Handy Tools of Communication Part I: Marker Systems!

December 10, 2019

Well here it is, Friday again! No, you didn’t miss last week’s Note. I didn’t send one I’m afraid. Sorry about that! We had a major winter storm pending and I had to do a mad scramble to prepare the farm for the arctic blast. The work ate up a lot more of my time than expected, and Friday came and went. But I’m back on track this week! (Frozen livestock well and water hauling for 40+ animals from the house not withstanding, we all made it through the storm just fine, thanks for asking!)

In our last discussion, we talked about the importance of clear communication in training, and I promised to go into detail about using two important communication tools: Marker Systems and Start Buttons. Now, I’m not going to be able to go into great depth into either topic, given the limited space we have here. But I hope to give you enough information to start playing around with these concepts. Today I’m going to go over Marker Systems.

Marker Systems

Marker systems are gaining in popularity, and you may already be familiar with them. You might even be already using them! If that’s the case, I’d love to hear how you’re using them, and what clever words you’ve chosen for what behaviours.

Marker systems are a system of markers that tell our dog that reinforcement is coming, where it will be delivered, and what exactly it will be. What is a marker? A marker is a signal that tells our learning that reinforcement is coming. A click is a marker. So are the words “yes” or “good”, or any other word you might say to mark when your dog has done something correctly, before you deliver her reinforcement for a job well done.

We can also accidentally give marks, without even realizing it. For example, if our dog does something we like and we reach into our pocket for a treat as we say “good”, our dog may start to mark off our hand movement. Because dogs are so tuned into body language, very quickly they will start to predict that reinforcement is coming through small movements or “tells” that we do without even being aware. Accidentally marking behaviours is something I’ve really struggled with since becoming aware of the importance of not doing so! But I digress…

(Click here for a short tutorial on developing clean clicking / marking mechanics)

So, a mark can be a word, a sound (like a clicker), or a movement. It can even be a scent, a visual such as a flashing light, or a sensation (like touch, a vibration etc.). It’s any kind of signal that tells our dog that reinforcement is coming. And we use that signal to mark the behaviour we want to reinforce.

For most of my training life, I used a very small collection of marks. Basically I used the words yes and good. When I discovered clickers, I added those to my collection. But in recent years I’ve added quite a few more signals to my list.

Why? Well, each different marker will serve to tell my dog not only that reinforcement is coming, but where it will be delivered and also what it will be. For example, I have one marker word (catch!) telling my dog that I’m going to throw her a piece of food. If I’m going to throw a toy, however, I use a different word (Face!). If I am going to throw a toy for her to chase, I use yet another word (chase it!), which contrasts with the marker I use to tell her I’m going to throw food for her to chase (search!).

Here are the markers that I currently use most frequently for food reinforcement:

Catch! (I’m going to throw food for you to catch)
Yep! (I’m going to hand you food)
Take it! (Come get your treat from my hand)
Search! (chase the food I’m about to toss)
Find it! (I’ve dropped food on the floor for you to sniff around and find)
Dish! (go eat the food in the dish)

I have a separate list of markers for working with toys:

Face! (open your face, I’m going to throw a toy into it)
Chase it! (run after the toy I’m about to throw)
Get it! (pounce on the dead toy already on the ground)
Look back! (spin around and grab the toy behind you)
Mark! (grab the toy in my hand)
Tug! (tug on the toy I’m presenting to you / in your mouth)
Switch! (drop the toy in your mouth and grab the one in my hand).

Phew, I know… complicated, right?

Not really, actually. It’s surprising how quickly dogs pick these up and how handy they are for training.

Why? Well, they give the dog so much more information than simply saying “good”. I mean, think about it. You say “good” or “yes” and then what? you might hand your dog a treat, or you might toss a toy. You might ask her to tug, or you might expect her to break position and come to you for a snack.

By using one word to represent all these options,  your dog is not going to be sure what to expect. If she’s holding a stay, should she break it and come to you? If she knows that “good” means I’m coming to you to hand you food, she will stay still. Imagine how handy this is when teaching duration behaviours, for example.

Having a clear, consistent set of markers in training will result in a much more confident response by your dog. A confident dog is a happy dog. And a fast dog. So if you’re looking for a snappier performance, marker systems will get you there.

My dogs absolutely love their marker cues, and teaching them is actually both easy and fun. In fact, I teach them as a training activity in and of itself. All you have to do is grab a bunch of treats, and decide on your marker words. I suggest picking 3-4 to start, as you get used to this concept. I like catch, search, and then a word to mean come get your treat from my hand (aka a “take out” marker), and one to mean I will hand deliver your treat (aka a “room service” marker).

Next, say your word, and deliver the treat in the appropriate manner or location. So, if you say “catch”, you’ll next want to toss the treat to your dog. Be sure to pause after you say the word catch, then make a clear swinging movement with your arm as you toss. This will help your dog track the treat in the air. If you say search! then toss the toy along the ground. And so on.

Teach each word a few times on its own, making sure your dog always gets the treat (i.e., if she drops the food on catch, she still gets to eat it!).

Finally, start mixing and matching the marker words two or three at a time, so your dog learns the difference by contrast. Here’s a little video I made to show you what this looks like.

Give this little exercise a try and let me know how your dog likes it. Mine all think marker games are super fun, and they can be trained anywhere and anytime you have a few spare seconds!

Happy training!
Hélène and the Kynic Stockdogs

PS. As always, feel free to share my emails with your friends, or, if you think they’d like to subscribe and get these training notes directly, just send them to helenelawler.com. See you next week!

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