Have you ever wondered why trainers use those little clicking devices when working with animals? The “click” noise functions as something that trainers call a MARKER SIGNAL.
A marker signal is a way of communicating with an animal to help training go as smoothly and efficiently as possible. It is a sound or visual signal that says to your dog “You have done something correctly, and earnt yourself a reward!”
Marker signals are beneficial for a number of reasons:
1) Dogs move a lot faster than humans.
By the time you’ve picked up a treat to feed your dog for sitting, they’ve often done several other actions. In the time it takes to reward a sit your dog might stand up, wag their tail, look over the shoulder, and even jump. How are they supposed to know that it was the sit four or five moves ago that earned them their treat?
A marker signal pinpoints the exact moment that your dog performed the correct action, helping them to understand which behaviour you’re rewarding.
2) You won’t always have a reward at hand.
Marker signals allow you to let your dog know they’ve done the behaviour correctly, even if you don’t have a treat or other reward available immediately.
For example, you could be out in your front yard with your dog and ask them to leave a passing cat. When they successfully leave the cat you can mark the moment, and then head back inside to get a reward.
3) Marker signals help prevent “Show me the money!” dogs.
A “show me the money” dog is one that will only follow a cue if the reward is visible – like an owner holding a treat. Using a marker signal helps you to avoid this issue, as you’re able to reward your dog for behaviours they performed when you didn’t have food or another reinforcer on you.
Clickers make fantastic marker signals because they are a SHORT and UNIQUE sound, but there are many other examples of commonly used marker signals. These include verbal words like “yes”, a dolphin trainer’s whistle, a flashing light and many more.
When you’re searching for a good training school, asking “do you use marker signals?” can be a great way to check if the trainer has a decent understanding of behavioural science. They may know the concept by an alternative name, like an event marker or bridging stimulus, but they should use the technique as part of their training.