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Honing Your Training Skills: Marker-Timing

In my last two posts about working with dog-human training teams, I wrote about observation and then patience. Today I discuss the heart of training mechanics, timing the marker and reinforcement.

In positive reinforcement training we often use a marker—a clicker or a word like yes or yep—to tell dogs that they’ve done the right behavior and that a reinforcer (treat, toy, game of tug) is on its way. The pattern goes like this: you ask your dog to sit, she sits, you click or say "yes" as soon as her tush hits the floor, and then you give her a treat.

Your timing of the marker-reinforcement sequence can either help or hinder your dog's learning. If your timing is off--for instance, you say "yes" or click as your dog stands from sitting rather than as she sits--you may inadvertently mark and then reinforce a behavior you didn't intend your dog to do. The next time you ask her to sit, she may sit and then stand back up because that is what she learned. Good marker-reinforcement timing also means leaving a little space between your word or clicker and the reward. Over time the marker comes to predict the reinforcement for your dog, which gives you time to get a treat out of your pocket or bag.

Like any other aspect of training, using your marker well takes practice. Trainer Kathy Sdao has her clients practice marking behavior while watching tv. She suggests picking a behavior to track and saying your marker word or clicking your clicker every time a character performs that behavior onscreen.

When I attended a course at the Karen Pryor National Training Center last year, our marvelous teacher Ken Ramirez had us rehearse the marker-reinforcement sequence with human partners before our first session with goats and mini donkeys. It's a wonderful exercise that you can practice, too. Take turns being the trainer and the learner. The trainer clicks or says their marker word and then takes a treat from their bag or pocket to give to their partner. The learner simply takes the treat. After several rounds, you can switch roles.

As you practice your marker and reinforcement timing, pay attention to your hand position. Your hand may drift into your treat bag or pocket to be ready to reward your dog. If this happens, you risk having your dog focus on the treat bag instead of the training game or you. So keeping your hand in a neutral position like behind your back or against your chest can help.

As you improve your timing of the marker and reward, you'll see your dog start to learn even faster. And that will be reinforcing for you!

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