Marker Training Explained


Marker training is an animal training method based on behavioral psychology that relies on marking desirable behavior and then rewarding it.


Desirable behavior is usually marked by using a "clicker or a word like "YES," When a word or the sound of a clicker is used properly, it can communicate to the animal exactly when they're doing the right thing. This clear form of communication, combined with positive reinforcement, is an effective, safe, and humane way to teach any animal any behavior that it is physically and mentally capable of doing.

Why is marker training effective?


When an animal intentionally performs a behavior in order to bring about the desired consequence, as animals trained using markers do, they are learning in a way that researchers call "operant conditioning."


Animals (and people) may also associate an action, event, place, person, or object with a consequence, whether pleasant or unpleasant. The more a certain event or environment is paired with a particular consequence, the stronger the association. This type of learning is called "classical conditioning" and represents reflexive or automatic behavior, rather than intentional behavior.


While conditioning a marker initially employs classical conditioning, it quickly becomes operant conditioning as soon as the animal intentionally repeats an action in order to earn a reward. Training through operant conditioning results in purposeful behavior, while training through classical conditioning results in habitual and emotional responses.


The difference between an animal that behaves with purpose, rather than by habit, is vast. Marker trained animals try to learn new behaviors. They remember behaviors even years later because they were aware of them as they learned them, rather than acquiring them without awareness. They develop confidence because they have control over the consequences of their actions. They are enthusiastic because they expect those consequences to be pleasurable.


Why is a marker used?


The essential difference between marker training and other reward-based training is that the animal is told exactly which behavior earned it a reward. This information is communicated with a distinct and unique word (Yes) or sound, (a click), which occurs at the same time as the desired behavior. Then the reward (food or even a favorite toy for instance) follows.


Without hearing a marker during an action, an animal may not connect the reward with that action, or the animal may associate the reward with another, unwanted action. Using a marker, a trainer can precisely "mark" behavior so that the animal knows exactly what it was doing to earn the mark. That's why trainers call the "click sound" or the word "Yes" an "event marker." The Marker also bridges or connects the behavior and its reward, and so is also called a "bridging signal."


The clarity with which a marker enables trainers to communicate with their animals has a profound effect on their relationships. Their level of interaction increases and trainers and animals become more interesting and fun for each other.


How does marker training work?


Markers have to be conditioned in order to have meaning to the animal: Conditioning a marker is very simple. We use a form of learning called associative learning (also referred to as classical conditioning) to pair the marker with a reward the animal desires. 


  • Click or say "YES"

  • Reward the animal with a treat.


For your marker to become conditioned, you must say the word or click BEFORE you reward the animal. The best way to remember this is to CLICK or say "YES" pause for 1 second and then reward the animal. Do 20 reps of click and treat or "YES". Observe the dog's response to the word or sound. If he perks up and looks at you expectantly then you know the sound or word has been conditioned and now you can use it in your training. 


The trainer then starts training and using the mark (says the word "yes" or clicks) at the moment the behavior occurs: the horse raises its hoof, the trainer says "yes" or clicks simultaneously. The dog sits, the trainer clicks or says "Yes". Marking a behavior is like taking a picture of the behavior the trainer wishes to reinforce. After "taking the picture," the trainer gives the animal something it likes, usually a small piece of food but sometimes play, petting, a toy or other rewards.


Very soon--sometimes within a few marks, an animal will associate the sound of the click or the word "Yes" with something it likes: The food or toy reward. The dog will want to repeat the behavior it hears when you marked it becsaue it is associated with a pleasureable consequence.  Any behavior can be trained with any animal following these three simple steps:

1.     Get the behavior to occur.

2.     Mark the behavior.

3.     Reinforce the behavior.


How do marker trainers ask for behaviors?


Trainers that use markers differ from traditional trainers in that they wait until a behavior is well understood by the animal before adding a verbal command or "cue." A cue is the name of the behavior, such as "sit," or a hand gesture or other clear signal. Until the animal knows what the behavior is, any name for it would be meaningless so marker trainers wait until the animal is robustly offering the behavior before naming it. 


When the animal has been marked several times for a behavior and then starts repeating the behavior, showing that it knows exactly what earns it a mark, it is ready to learn the name of the behavior. Marker trainers call this "adding a cue/command."


To teach the animal the name of the behavior, or the cue, the trainer says "SIT" right before the animal goes to SIT. After several repetitions, the trainer begins to mark and reward when the animal does the behavior, but only after the cue is given. No mark is given if the animal does the behavior without being given the verbal cue (SIT) first. The animal quickly learns to listen or watch for its cue, which tells it: If you do this behavior now when I say this word, you will get a mark and earn a reward.


What if the animal does not obey the cue?


Marker trained animals want to repeat behaviors that have been rewarded. If they understand the meaning of the cue and desire the reward, they will perform the behavior. If they do not perform the behavior, marker trainers do not assume that the animal is "disobeying." Instead, the trainer asks the following questions:

  • Does the animal know the meaning of the cue yet?

  • Does the animal know the meaning of the cue in the environment in which it was first taught, but not in the new environment in which it was given?

  • Is the reward for doing the behavior desirable enough by the animal to produce the behavior they are asking for?


After answering those questions, the Marker trainer revises the training process to be sure that the animal knows the meaning of the cue in all environments, regardless of distractions, and feels rewarded for the behavior.

Why don't Marker trainers use punishments as well as rewards?


A consequence of any behavior can be unpleasant as well as pleasant. So why shouldn't punishments follow unwanted behaviors, just as rewards follow wanted behaviors?


Research tells us that punishment may decrease the frequency of unwanted behavior but, usually results in producing other unwanted side effects such as fear, stress, or anxiety in anticipation of the possibility of being punished. The results of punishment as a training method are difficult to predict and to control.


In addition, punishment is not usually identified with an event marker. It almost always comes after the event and is rarely clearly connected with a specific behavior. In the animal's perception, punishment is a random, meaningless event. It is, therefore, less effective than the combined use of an event marker and positive reinforcement in changing behavior.


Marker trainers also feel that their relationships with their animals are stronger and more rewarding when they focus on the positive rather than the negative. Like the difference between an animal behaving with intention rather than by habit or out of fear, the difference in attitude and enthusiasm between an animal that works to earn rewards rather than to avoid punishment is vast.

How can marker training be used to get rid of unwanted behaviors?


Marker trainers allow unwanted behaviors to disappear through a lack of reinforcement. If a behavior is not rewarding to the animal, eventually it will disappear. If an unwanted behavior persists, marker trainers study the behavior to understand why it is reinforcing to the animal. Sometimes the behavior reinforces itself: a barking dog is less bored than a quiet dog. The barking is its own reward and can be reinforcing to the dog. The marker trainer provides this dog with an alternate behavior to replace the unwanted behavior. The bored dog may simply need more activity, or perhaps quiet resting for longer and longer periods can become a rewarded behavior. Then the marker trainer would teach the dog a cue for "silence."


Do markers and rewards need to be used for every behavior, forever?


Marker trainers can maintain the behavior by replacing especially good treats with occasional and less intensive rewards including a pat or praise. Learned cues and behaviors are also maintained by real-life rewards: for example, sitting quietly at the door is rewarded by opening the door so that the dog can have a walk. Marker trainers then save marks and treats for the next new thing they want to train.


Can marker training be used with any animal?


Yes. First widely used by dolphin trainers who needed a way to teach behavior without using physical force, marker training has been successfully employed with animals of all sizes and species, both domesticated and wild, young and old, all breeds of dogs and puppies, cats, birds, leopards, rats, rabbits, chinchillas, fish, and more.


Marker trainers who learn the underlying principles have at their disposal a powerful set of tools that enable them to analyze behaviors, modify existing methods for individual animals, and create new methods where none previously existed. This flexibility allows the tools of marker training to be re-invented in new forms that work in a range of situations, and for an infinite variety of animals.


The same principles have also been applied to training for athletes, dancers, skaters, and other people. Called "TAGteach," this form of training uses a click as a marker signal to teach precise physical motions quickly, accurately, and positively.

Is marker training a training method or a philosophy?


Marker training has been used by many different types of animal trainers for years as a training method that is clear, quick, concise and humane. It allows us to communicate with the animal in a way that allows them to learn quickly and understand what we want without using aversive training methods.