Training a puppy or newly adopted adult dog can be challenging. The reason dogs don’t do what we ask is because they may not understand what we want. We don’t “speak” dog and our canines don’t understand English.
In order to improve communication, we need a way to clearly let our dog know when he is doing the right thing - or when he isn’t and needs to try something else. This is where reward (and no-reward) markers come into play.
Clicker versus verbal markers
A reward marker is a sound that tells your dog what he was doing at that exact moment is what you wanted, resulting in a high-value treat. It is the bridge between the instant the dog performs the behavior and the moment he gets the reward.
There is an ongoing debate in the training community as to what type of marker is better - a clicker or a verbal marker. A clicker is a small handheld device that makes a clicking sound when you press the button. Advocates for using a clicker note that the sound is consistent and therefore less confusing for the dog. Some trainers also feel they can click faster than saying the verbal marker.
“Yes” is the commonly used verbal marker word. Advocates for using a verbal marker feel that it’s logistically easier. It’s difficult to juggle a leash, treats and a clicker at the same time. Most dogs love the sound of their owner’s voice, so saying the verbal marker in a high-pitched and happy tone is very rewarding.
Which is the better marker to use? Numerous studies have resulted in inconclusive results. I tend to agree with Stanley Coren, Ph.D., who wrote about a case study for psychologytoday.com (April 5, 2017), done by researchers at the University of Trieste. He concluded that “the clicker sound and the word of praise produced exactly the same learning outcome.”
In other words, both methods work, so use what you feel works best for you and your dog. I personally prefer using a verbal marker. If you prefer using a clicker, substitute “click” for “yes” for the remainder of this article.
Using a reward marker
First, teach your dog how rewarding a high-pitched verbal “yes” is. Get your dog’s attention by calling his name. When he looks at you, mark it with a verbal “yes” and follow immediately with a high-value treat. Repeat several times before starting actual training. We call this “priming the pump.”
Teaching a new cue involves three steps – get the behavior, mark the behavior and reward the behavior. For example, if you were teaching your dog to sit, you would start with your dog in a standing position. Hold the treat near his nose and pull the treat back over his head. In all likelihood, your dog’s head will follow the treat resulting in his bottom hitting the ground (getting the behavior). The instant this happens, mark with a verbal “yes” (marking the behavior) and immediately follow with a high-value treat (rewarding the behavior).
An extra bonus to linking food to a verbal cue is that thanks to classical conditioning, the verbal cue will often become as powerful a reward as the actual treat. For more information on how this works, google “Pavlov's dogs and the discovery of classical conditioning.”
Using a no-reward marker
A no-reward marker isn’t a correction – it simply lets your dog know that he needs to try something else in order to get the reward. It’s a noise to get your dog to stop doing what he is doing so you can redirect him to do something more appropriate. A firm “no” works for most dogs. A sharper sound like AH-AH-AH (I call it the duck noise) might work better for more confident dogs.
For example, suppose your dog approaches and you can tell he is about to jump up on you. Immediately use your no-reward marker – “no” – and the second he hesitates, tell your dog what behavior it is that you want – sit!
Timing is critical – the most common mistake is to click or say “yes” too late after the dog offers the desired behavior.
Be sure that the treat follows the “yes” marker. The “yes” marker and treating should not occur simultaneously.
Remember the verbal “yes” is the bridge to the reward.
Don’t overuse the no-reward marker. Try to positively reward your dog 80 percent of the time by setting your dog up for success. If you find yourself using no-reward markers too frequently, lower your expectations – you may be asking too much of your dog too soon.
When teaching a new behavior, or if the dog is adjusting to a new handler, always reward with high value treats.
Once your dog “gets” the behavior, you can start intermittently rewarding with lower value treats, verbal praise, petting or a favorite toy or game.
Take a break if you or your dog are getting frustrated, but always end on a positive note. Ask your dog to do something simple and reward/praise.