Among the many accepted methods of teaching dogs new skills is marker training, or clicker training. This method was adapted from marine mammal training by pioneer Karen Pryor after the success of her book "Don't Shoot the Dog!" Thanks to clear communication and positive effects on relationships, marker training is a powerful training method.
Motivating Your Dog
At the core of marker training is the knowledge that dogs will do what works to obtain the things they need. Food, water, attention, play and movement are just a few of these things. Using these resources as rewards, marker training motivates dogs to try different behaviors and skills until they find the one that works to obtain what they need or want. Because of this, we can teach dogs by focusing on the behaviors we like and rewarding them.
Removing the Confrontation
Marker training removes confrontation from the relationship between owner and dog. There is no use of force and no need to corner a dog into a response. Instead, marker training allows the dog to think independently and try new skills. Rather than control his dog's every move, the owner can encourage the dog to make good choices. On occasion, trainers use a "no reward" marker to let the dog know the behavior was not worthy of a reward. Examples of no reward markers are phrases such as "wrong" or "try again" said in a relaxed, friendly tone to provide feedback, not to scold. However, removal of the reward, rather than introduction of the no reward, is often all that is needed to reduce an unwanted behavior.
Choosing a Marker
The most commonly used marker is the clicker, a small device with a metal tongue that makes a clicking sound when depressed and released. Speaking in more general terms, markers include words such as "yes!" and "good!" or short whistle bursts when working at long distances outdoors. When working with deaf dogs, many trainers have used vibration collars or laser pointers. Be careful with laser pointers, though, as these can excite dogs and trigger behavior problems. Whatever marker you choose, you must initially properly pair it with food treats so it has meaning to your dog. To do this, present the marker and immediately follow with a treat. Repeat until your dog is looking at you each time he hears the marker.
Consistent and Clear Communication
The biggest benefit to marker training is that it provides clear and consistent communication between owner and dog. Once the marker is charged, the dog knows that each mark means he gets a reward. Hence, this becomes an effective way for the owner to tell his dog which behaviors he likes. Using a camera analogy, each time the owner marks, the dog files a mental photo of what he did that earned that mark. And since dogs do what works, the dog will repeat behaviors that earn marks and abandon behaviors that do not.
Kathy Sdao's SMART x 50
There is an easy method for applying marker training in daily life with your dog. Simply use the "SMART x 50" method developed by marine mammal and dog trainer Kathy Sdao. In her book, "Plenty in Life is Free," Sdao describes how she developed this method for owners who did not have the time for formal, daily training sessions. SMART stands for See Mark And Reward Training. Count out 50 or more treats for each day. You can use part of your dog's daily kibble if weight control is a concern. Then, each time your dog does something you like, for example going to his mat when the doorbell rings or sitting when approaching a stranger, mark happily with a word like "yes" or "good" and offer a treat. This method shifts your focus from what your dog is doing wrong to what your dog is doing right, and offers useful feedback to your dog as to what works.
Focusing on the Positive
Focusing on the positive builds a relationship based on trust, respect and fun with our dogs. No longer do we need to scare or physically harm our dogs in the name of training. Instead, guide your dog into making the right choices everyday, reward those choices with food or play and watch inappropriate behaviors disappear.
Shelly Volsche has worked as a professional dog behavior consultant, holds a Bachelor's degree in psychology, and a diploma in canine nutrition. She has written for "The Chronicle of the Dog" and Lucky Dog Magazine and is currently pursuing her PhD in anthropology with a focus on pet parents.