This is a continuation of my last training tip Tuesday post on verbal markers (which can be found here). Last week I discussed the importance of salience when using a marker, and how if your marker word sounds too similar to your speaking voice, you may be impeding your training process. Keeping the tone of your marker word nice and light is key!
And now for the second mistake that I often see made with verbal markers: no follow through! The purpose of the marker word is to mark the exact moment that the animal just earned their treat. This is why it is so important for the word to be succinct, so that it acts as a snapshot of a moment in time. All too often I see people using their marker word as verbal praise, saying the word and then not offering the dog a treat after the fact. Sometimes this is intentional, and sometimes it's a mistake. We are human, after all, and it's just as easy for us to get into bad habits as it is for our dogs! However, we must be mindful not to mix up our verbal marker with run-of-the-mill praise. You can praise your dog to your heart's content, just make sure you're not playing fast and loose with that marker word within your praise. An example of this, if your marker word was "yes", would be using "Fido, what a good boy you are!" as opposed to "Yes, yes Fido, that was correct, yes!". They have the same level of enthusiasm, but you aren't freely throwing that verbal marker around without following it up with a treat. (P.S., this is why I love the clicker so much. I'm a talker while I train, and it's much easier to accidentally say "yes!" then it is to accidentally click!)
The marker word is what's known as a secondary reinforcer. A secondary reinforcer is something that is neutral to the dog until it's paired with what is known as a primary reinforcer. A primary reinforcer is something that a dog finds innately rewarding, and will work for without any other association needing to be made (i.e. food, water, play with other dogs). Dogs are genetically hardwired to work for primary reinforcers. Some people think that once their dog has an established secondary reinforcer/marker they can always use that in place of a primary reinforcer, but that will only lead you and your dog to frustration and loss of that important signal, which will hamper your training process.
If enough time elapses where the marker word (or clicker, or whistle) is used without the food being paired with it, that word will lose meaning and no longer act as critical information to the dog. It's important to keep that marker word paired with food and other things your dog enjoys. (There is some debate as to whether you ALWAYS need to follow a marker word/click with a treat. A great blog post that summarizes this topic can be found at the always fabulous Patricia McConnell's blog. As for my opinion, I believe it's simplest to teach that a treat always follows the marker, and as the dog moves out of the learning/acquisition stage of training you can be less stringent about use of the marker and reinforce without use of the marker)
So, in order to use a marker word more effectively, make sure that you are using your marker word with intent and continuing that association with a primary reinforcer. Additionally, keep the sound of the verbal marker salient, making it stick out from your usual conversational voice. If you are mindful of these two aspects while training with a verbal signal, it will hopefully hasten your training process. Happy training!!!