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  • Richard Chan

Dont just praise your dog!

I want to talk about how I use verbal markers to communicate with my dog rather than just praise my dog with "good boy" "O that is awesome" when my dog has done something right.

A marker marks the precise moment that the desired behavior takes place. A dog will gain a much clearer understanding on exactly what you are asking him to do.

Let's look at this example: you ask your dog to sit. When your dog sits, you say good boy, reach into your pocket, and offer a treat to the dog.

From our point of view, we asked the dog to sit, the dog sat, we believed the dog understood what "sit" meant as he did what we asked him to do.

However, from the dog's point of view, it is a bit more complex. When he heard sit, he saw you standing in front of him, he realized he was in your kitchen, he saw you put your hand up, he sat down then he heard you say "good boy", he looked at you, his eyes followed your hand into your pocket, he saw a treat, he opened his mouth and he took the treat. Many things had happened after you gave the "sit" command. Depending on how fast you got that treat into the dog's mouth, the dog may associate the treat with a number of things (i.e. the sit motion, your hand signal, your body position, the phase "good boy", looking at you, your hand reaching into your pocket, you hand holding the treats in front of his face...etc). So, to the dog, he may be a bit confused as to whether he received the treat because he looked at you, or because his eyes followed your hand, because he put his butt down or may be because you said "good boy", or all or some of the above?

Coupled with the fact that when you repeat this exercise again you may praise him with a different phase (i.e. good boy, awesome, atta boy, good, yes, thats it...etc)--you may not move your hand this time and you may stand differently. When you spouse or children give the command, once again, they praise differently with different body language and gesture. All these can be confusing to the dog.

If our communication with our dogs is not crystal clear, we will misunderstand what our dogs are actually being taught. We may think a dog knows perfectly what "sit" means, which is to put his butt down on the ground; but to the dog, he may have a different idea.

This kind of disconnection is very common. Often a dog is corrected for not doing something that he does not know he needs to do. Such correction will only make the dog more confused. The fault is not the dog's--why doesn't the owner make the message more clear and only correct when he knows 100% the dog really understands it?

To avoid this kind of miscommunication, we use markers to communicate with our dog in a much clearer manner.

There are 3 markers that I use, and I also say two phrases every time before and after my training.

The 3 markers are "yes", "good", and "nope" and the phrases I say are "let's play" and "all done."

Markers are not verbal praises, they are a sound that the dog is conditioned to understand and associate certain meanings to.

1. Yes. Yes is called a positive marker and also a release word.

What it means is that every time the dog does something right, right at that precise moment (e.g. when the dog's butt just touched the ground), the trainer will say"yes" to let the dog know what the dog is doing at that split second is what is required. A treat or toy will then be presented.

"Yes" should only be said once because it is used to mark one precise moment. A reward is supposed to come after each and every "yes" in the learning stage. It is like an "A" that you receive during an exam--you will not receive more than one "A" for one subject, either should you use "yes" as a praise and say "yes, yes, yes..." to your dog.

"Yes" is also a release word meaning when the dog hears "yes" he knows he is done with holding the command. It is like a student getting an A for his final exam--the semester is over. He can go on his summer vacation. He is all done with his exams. So when I say "yes" after the dog has sat, the dog can stand up and come to me to get his treat.

2. Good. Good is a duration marker.

It tells the dog that he is on the right track and he needs to keep it up for a while. If I want a dog to sit for 3 minutes, I will not say "yes" when he puts his butt down, instead, I will say "good", and repeat "good" several times, to let the dog know that he is doing the right thing (i.e. sit) but he is to hold that position until he hears "yes".

It is like a student getting an A in a test during the school year--he knows he is on the right track but he still needs to attend his classes. He cannot go for his summer vacation yet because the final has yet to come.

I will then release the dog with a "yes" when 3 minutes is up. Once the dog hears "yes" he can break command and come to me for the reward.

"Good" can be repeated several times and it is not necessary to offer a treat after "good".

3. Nope. Nope is a negative marker but it is not a reprimand.

It simply means "nice effort but it is not what I am looking for, please try again."

It would be like a student who failed a test and is given a chance to rewrite the test again. The student is not being punished for failing but merely being given another chance to make it right.

Going back to the previous example, if the dog is not sitting down after I say "sit", I will say "nope", may be give the dog some guidance with a food lure or leash pressure to get him to sit, then I will mark it with either "yes" or "good".

The reason why we use "nope" is because we want the dog to learn how to problem solve and develop the confidence to try make the right decision. We do not want a dog to be afraid of making a mistake during the learning process.

We are not trying to train a drone; we are training a dog that loves to make the right decision and will keep trying until he gets it.

Before the training I will say "let's play" which is like the school bell before school starts. This tells the dog it is now time to have fun training. After I am done, I put all the treats and toys away and I say "all done" . When the dog hears this, he knows school is being closed for summer--doors all locked, teachers are all gone. This marks the end of our training and the dog is free to just be a dog.

With markers, when I ask a dog to sit, the dog will not be confused about what he is expected to do and why he is being rewarded.

Timing of delayed reward delivery is no longer an issue--you can give the dog a treat 3 seconds after the behavior and he will still know he is being rewarded for what he did 3 seconds ago because that is when you said "yes".

He knows he is being rewarded for what he was doing precisely when he heard the word "yes", not when the food reward was presented. This will greatly speed up the learning process.

Moreover, living in the human world can be very stressful for a dog if he does not have a clue what is going on. He does not understand our language and he does not share our value. With markers we can reduce that stress by communicating with our dogs in a crystal clear fashion what we expect from him so he will feel much more confident, secure, and relaxed.

Lastly, I want to add that I did not come up with this system. I basically use the same marker system taught by Michael Ellis. I have seen drastic improvement with my training after I have used this system. It is a much better system, in my opinion, than just using lots of praises and treats without a specific word to mark the behavior at the precise moment.

If you want to find out more about it please do not hesitate to contact me. Thank you.

#balancedtraining #dog #engagement #exercise #focus #training #marker


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