Many modern reward based training techniques rely on the fact that dogs will do whatever leads to them getting at things they want or need. They will do what leads to a reward.
When a dog performs a behavior that leads to a good consequence, they will do that behavior more. If it leads to a bad consequence, they will perform that behavior less.
We can use this fact to train our dogs by encouraging them with rewards for behaviors that we like and withholding a reward if they do something we don’t.
Sounds easy right?
Well yes and no. This is only effective if we give the reward precisely following the exact behavior we like. And this isn’t easy.
What happens if we want to reward a sit yet our Labrador sits, then gets up, barks at you and then jumps up playfully before you can give them a reward? How do they know which behavior from all of these they’re being rewarded for?
This is where a clicker comes in very, very useful.
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What Is an Event Marker?
An event marker is a signal we use to very precisely indicate to a dog that the behavior they performed at that very moment is the one we like and are rewarding.
An event marker is a way to indicate to your Labrador with absolute precision the very behavior we liked so that there’s no trace of doubt and no confusion.
Without an event marker, this accuracy of communication is very hard if not impossible to achieve.
What Does an Event Marker Look Or Sound Like?
An event marker should be a very definite signal that you teach your Lab to recognize, that isn’t used at any other time and cannot be confused for anything else.
Taking aside things such as vibration collars, laser lights and the like that could be used for deaf dogs, an event marker almost always takes on the form of an audible signal, either the voice or a dedicated device.
If using a voice command, it needs to be a very short, punchy and distinctive single word that you rarely use in everyday life. Many people recommend ‘yes’ or ‘good’ but this is confusing for a dog as they hear it all the time.
Pick another word, any word, just make sure to say it exactly the same way every time, in a consistent tone and with a clear and punchy voice.
But easily the most common form of event marker used in the dog training world is known as a ‘clicker’.
What Is a Clicker?
A clicker is a small hand-held mechanical device that fits into the palm of your hand that has a small metal tongue, sometimes with a button over it, that when it’s pressed produces a clicking sound.
This is a very useful tool to use as a marker because it’s small and portable, the sound is very short and sharp, highly distinctive and 100% consistently the same. It is the perfect event marker tool!
Why Use a Clicker or Event Marker?
Dogs have little ability to know exactly what we are rewarding them for unless the reward is very accurately timed to occur precisely after a behavior occurs.
If we are training our Labrador to sit we need to reward a sit within milliseconds, and before they perform any other behavior that could be mistaken as the one being rewarded.
If they sit, then stand, and then come running, how do you convey to your Lab that it’s the sit you are rewarding when so much has happened since?
But if the very moment your Labrador’s rear touches the ground you mark this behavior with a click (or a voice command if that’s your preferred method) there is no confusion. Your dog knows exactly what behavior you like and are rewarding as it’s been marked so precisely.
A clicker removes any confusion, allowing you to communicate with your Lab and train them much more effectively. And this level of accuracy dramatically improves and speeds up the training process.
But before putting this idea to use, how do you teach your Lab what a click or event marker means? And how do you get your Lab excited to hear the click so they’re willing to work for it?
Charging The Clicker
Before a clicker or event marker becomes useful, a trainer must use ‘classical conditioning’ to associate the marker with a reward, which is usually but not exclusively a tasty food treat.
The trainer has to form such a strong link between the marker being sounded and a reward being given that eventually they become to mean the same thing and the sound of the marker creates pleasurable feelings just like the reward does. In clicker training, this is known as ‘charging the clicker’.
This is accomplished by spending time repeatedly clicking the clicker and then immediately giving a nice tasty treat.
It doesn’t take long doing this for a Lab to know that a click means a tasty treat and once we have established this link, it doesn’t take long for the click to create similar feelings of pleasure in your Lab as the treat does. At this point, the click itself becomes rewarding.
You can follow this link to learn a little more on classical conditioning.
How Is a Clicker Used In Training?
Once the clicker is charged (see above) you use it in training by asking for a certain behavior, or waiting for your Lab to perform a behavior of their own accord that you like and then marking and rewarding the behavior.
By using the clicker exactly when the behavior occurs, your Lab knows that is the behavior we like. And due to the clicker being charged through classical conditioning, your Lab also knows that he is going to be rewarded for this behavior simply because the click was heard. All confusion is removed and the correct behavior is reinforced.
And it doesn’t matter that the reward may come seconds after. Your Lab knows it was the sit being rewarded as you marked that exact moment so precisely. So you can now allow some seconds to pass between the behavior occurring and the reward being given without worrying about whether your dog understands what you’re rewarding. You clearly marked it with a click and are sure the correct message was given.
You can use this idea to teach almost any behavior. For instance, clicking the exact moment your dog drops a ball, clicking to train a puppy to lay down in a crate, click a moment of quiet between a long crying session to reward silence. Event markers are extremely useful for training exact behaviors.
When Do We Use a Clicker?
They’re at their most useful when trying to train a new skill or behavior in basic obedience training, trick training or any new behavior. But it’s wise to gradually phase the use out once a behavior has been learned or there’s a danger that your dog will only perform for the click and the treat that follows.
You should use event markers to train a behavior, then start to use a cue word when the behavior is performed and then take away the event marker and prove that the cue word is effective.
You need to use an event marker as just a training aid, then move beyond it, otherwise what do you do in everyday life when you don’t have a clicker available? Or a treat to give afterwards? It’s a means to an end, to initially train a behavior and not to use forever.
This pack of clickers, from the world renowned Karen Pryor, is a must have tool for clicker training your pooch.
They’re comfortable in the hand, need only the smallest amount of pressure to operate making them extremely easy to use and are available for just $6 for a pack of three. Great value.
The use of a clicker or event markers in training are a very effective way to improve communication between a trainer and a dog. There is simply no better way to tell a dog precisely which behavior we are rewarding.
You can train a dog without the use of event markers and many people do, but it’s harder, slower and far less productive.
Another nice benefit of using event markers is the need to discipline and correct bad behaviors all but disappears. When you continually reward good behaviors so precisely, your dog works to try to earn those rewards and will go through all sorts of behaviors looking for the right one until they get it right.
So you can reward and praise good behaviors more, and just pay incorrect behaviors no attention at all. As you reward good behaviors more and ignore bad ones, the good behaviors will occur more often and the bad behaviors will slowly disappear because dogs will always try to do what earns them a reward…be that food, play or even just attention.
So event markers allow us to work more kindly with our dogs in training, and this benefits everybody involved, you and your dog.
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