Marker training uses words or sounds to communicate or signal to the dog that he is doing something correctly or incorrectly. The words or sounds mark a specific moment in time when the dog performs an action or behavior. It’s feedback for the dog in its simplest form. Verbal marker words clear up and improve communication in training and streamline the training process.
We use classical conditioning to teach marker words. For optimal conditioning, give the cue then follow-through within .5-2.3 seconds (1 sec is ideal).
We use four marker words: Yes, Good, Nope and Free
- “Yes” is a terminal marker signaling to the dog that he’s performed the behavior you want. It is used when teaching a new command, and it is always followed by a reward. The Rate of Reinforcement (ROR) is 100%. Another option for the “Yes” marker is the clicker. I tend to use yes for obedience and the clicker for tricks training.
- “Good” is a continuation marker. It means keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll be rewarded. ROR: 100% then down to 50% or so
- “Nope” or “Ack” or “Uh-Uh” is a corrective marker. It means “That’s not what I want” or “That’s not what I asked for.” It signals to the dog that his behavior was not correct and to either fix it or try again. Depending on the dog and the behavior, you may follow-through with a correction (e.g., leash pop) which will vary based on the dog.
- “Free” is our release marker. Other release markers can be OK, Break, Release – some people use Yes as their release marker – we use Free. The reason I don’t like OK is because we say “OK” so often and may unintentionally release our dog, “Break” sounds harsh, and “Release” is a longer two-syllable word. “Free” is short and sweet and upbeat. I say it in a fun way. Free means you’re released from whatever you were doing and it implies “Come to me for the reward.” To teach Free you say “Free” then step back and reward dog.
For example, if you’re working on sit/stay: “Sit” + (dog sits) + “Yes” + R (reward) + “Good” (for staying) + R + “Nope” (for getting up) + “Free” (release from sit) + R
Markers should be said the same way each time without emotion. Emotion makes things foggy and makes the dog feel he must interpret the marker. Just like a clicker is very consistent, so should marker words.
In order to use markers in training, the words must be taught to the dog. To do this we use simple conditioning (e.g., “Yes” + treat; “Good” + treat; “Nope” + correction; and “Free” + step back + treat). We condition the Yes, Good and Free markers in much the same way we condition a dog to the clicker. The Nope marker is conditioned within the training process, not separately.
The biggest mistake I see in marker training is referred to as layering – when the marker and the reward/correction are given at the same time. Good timing is key to good use of markers. Mark the behavior then follow-through .5-2.3 seconds later (or so) with the reward or correction. Classical conditioning requires one thing to happen then the next, but not both at the same time.
Repetition is key to successful conditioning. It takes approximately 120 quality repetitions for something to be conditioned in a dog’s mind (for example, “Yes” equals treat).
We use markers for everything in training from basic commands to tricks training, e-collar training and more. It is our most fundamental approach to communicating verbally with our dogs. The simpler it is, the faster dogs learn.