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Developing a Marker System With Your Dog
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Developing a Marker System With Your Dog

Communication is super important to me, and it's one of the things that's helped me grow my own relationship with my dog, Kono. We talk about the importance of communication in human relationships, and it's no different when it comes to our dogs. In fact, in a way it's even more important because we don't speak the same language.

Communicating what to do (sit, stay, come, etc) is different from communicating feedback on whether or not your dog is doing it correctly. For me and Kono, we use a marker system to communicate feedback.

What is a Marker System?

A marker system is made up of words, or markers, that I use to signal to Kono that he is doing something I ask of him correctly or incorrectly. An easy way to think of markers is that they are marking whether or not he did something correctly.

How you define doing something "correctly" can vary from person to person and is its own separate post, so for now I'll just talk through what markers I use and examples of how I use them.

Keep in mind that I'm not a professional trainer—I'm a dog parent who is obsessed with learning as much as I can about dog training and approaching it with humility and an open mind.

Out of all the things I've learned since I adopted Kono, clarity in communication has been one of the biggest game-changers in both our relationship and his mindset.

Why Should You Use Markers in Dog Training?

I'll admit, it took me at least a couple of years to develop my marker system. It wasn't really until I started paying for online training courses from high-level trainers and consuming a lot more content that I realized the importance of clear communication. To me, clarity in my language with Kono is important because it sets expectations and helps foster a better mindset for him.

Imagine traveling to a foreign country where you don't speak the language. As you get off the plane, a local comes up you, points to something, and says something in their native tongue. It sounds like they're telling you to do something, but you have no idea what they're talking about.

You try picking up your suitcase and putting it on a chair. No, that wasn't correct. So you try taking off your jacket and giving it to the person. Not that either. You sit on the ground and look up at the person, but they're just getting more frustrated and continuing to speak in a language you don't understand.

At this point if this were me, I would start to feel anxious and stressed. I know that this person is asking something of me, but I don't know what it is. It's like a game of hot or cold, trying to guess what they want.

I think about this a lot in my day to day with Kono. We've developed a communication system that helps him to be less anxious because he understands what I'm asking with the help of a solid marker system. I have one word I use to tell him, "That's not quite it, try again" and then when he gets it, I can use one word to tell him "That's it! You got it! Here's a high-value reward for doing great."

Timing Your Markers

Timing is really important with markers, because you're marking that specific behavior. The simplest example is if I tell Kono to sit, I use a marker word (typically "Yes" or "Get it") as soon as his butt hits the ground. When I see the picture I expect, that's the moment I mark it.

If I were to say "Yes" when he was halfway to a sit, I'd be telling him that yes, when your butt is halfway off the ground and you look like you're popping a squat, that's what a sit should look like. So yes...timing is important.

Michelle + Kono's Marker System

Here are the markers that I use with Kono in our training together:

"​Yes" — terminal marker that means release (from a behavior) to come to me for the reward.

Example: I tell Kono to sit, say "Yes" and he runs to me to get his treats.

I use my "Yes" marker in place of a clicker. When I'm teaching Kono something new, I sometimes use a clicker for a more clear sound and more precise timing. But for things he already knows, or if we're out and about, it's great to be able to have a verbal marker that functions the same as a clicker.

"​Get It" — terminal marker that means release away from me for the reward.

Example: I tell Kono to sit, say "Get it" and toss a treat, and he runs away from me to get the treat. Away from me in this context just means that he doesn't get the treat from my hand. We also use "Get it" daily when he goes to his place cot to wait for a meal, I put his food bowl down, and then I say "Get it" for him to get his food.

​"Good" — duration marker that means to keep doing what you're doing and I'll bring the reward to you.

Example: I tell Kono to sit, say "Good" and bring him a treat, but my expectation is that he holds his sit. To release him from it, I can use either Yes, Get it, or Break.

​"Break" — signal of release to do whatever the f*ck you want.

Example: I have Kono in a heel, say "Break" and he's released to go wander or sniff or do whatever he wants. I remember the first time I realized he understood what "Break" meant, because he went from being in a pretty solid heel to clearly breaking off from me, and it was really cool to see the clarity in our communication together.

I don't personally give Kono a treat reward when I say "Break" because I use freedom in the environment as the reward.

​"Ah Ah" — no reward marker, try again. I use this if Kono doesn't complete a known behavior, but I also ask myself why he didn't do it. Were there competing motivators? Does he actually know the behavior?

Example: I tell Kono to sit, which I know he knows and he doesn't do it, or does it halfway. I'll say "Ah ah" and when he does it, I typically just say "Break" and don't give him a treat reward.

While I don't usually reward him for not getting it right when I know it's something he understands, I also don't want him to lose motivation. So if he doesn't sit and I have to help him with an "Ah ah", I put him in a sit again, and he normally does it pretty quickly on the second try. THEN I use a reward marker like "Yes" or "Get it" to make sure we're ending on a positive note.

​"No" — to signal that a particular behavior is never allowed, such as jumping on kids or counter-surfing, if I catch him in the act.

Example: If I were to see him jumping up on the counter to grab food, I'd use "No." My no is a hard no and I try to save it for behaviors I don't ever want him to do.

One thing I wanted to note is that this is a system that works for me based on my dog who is able to hear and respond to verbal cues. I think it's absolutely possible to develop a marker system based on hand motions only for deaf dogs (and part of me wonders if that's even better since dogs tend to process body language better than they process what we say). These markers are words that I use with Kono and what works for us, so I encourage you to find what works for you and your dog!

If I were to do things over, I would've developed a marker system much earlier in my relationship with Kono. Having solid communication with him is something that took me a while to learn, but that we practice now every single day. Even though we have unspoken communication as well from spending time training and living well together, it's pretty freaking cool to see him understand the words that I say—and for me to be able to guide him when he doesn't.


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