Note—If you're looking for the 'How To' without any extra info, scroll down to the embedded video. If you experience any challenges in your training, I recommend coming back here to develop your understanding of why markers are important and get some guided practice for your physical skills.
A reward marker is an event followed by a reinforcer often enough for your dog to associate it with the arrival of reinforcement. Trainers sometimes call this a secondary reinforcer or a bridge to reinforcement.
We use reward markers for many reasons—one is that they allow us to pinpont, or ‘mark’, the precise behavior that we want to reinforce. This helps your dog learn faster.
Skilled marker usage can make training significantly clearer for your dog, which means training stays fun instead of being frustrating. Frustration in training can prompt a whole host of unpleasant (for you) behaviors your dog may use to try to relieve themselves of the unpleasant (for them) feeling (e.g. leash biting, barking, checking out, sniffing, jumping up, etc.)
Neither your dog, or you, are having fun if things get to that point. So while using markers requires some human skill building up front, they ultimately make training easier for your dog and thus, easier for you.
Markers are typically sounds, though you can also use a gesture or even a sensation, such as vibration, which can be helpful for dogs with hearing and/or sight impairment. Marker sounds are often one of two types –– verbal (such as a specific word or short phrase) or mechanical (such as a clicker).
But the sound you use is less important than your timing and consistency. Most importantly, your marker must occur before you begin to deliver reinforcement. If you deliver these two things simultaneously instead of sequentially, your dog won’t make a strong association. Instead your movement will overshadow your marker sound—basically turning it into irrelevant background noise.
Only slightly less important is the timing of your marker relative to your dog’s behavior. The behavior that is occurring as you mark is the behavior that gets reinforced, so for brand new behaviors you want to time your marker right as your dog completes the desired behavior.
Because the timing is so important, it’s a good idea to develop your skills without your dog at first.
Below is a video demonstrating How to Give Your Dog a Reward Marker. Watch it through once just to get a sense of what to expect. Then watch the video again and deliver your marker sound out loud as it plays. Try to time your marker for the moment the dog (my dog, Ginny ❤️) completes its behavior. It doesn’t matter if your maker sound is the same as the one on the video, just listen for any difference in timing. If it’s hard for you to listen for differences as you’re watching the video, record a voice memo on your phone of you speaking out loud as the video plays, then play the recording to listen for differences.
Keep practicing until you are delivering your markers at the same time as the trainer (c’est moi ☺️) in the video. Now you’re ready to practice your mark and reward. Get 10 small treats, about the size of a green pea or even smaller if you have a small dog. Have them in your pocket or treat pouch—however you plan to train. Also have your dog out of the room, you don’t need them distracting you trying to get those treats.
First stand next to a table and practice your mark and reward sequence on your own. Say each step out loud as you perform it. For example, if your marker word is YES, then you will say:
“Yes” - “Pause” - “Reach” - “Reward”
While your corresponding actions will be:
Stand still - Stand still - Reach for your treat - Deliver your treat to the table top
Run through all your treats as many times as you need to for your rhythm to feel smooth and easy. Then repeat the exercise while saying only the marker word out loud and saying “pause - reach - reward” silently in your head. Now watch the video again, this time marking and rewarding your table along with the timing of the video. Don’t worry about the behavior cues (such as “sit”), just concentrate on the mark-pause-reach-reward sequence.
Once you feel confident in your timing and the smoothness of your delivery, you are ready to bring in your dog.
You’ll need some small, tasty treats; a verbal marker such as “yes” or “good” or a mechanical marker such as a clicker; and your dog. Here’s the procedure:
Ask your dog for a behavior they already know, such as sit.
Deliver your marker as your dog completes the behavior.
Pause for 1 second.
Reach for your treat.
Give your dog the treat.
Repeat until you see your dog perk up when they hear the marker—they will look happy and expectant in response to the sound. Once this is happening reliably, you are ready to use your marker sound to teach your dog something new!
One last note: As I said before—through repetition and consistency, your dog makes an association. Once the association is made, your marker predicts (for your dog) the arrival of reinforcement. This makes markers useful to humans who want to teach dogs to do things we want them to do.
But a marker can predict much more than just the arrival of an unknown reinforcement delivered in an unknown way. By using different markers (consistently), they can also tell your dog exactly what reinforcement is coming (e.g. treat or toy, ball or tug, etc.), and exactly where or how that reinforcement will appear. This information can be extremely useful, and motivating, to your dog.
First, it helps avoid the disappointment which can occur when they’re expecting one type of reinforcement and another appears (e.g. “I thought you had my ball to throw, but that’s just a dumb piece of kibble 😖” or vice versa depending on the dog). It also lets them anticipate how they will acquire that reinforcement (e.g. take it from your hand, take it from the floor, chase it, catch it, etc.)
To create different markers, just choose different marker sounds and different reward deliveries and pair them consistently. (Don’t forget that ever important pause!) Here are some ideas:
“Find it” = look for a treat on the floor
“Chase” = look for a toy to be thrown
“Good” = keep doing what you’re doing, I’ll bring a treat to you
“Yes” = stop doing what you’re doing and come get a treat from my hand
This level of clarity and consistency can make training much more fun for your dog. The predictability can also incredibly soothing for dogs that tend to be anxious or unsure.
Over time, your clarity will become their confidence.