Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mark My Words - using verbal markers to communicate to your dog

When training a dog, one of the most important things to do is to give your dog feedback about his behavior.  Timing of the feedback is very important - the reward or punishment must come within a few seconds of the dog's behavior, otherwise the dog will not understand why he is being rewarded or punished.  The problem with this is that there will inevitably be more than a few second delay in giving your dog a reward or punishment.

The idea behind using a verbal marker is to mark the exact moment that the dog is doing something right or wrong, and then follow it up with a consequence, such as a treat or a time-out.  The verbal marker acts as a bridge between the behavior and the corresponding consequence.  You may have heard of a training tool called a clicker.  It's a little plastic box that makes a clicking noise when you press on it.  It serves the same purpose as a verbal reward marker.

A verbal reward marker can be a word such as "Yes!" or "Good!" so long as you use the same word in the same tone consistently.  The verbal marker would be followed by a "positive" consequence such as a treat, freedom, or access to another dog.

Example 1: Let's say you want to teach your dog to pay attention to you more (and look at you).  Rather than calling your dog's name numerous times, you can simply wait until he happens to look at you.  When both of your eyes meet, immediately say "Yes!" and then give your dog a treat.

Example 2: Let's say your dog is on leash and is dying to go say hello to a dog that is 10 feet away.  Your dog is pulling like mad towards him.  Wait for your dog to stop pulling on the leash, and immediately mark it with a "Yes!"  The consequence can be that you drop your dog's leash and let him go and greet the other dog.

A consistently used verbal reward marker will become a predictor of good consequences, therefore reinforcing the behavior.

A non-reward marker is the opposite of a reward marker.  It tells the dog when he is doing something undesirable.  The verbal marker can be something like "Oops!" or "Uh uh!" Just remember that it is feedback, not a punishment in itself.  The verbal marker would be followed by a "negative" consequence such as a time-out or the withdrawal of your attention.  (I don't recommend giving a physical punishment such as a leash jerk.) 

Example 1: Let's say your dog jumps on you all the time.  As soon as his front paws leave the ground, say "Uh uh!" and then walk away or turn your back on your dog.

As the dog starts to make the association between the non-reward marker and the follow-up consequence, he may start to self-correct himself before you give him the consequence.  If that happens, remember to praise your dog for making the right choice. 

Dogs are a lot smarter than many dog owners give them credit for.  We have to remember that dogs don't speak English, and that we have to communicate in a clear way in order for them to understand what we want them to do (or not).  Verbal markers are one way to do that.

1 comment:

  1. can you write a blog about a dog who tends to be more dominant and mounts other dogs... for example, hoku is a bigger dog (akita) and is naturally more dominant than more submissive dogs but how can I curb the behavior (especially in the setting of a dog park) or do I let it go and wait to see if the submissive dog yelps to tell Hoku that they don't like that?

    Additionally, how do I stop Hoku from using her big paws to "paw" my brother's much small chihuahua terrier mix dog?

    I'm hoping this will be a blog topic for your next blog...

    Thank you Kyoko!