column By: Alec Sparks | January, 21
This training method creates an entirely different dynamic than the old school compulsion training techniques do. The benefit is that it develops a dog that thinks and wants to figure out what you want. The dog in early training learns to be “active,” and the trainer is reactive. In traditional leash/collar training, the trainer is active, and the dog is reactive. Let me explain.
In traditional leash and collar foundation (Sit/Hup, Heel recall), training the trainer activates the leash (pulls) and physically influences the dog’s position. The trainer is active, and the dog is reactive. In many cases, the dog learns what not to do for fear of correction (bad experience).
With marker training, you would first get a behavior like Sit/Hup with no voice/whistle command. You can “lure” or “free shape” the behavior, luring or maneuvering the dog into position with a reward or free shape. Just wait till the pup sits on its own and then “mark” (with a word or sound) by delivering the reward. Here you’re teaching the dog what behaviors get the human food dispenser to work. You do need to be careful, though. Don’t overdo recall and reward lest you get your dog to think being with you is the best place to be. The dog learns and now will search for the behavior that gets it what it wants. The dog is active, and the trainer is reactive. You react with a reward when the dog complies.
This training dynamic is so different in that the dog is thinking what it needs to do to get a reward rather than avoiding correction/punishment. It’s amazing to watch a dog present different behaviors on its own trying to get the reward machine to dispense.
You can start this training at a very young age – depending on the pup, as early as 10 to 12 weeks. Now with very young pups, you’ll want to be more careful what food reward you use as they have much greater stomach sensitivity than older dogs. You’ll also want to take into account the volume of food you’re rewarding with and manage that with the pups’ daily rations. Even with adult dogs, you’ll want to keep that in mind.
At its foundation, once you get the desired response, mark and deliver a reward slightly after the voice/sound but not simultaneously, as seems more natural for some reason. You vary the value and volume, too. Initially, it’ll be a 100% pay schedule giving a reward for every correct position or behavior. You want an “incorrect behavior” marker, too; I use “Wrong.” Let’s say the pup, rather than sitting, jumps at your hand trying to get some free food. I would just say “wrong” and move my hands behind my back, get the proper behavior, mark with the correct behavior word/sound and reward.
People argue endlessly on the internet over voice or sound being better or more/less effective. “Yes” is a common mark, and, of course, some people swear by a clicker. Voice trainers like inflection, as long as you have good control of your voice. The clicker people want inflection removed from the equation. Turns out in formal testing, dogs learn equally as well with either, but many people in either camp would never accept that conclusion. Actually, dogs learned as fast with no word/sound used as they did with the sound, but you don’t develop the “language” that lets you communicate correct behavior without a reward or at a distance that you do with a sound.
One of the “secrets” of success with marker training is to make sure your pup/dog is hungry. Training right after the dog has been fed because it fits into your schedule probably isn’t going to work. The other thing is short sessions – three to five minutes two to five times a day – are much, much better than one long session. And be sure to develop fast, accurate response time with your rewards.
Another great thing is that you can start this work any time of year and anywhere. A minus 15 degree-day in January? Work in your home. A great summer day? Work outside.
Now a really big thing in some disciplines is “engagement.” Trainers want the dog looking up at them and making steady eye contact. Some dog sports require that, and a dog not doing so is not correct. With hunting dogs, I don’t want over-engagement: Looking at me is fine, but I don’t stare down at them trying to encourage that engagement. Some dogs seem to have the ability to turn that engagement off and on, but I err of the side of safety and try to not overdo it lest the dog become too handler focused.