How to use markers to train dogs
By Will Bangura, M.S., CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA (Dog Behaviorist) Certified Dog Behavior Consultant
Marker training, also known as clicker training, is a type of positive reinforcement training that uses a small mechanical device, known as a clicker, to mark the precise moment a desired behavior is performed. This training method is based on operant conditioning principles, which state that behavior can be influenced by the consequences that follow it. In the case of marker training, the consequence is a reward, such as food or praise, that is delivered immediately after the click, which serves as a marker of the desired behavior.
The History of Clicker Training or Marker Training
The origins can be traced back to the early 1900s, when animal behaviorists, such as B.F. Skinner began experimenting with operant conditioning as a means of shaping animal behavior. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that clicker training began to gain popularity among dog trainers. Karen Pryor, a marine mammal trainer, is credited with popularizing the use of clickers in dog training through her books and training seminars (Pryor, 1998).
Using a clicker for training is quite simple. The clicker is a small plastic device that makes a distinct “clicking” sound when pressed. The trainer will first “charge” the clicker by associating the sound with a reward, such as a piece of food. This process is known as “conditioning” the clicker. Once the dog associates the sound of the click with a reward, the trainer can begin using the clicker to mark desired behaviors, such as sitting or lying down. The reward is then given immediately after the click, reinforcing the behavior (Fugazza and Miklósi, 2016).
There are several advantages to using a clicker in dog training versus other methods of training dogs. One of the main benefits is the precision of the marker. The clicker marks the exact moment the desired behavior is performed, which allows for more precise and efficient training (Fugazza and Miklósi, 2016). Additionally, clicker training is a positive reinforcement-based method, which means it promotes a positive relationship between the trainer and the dog and can be more effective in modifying fearful and aggressive behaviors (Herron, Shofer, and Reisner, 2009).
To begin clicker training, the first step is to “charge” or “condition” the clicker. This can be done by simply clicking the clicker and immediately giving the dog a small piece of food or treat. Repeat this process several times until the dog associates the sound of the click with a reward (Fugazza and Miklósi, 2016). Once the clicker is charged, you can begin training the dog.
Here are three examples of how clicker training is used in training dogs:
To teach a dog a new command, such as “sit,” the trainer would use the clicker to mark the exact moment the dog sits. The trainer would then give the dog a treat or praise immediately after the click. This process would be repeated until the dog learns the command (Fugazza and Miklósi, 2016).
Modifying fearful behaviors: To modify a dog’s fearful behavior, such as fear of loud noises, the trainer would use the clicker to mark the exact moment the dog shows calm behavior in the presence of the feared stimulus. The trainer would then give the dog a treat or praise immediately after the click. This process would be repeated until the dog no longer shows fearful behavior in the presence of the stimulus (Herron, Shofer, and Reisner, 2009).
Modifying aggressive behaviors with clicker training:
To modify a dog’s aggressive behavior, such as biting, the trainer would use the clicker to mark the exact moment. It is also important to note that clicker training is not just limited to dogs. This training method can be used for other animals, such as cats, horses, and even marine mammals, as it has been applied in dolphin and whale training. This type of training can be used in various settings, such as in zoos, aquariums, and animal shelters.
Another advantage is that it can be used in conjunction with other training methods. For example, clicker training can be used to teach a dog basic obedience commands such as “sit” or “stay” and then combined with leash training or agility training. It can also be used to shape more complex behaviors, such as performing tricks or tasks.
It is important to note that while this is an effective method of training, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Each dog is unique and may respond differently to different training methods. Some dogs may be more suited for other forms of training, such as lure or reward-based training. It is important for trainers to assess their dog’s individual needs and adapt their training methods accordingly.
In addition, it is important for trainers to be aware of the potential for misuse of clicker training. Clicker training should always be used in a positive and humane manner and should never be used to physically or emotionally abuse an animal. It is also important to consult a professional trainer or behaviorist if a dog is displaying aggressive or fearful behavior. These issues can be complex and require specialized training or behavior modification techniques
In conclusion, marker training or clicker training is a type of positive reinforcement training that uses a small mechanical device, known as a clicker, to mark the precise moment a desired behavior is performed. This training method is based on operant conditioning principles and has been found to be an effective way to train dogs. It can be used to teach new commands, modify fearful and aggressive behaviors, and improve overall communication between dog and owner. With patience and consistency, clicker training can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience for both the trainer and the dog.
- B.F. Skinner. (1938). The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
- Karen Pryor. (1999). Don’t Shoot the Dog: The New Art of Teaching and Training. New York: Bantam.
- Emily Larlham. (2017). Clicker Training for Dogs: An Introduction. Retrieved from https://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/clicker-training-for-dogs-an-introduction/
- Karen Pryor Academy. (n.d.). Clicker Training for Dogs. Retrieved from https://www.clickertraining.com/
- American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. (2019). AVSAB Position Statement on the Use of Punishment in Animal Training. Retrieved from https://avsab.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Punishment_Position_Statement_Download_3-26-19.pdf