Using Verbal Markers to Improve Communication in Training – Reward Marker
In all training the dog’s best effort comes when the he is highly motivated both internally and externally to perform. It is easier to make him do what he wants to do.
The best working dogs and hunting/competition retrievers have high retrieve or tug drive. To make the most effective use of this drive for reward we need a way for the dog to connect his actions with his pursuit of the tug or retrieve.
The Reward Marker
Pick a word or short sound that you will reserve for this marker. We will use classical conditioning to pair this cue with the tug or retrieve. I use “OK.”
Start your training session with your tug or retrieve item in your pocket. Give the dog one command he knows well and can complete quickly, for instance “Sit.” When he sits give your marker “OK” and then reach for the tug and give him a short tug or throw his toy for a retrieve.
Repeat this until he shows by his immediate and excited response that he knows the marker word “OK” means the tug/retrieve is coming.
If the reward (tug/retrieve) always follows the marker and the marker always precedes the reward, the marker becomes very powerful and very useful. The marker becomes a bit of a reward itself (it is a conditioned reinforcer). It tells the dog he completed his task, (it is a terminal signal) and it helps the dog connect his actions to the reward, even when he is working at a distance and there is a delay between his act and the delivery of the reward (it is a bridge.)
Be sure to give the marker before you reach for the tug. If you reach for the tug and then give the marker the dog begins to watch your hands and is rewarded for breaking to engage the tug rather than for the act you are trying to reward.
Do not be predictable with the reward. If you give a tug/retrieve after every third command, your dog will quickly pick up on this. Soon he will not try as hard on the first two commands because he knows the third is the one produces what he wants.
To get the most from the tug/retrieve reward, this Verbal Marker should posses both mystery and certainty. Your dog should never know which response will make it happen but he will always know exactly what he did to make it happen.
This mystery is a powerful motivator. With every unrewarded response to command your dog will work harder, hoping that the next response will result in the big payoff.
Do not introduce the tug/retrieve reward during initial e-collar conditioning on new skills. It is easier for the dog to learn new e-collar responses when he is not working “in drive.” However, once he is conditioned on a command add the tug/retrieve reward.
The instant feedback provided by both the e-collar and the verbal marker reduces confusion and speeds learning.
This combination of E-collar to push for the behavior and the magnetic pull of powerful rewards results in a highly motivated dog that responds reliably and quickly.