How to Use Positive Markers in Dog Training




Use positive markers to effectively and accurately communicate the behavior you want your dog to see. (Photo: Kali Parmley)

Equestrian sports have always fascinated me. The back of a horse has always been one of the places I wanted to be. In equestrian field trials, the dog is required to chase a bird and stand still with a gun fired. Since the birds are not shot in this case, the dog must stand until he returns to him and grabs his collar. The best performing dog stands happily without any warning from the handler.

I remember the first time I tried to reach this level with a dog. The dog was several years old and I had shot quite a few birds over him. He stood still for me to walk in front of him and blush, but every time I fired my gun, he lunged forward. This was a point of frustration for me, and my efforts to get the dog to understand that I wanted him to remain still caused some discomfort in the dog as well.

I was focused on fixing the sharpie when it fired. These efforts were awkward and poorly timed at best. Then one day I fired my gun and the dog stopped completely. Along with excitement, I was completely overcome with relief. He had done it! I went back to him and when I reached him, I couldn’t help myself, I knelt down and hugged him where he was standing. It is often difficult for me to put into words the connection and understanding that can arise between an animal and a human, but at that moment I knew that he knew exactly what I wanted and was very pleased with what he was doing. From that moment on, he was absolutely and confidently stable.

Understanding positive marking

Dogs who spend a lot of time with people are very good at reading our moods. They know when we are happy or sad, excited or disappointed. They learn to see it in our body language, hear it in our voice, and feel the energy coming from us. They easily use this information when making their choices. Inevitably, the thrill of my choosing not to move the dog told him that I was pleased by his action. My excitement marked or defined the action I was looking for. My expression of joy and love rewarded this behavior. I have come to refer to this as positive marking.

In the years since this experience, I have learned to use positive markers intentionally. We can create positive markers by intentionally associating certain sounds with positive rewards. For example: If I say the word “yes” and immediately give a food reward, the dog will expect a reward every time it hears the word “yes”. Once I’ve made that connection, I can use the word “yes” to let the dog know he’s done the right task and will get a reward. This allows us to help the dog identify when he is doing what we want, even if there is a slight delay before he gets his rewards.

the dog trainer treats the dog
A positive marker is a word or sound loaded with positive emotion that is used to identify a desired action. (Photo: Kali Parmley)

Simply put, cueing is using communication to pinpoint action. A negative marker is a word or sound loaded with negative emotion used to identify an undesirable action. While both are important in training, I often see negative markers being used more often. However, liberal use of positive markers will lead to a more confident movement and a happier dog. As I have trained many clients to use positive markers effectively and purposefully, I have seen their and their dogs’ frustrations decrease and relationships become happier and more enjoyable. Progress also happens faster.

I saw this demonstrated on the basketball court a few years ago. After having four children who all play basketball, the number of memories I have attached to the basketball court could fill a small library. However, if a person were to say the two words “basketball” and “yes” to me, my mind would flash back to a very special grade school game in Plain City, Utah.

Two teams of eight-year-old girls took to the field for the first time. Both coaches had equal time to prepare. The girls were taken to certain places on the floor. The tallest girl from each team stood facing each other in the middle of the field. The referee blew the whistle and the ball was thrown into the air. The ball was hit to the left side of the court as it came down and pure chaos ensued on the ground as the ball bounced. Ten little girls gathered at that place to catch the ball. One girl caught the ball and started dribbling toward her team’s basket, and the little herd went with her. I have seen this “gang ball” many times – a wonderful part of the early development of a young team.

As the girls ran back and forth on the court, the coaches shouted instructions to bring order to the pandemonium on the court. Something truly magical began to unfold in this particular game. The gym was filled with sounds. Parents and grandparents cheered every move their team made that looked a bit like the game they were trying to play, and both coaches tried hard to guide their players. But one team was changing quickly. The coach called out, “Go to your seat, Beth. Yes!” “Find the ball, Annie…yeah!” “Switch to Christy…yeah!” This coach would give specific instructions, and every time a specific instruction was followed, he would give a sharp “Yes!” he shouted. “Yes” was used with precision and the girls acted with precision. They turned and ran to certain points and turned to find the ball quickly. His team was coming to order quickly.

I sat fascinated. Both coaches were fully involved. Both were working equally hard, but one was getting better results! I turned to my wife and asked, “Do you see what’s happening?” He smiled knowingly and replied, “Positive marking.” As parents, we have learned the value and power of recognizing good behavior in our children. As a dog trainer, I was very familiar with the value of “marker training” to pinpoint the action I was trying to get a dog to perform.

Accurate and timely communication

As for the basketball game, both teams were cheered when they scored. Both teams were congratulated for a good game. Both coaches had a positive, encouraging practice. However, one team learned and developed faster than the other. The difference was that a coach could effectively and accurately communicate when an athlete was doing the right thing, and he could do it in real time.

In the basketball game, the coach used the word “yes”. The crowd used their cheers to celebrate baskets or steals. In the case of dogs, we can use a clicker or words like “good” or “yes” or we can use a happy or excited reaction. Dogs are very perceptive and can read us well.

I think it’s important to recognize that all living things track and identify markers that help them learn what works in their quest to get what they want and avoid what they don’t want. This is important because the “marking” in the dog’s mind is going on all the time. The goal is to actively use markers intentionally and deliberately to communicate clearly with our dog. The more effectively we learn to use markers, the better our relationship with our dog will be and the happier and more confident our dog will be.

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