Use positive markers to effectively and precisely communicate the action you want to see from your dog. (Photo By: Kali Parmley)
How to Use Positive Markers in Dog Training
Help your gun dog understand what action you desire from them.
The sport of horseback field trials has always captivated me. The back of a horse has always been one of my favorite places to be. In horseback field trials, the dog is required to stand stationary through the flush of the bird and the shot of the gun. Because the birds are not shot in this event, the dog also must stand until the handler returns to him and takes him by the collar. Performed at its best, the dog happily stands without any cautioning from the handler.
I recall the first time I ever attempted to reach this level of performance with a dog. The dog was a couple of years old and I had shot a fair number of birds over him. He was standing steady for me to walk in front of him and flush, but every time I fired my gun, he would jump forward. This had been a point of frustration for me, and my efforts to help the dog realize that I wanted him to remain stationary had created some concern in the dog as well.
My focus had been on correcting the dog when he would jump from the gun. These efforts were clumsy and poorly timed, at best. Then one day, I fired my gun and the dog stood completely still. I was totally overcome with relief as well as excitement. He had done it! I walked back to him and as I got to him, I couldn’t help but kneel down and hug him where he stood. It’s often hard for me to put into words the connection and understanding that can transpire between an animal and human, but in that moment I knew that he knew exactly what I wanted and that I was very pleased with what he had done. From that point forward he was completely and confidently steady.
Understanding Positive Marking
Dogs that spend a lot of time with humans become very adept at reading our moods. They know when we are happy or sad, excited or frustrated. They learn to see it in our body language, hear it in our voice, and feel the energy coming from us. They readily use this information as they make their choices. Unintentionally, my excitement at the dog’s choice to stand still communicated to him that his action had pleased me. My excitement had marked or identified the action I was looking for. My expression of joy and affection rewarded that behavior. I’ve come to refer to this as positive marking.
In the years that have followed this experience, I have learned to use positive markers intentionally. By intentionally connecting certain sounds with positive rewards we can create positive markers. For example: If I say the word “yes” and then immediately give a food reward, the dog will come to expect the reward every time he hears the word “yes.” Once I have accomplished this connection I can use the word “yes” to communicate that the dog has done the correct task and will be receiving a reward. This gives us the ability to help the dog identify when they did what we wanted, even if there is a slight delay before they receive their reward.
Simply put, marking is the use of communication to pinpoint an action. A negative marker is a word or sound, charged with negative emotion, that is used to identify an undesirable action. Although both are important in training, I often see negative markers used more frequently. However, the liberal use of positive markers will result in a more dependable action and a much happier dog. As I’ve coached many clients to start to effectively and deliberately use positive markers, I’ve noticed that their and their dog’s frustration decreases and the relationship becomes much happier and more enjoyable. Progress happens more quickly as well.
I saw this demonstrated some years ago on a basketball court. After having four children who all played basketball, the number of memories I have attached to a basketball court could fill a small library. However, if a person were to say two words to me, “basketball” and “yes,” my mind would go back to a very specific game at a grade school in Plain City, Utah.
Two teams of eight year old girls were on the court for the first time. Both coaches had equal time to prepare. The girls were guided to specific spots on the floor. The tallest girl from each team stood face to face in the middle of the court. The referee blew the whistle and the ball was tossed into the air. As the ball came down, it was tapped to the left side of the court and with the bounce of the ball, pure chaos broke out on the floor. Ten little girls swarmed to that spot in an effort to grab the ball. One girl grabbed the ball and began dribbling toward her team’s basket and the small swarm headed with her. I had seen this “bunch ball” many times— a wonderful part of the early development of a young team.
As the girls ran back and forth on the court, the coaches called out instructions in an effort to bring some order to the pandemonium on the court. At this particular game, something truly magical began to unfold. The gym was filled with the sound of voices. Parents and grandparents cheered every action that their team made that somewhat resembled the game they were trying to play, and both coaches earnestly tried to guide their players. One team, however, was quickly changing. The coach called out, “Get to your spot, Beth.! Yes!” “Find the ball, Annie…yes!” “Pass to Christy…yes!” This coach was giving specific instructions and every time the specific instruction was followed she would call out a sharp, “Yes!” The “yes” was used with precision and the girls acted with precision. They turned and ran to specific spots and turned to quickly find the ball. Her team was rapidly coming to order.
I sat mesmerized. Both coaches were fully involved. Both were working equally hard, but one was having far better results! I turned to my wife and asked, “Can you see what’s happening?” She smiled knowingly and replied, “Positive marking.” As parents we had learned the value and power of recognizing good behavior in our children. As a dog trainer, I was very familiar with the value of “marker training” to pinpoint the action I was trying to get a dog to perform.
Precise & Timely Communication
In regards to the basketball game, both teams were cheered when they scored. Both teams were congratulated for a game well played. Both coaches were coaching in a positive, encouraging manner. However, one team was learning and developing at a much faster rate than the other. The difference was in one coach’s ability to effectively and precisely communicate when the athlete did the correct thing, and do it in real time.
In the case of the basketball game, the coach used the word “yes.” The crowd used their cheers to mark the scoring of baskets or the stealing of the ball. In the case of dogs, we can use a clicker or words such as “good” or “yes,” or we can use a happy or excited reaction. Dogs are very perceptive and can read us well.
I think that it is important to recognize that all living creatures watch for and identify markers that help them learn what is working in their quest to gain what they want and avoid what they don’t want. This is important because “marking” is going on all the time in the dog’s mind. The goal is to actively use markers intentionally and deliberately to clearly communicate with our dog. The more effectively we learn to use markers, the better our relationship will become with our dog, and the happier and more confident our dog will become.