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Training Tip Tuesday: Verbal markers

Truth be told, I will probably always prefer training new behaviors with my clicker. I LOVE my clicker with a passion, as does my dog, Regis. However, sometimes we have a reason we can't use the clicker (maybe our hands are otherwise occupied during a trick, or there's a physical problem such as arthritis barring the repeated use of a clicker). Or maybe someone just doesn't want to be bothered with using it. In that case, we use what's called a verbal marker. A verbal marker follows similar rules to the clicker. It's not just verbal praise like "good boy", or "who's a good puppy?" is used. It needs to be a short, succinct word that can mark desired behavior in an instant. I like to use "yep!", and have recently started experimenting by verbally saying the word "click!" (It sounds weird, but I'll never accidentally mark a behavior if my word is "click". I manage to use "yes!" accidentally all the time.)

There are two big mistakes that I frequently see when people use verbal markers. I'll discuss the first today, and the second next week. The first mistake is that they make the marker word sound just like their speaking voice. If you're going to use a verbal marker, it should be somewhat salient, which means it needs to sound different from your speaking voice. The reason that a clicker works so well is because the sound is typically novel, so it has no prior associations, and the sound sticks out from any other noises happening in the environment. If your marker word sounds exactly like every other word you speak, your dog is going to have a hard time attending to the marker word.

To fix this, you should use a slightly higher pitch of voice when saying your word (yes, even the men!). I know, this is asking you to step out of your comfort zone. As a vocalist who teaches voice in addition to dog training, I understand that changing your voice isn't easy if it's not something you're used to. But to really get the best results out of your training, you need a really clear signal to your dog that what they just did earned them a reward. And your typical speaking voice just isn't gonna cut it! So, next time you're using a verbal marker in training, remember that one of the reasons we love dogs so much is that they don't judge, and make sure it sounds slightly different from your usual speaking voice by keeping it light and positive! Happy training!


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