People ask about clicker training everyday at our dog training facility in Northern Virginia. This method is also based solely on positive reinforcement training for dogs. If you are not familiar with clicker training, a clicker is a small mechanical-like device that the owner (handler) holds, and when the thumb presses down on a metal platform it makes an audible “clicking” sound.
The clicker is used in conjunction with something that the dog is highly motivated by: treat, ball, tug, favorite toy, etc.
A clicker and the reward is used in the “learning phase” of a dog’s training program. When you are trying to teach a dog to sit for example, they will try a bunch of stuff (jumping up, laying down, moving around, etc), and when they finally “sit” you mark the behavior with the audible click and then immediately give the dog the desired reward.
So essentially, the clicker helps the dog quickly identify the precise behavior that you are trying to achieve. So, when you say “down” and your dog goes through all the different motions, as soon as he drops down and hears that audible click, he knows, “Whatever I JUST NOW did, that’s what he/she wanted me to do in order to release the reward.”
There are also many shortfalls to clicker and treat training which I discuss here in “What are the best dog training methods?”
Unarguably, the “marker” training definitely helps expedite the dog’s learning process; however, I tell people on a daily basis that the “clicker” in its’ self is kind of a scam and unnecessary. If it works, and it works well, why is it a scam? It is a scam because the inventors of the clicker took an old dog-training secret and turned it into a way to make money. We use what we refer to as “marker training.” A clicker marks the behavior with a distinct click. Marker training marks the behavior with a verbal command. The marker word we use at our dog training facility in Northern Virginia is “Yes” (said excitedly).
Why is marker training better than clicker training? To be honest, clicker training has no advantages whatsoever over a verbal marker. The clicker trainer does have many shortfalls to it, though. Some of the shortfalls to clicker training is that you have to carry this little plastic device everywhere you go in order to mark the behavior, another shortfall is that they are small, so if you lose it, you have to buy another one. The biggest shortfall of the clicker (in my opinion) is that it’s something else you have to hold in your hand while trying to teach the dog something, while also holding a treat in your other hand. It can become very complicated to juggle everything at once. The verbal marker training is free, you can do it anywhere, and you never have to fumble with anything extra.
How does marker training work? It works exactly the same as clicker training. First, let me explain how clicker training works. First you must charge the verbal marker. Start by getting your dog to associate getting a treat every time he hears your verbal marker (we will use the word “yes”). So, in order to teach your dog that the word “yes” means something good, start by saying the dog’s name. When he looks at you, immediately say yes (excitedly) and give a treat. Repeat this drill. The treat should come immediately after the verbal command is given—literally after one second or less. Tell the dog to sit (assuming he knows the sit command). As soon as his bottom hits the floor, say “yes” and immediately give the treat. Remember, use small pieces of treats when doing the training, that way, your dog will not fill up as fast and will be more motivated to perform for a longer period of time. Also, it helps if you do these training sessions before your dog has eaten, increasing motivation for the food reward. If he knows more commands, give those commands, and say “yes” and immediately give another treat each time a command is obeyed. This is what we call “charging the marker.” This gets the dog in the routine of knowing that the word “yes” means something good is immediately going to follow it.
Once you start expanding and go on to teach your dog new tricks that you have learned in books, on television or the Internet, start applying the verbal marker when teaching new tricks. It will vastly decrease the time it takes to learn the new command. If you want to teach your dog to down (lie down), move him into the position and as soon as he is in position, mark with a “yes,” then immediately give a treat. Your dog learns, “Whatever I did right then is exactly what was wanted of me.” That is how it really expedites their learning process.
Marker training is a very fast, easy, effective, and cheap way to train your dog in obedience and you can teach them some pretty neat tricks. When using marker and treat training, be as creative as possible when it comes to thinking of new things to teach the dog. Remember, a bored dog is a destructive dog; this is a great way to keep him entertained. You would be amazed at the number of things they can learn using this training method.
At our dog training facility in Northern Virginia, we only use marker and treat training for our puppy training program; however, with dogs 5+ months we start our obedience training program using the electronic collar.