markers: how and why we use them

"In order to communicate, it’s helpful to teach the animal a few phrases, actions or events that have specific meanings. We refer to these signals as markers.

Markers can be words, phrases, noises, sounds, hand signals, flashes of light, stomps on the floor, touches, odors or other stimuli the animal can sense.

why we use Conditioned Reward Markers

If you wish to teach an animal very quickly you will need an instant reward marker that has been paired with the delivery of food.

Pairing the marker with food is called conditioning. The marker is called a secondary conditioned positive reinforcer or conditioned reward marker. A conditioned reward marker will elicit the same involuntary “oh goodie” brain chemistry responses as does a piece of food.

My favorite audible, conditioned reward markers are: the sound of a clicker; the words “good”, “kick” or “tic” (spoken sharply – like a sound), or the letter “X”.

If the dog is deaf, I might use a thumbs up signal, an exaggerated head nod, or an exaggerated blink of both eyes with a head nod, or the flash of a led light. If the dog is deaf and blind, I might use the vibration of an e-collar that is set on vibrate.

Conditioned reward markers:

  • have been conditioned or paired with food and elicit the same involuntary “oh goodie” brain chemistry responses as does a piece of food
  • are short and sharp, sounds or signals that are different from everyday sounds and signals
  • provide the animal with immediate feedback
  • are teaching tools used to communicate the instant of success
  • can be discontinued once the animal learns the behavior

Using a conditioned reward marker will increase your significance to the animal!

From this point on, in this text, I’ll refer to a conditioned reward marker as “marker”.  When you read the verb “mark”, it means to deliver the marker and follow it with some sort of reward that the animal desires.

Since the marker elicits an involuntary, desirable, physiological response, the animal will become aware of the behaviors that cause you to deliver the marker.

Your animal will choose to perform behaviors that make you deliver the marker. Now you have a willing student. Your animal wants to cooperate!

The conditioned marker becomes the actual reward. The animal will perform for the sound of the marker, and the marker will act as a reinforcer.

The goodies delivered after the marker maintain the “power” of the marker.

How to Condition a Reward Marker

The method to establish a conditioned reward marker is to use classical or pavlovian conditioning to pair (or associate) a marker with the primary reinforcer of food.

Regardless of the marker you choose, the steps for conditioning the marker are identical. You only need to condition the marker this one time. Your animal is not asked to perform a behavior during the conditioning process.

Do this when the animal is attending to you and not distracted. Do not speak or touch the animal before, or after, you deliver the marker and the treat.

Remember, a marker can be any signal the animal can perceive. My favorite audible, conditioned reward markers are: the sound of a clicker; the word “good”, and the letter “X”.

Here’s how to condition a reward marker. (see video playlist below)

You are not asking the animal to perform any behavior during this process."


Video Playlist: Reward Markers

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