start creating value to the word, have 5-10 small treats in your hand and your dog in front of you. Your dog doesn’t need to be in any specific position for this exercise.

Simply…

Say the word.

Lower the treat into their mouth.

 Photo by Couch Wolves Facebook group member J. Langhals

Photo by Couch Wolves Facebook group member J. Langhals

Be sure to finish saying the word, then lower the treat to them. If you hand the treat to the dog while you are saying the word, then lowering your hand becomes part of the visual signal. If they only pick up the visual, then the word becomes meaningless. The dog will ignore the word and just look for you to lower your hand. The word itself needs to be highly reinforcing because it will be the bridge between the correct behavior and the treat. If you just hand your dog the treat, without praise then you will be obligated to always give them a treat for correct behavior.

Repeat the two steps above for each treat. Practice this every day for a week, then start applying it to behaviors.

When you apply it to a behavior, say the marker as soon as your dog does the behavior. For example, say sit. The moment that the dog’s hind end touches the ground, you say your marker word and then follow up with the reward.

Maintain the value by giving the dog a reward when you say the word. If you only say the word and stop giving rewards, then the word will lose value. This technique is a powerful part of a trainer’s tool belt and is a favorite method for teaching dogs new behaviors and reinforcing old ones.

Let us know if you already use a marker word or are starting to use one in the group!