Last week on my blog we looked at when to add a cue to the behaviours you are training with your dog. This week we look at three different types of verbal markers. What marker you choose and how you use it can help or hurt your dog training. The topic of cues and markers is one that has filled textbooks and is covered in more than one thesis, but for the purposes of a general understanding, we’re looking at verbal markers everyone would be familiar with.

Single Word Marker

Examples of single word markers are “yes”, “super”, “excellent”, “good”.

A single word can give your dog great feedback and can be used for anything.  This type of verbal marker is not as specific as a clicker.

There are a couple of cautions with the use of a single word marker. If a marker like this is used in a judgmental tone, a soft dog may worry.  If the timing is off, you could be marking a behaviour you don’t want to see repeated.  If you’re using a single word make sure you’re really consistent with how you deliver it …. be mindful of tone and timing. Videoing your training is an ideal way to see if how and when you are using a marker like this is effective and helping your training.

General Praise (Phrase)

General praise is very closely related to a single word marker and is used well for continuously rewarding a longer duration behaviour. A phrase I  use is “super of the stars”. “What a good dog” is another that you will hear frequently in any group of dog trainers.

If general praise is not used well, it could be rewarding things you don’t want to reinforce, like running by you with a toy …. and this is one you might be familiar with … saying ‘what a good dog’ as the dog blasts by you with a toy rather than bringing it to you. This is effectively letting the dog know that running away with a toy is a good thing to do as there is reinforcement from you by way of praise! You have to be careful with praise so it does not get attached to behaviours you don’t want, because praise is a reward, and that’s how reinforcement works.

The more that you reward, the more likely that your dog will repeat a behaviour. That’s why we love reinforcement, but inadvertent reinforcement is something to watch for, like in the example of praising a dog for running off with a toy.

Here’s what I think happens … I think we get self-conscious or maybe a little bit embarrassed by the behaviour of our dogs and we nervously just start spewing out praise because we’re kind people and we love our dogs. We need to be aware of what we are praising.  Ask yourself, “am I reinforcing a behaviour I ‘want’ to see repeated, OR, am I reinforcing a behaviour I would ‘not’ want to see repeated?”.  If the dog is running off with the toy (or insert any behaviour you don’t want to see here), don’t praise him. Instead, set your dog up for success by breaking the behaviour down into layers so you CAN reinforce him for what it is you want him to do.

Keep Going Signal

Keep going signals are repeatable …. “dat it dat it dat it” is one I use that you may have heard. If you are a student in my online programs it would be instantly recognizable.  A signal to keep going can be used in a behaviour chain to tell the dog they are doing a good job and to keep going. It can be used to support the dog to continue with the task he started, while we leave to get into another position (think of weaving in agility).

A keep going signal can also be repetition of a cue (a continuous cue), and something that everyone in my Handling360 program would be very familiar with. A repeated cue (that we have trained) gives the dog critical information about where he is going on an agility course and supports his performance, providing us as handlers the freedom to get to the next place we need to be.

If you do agility, you may have heard the verbal “La La La” (la-la-la-la) being used on an agility course. This is a Handling360 verbal cue that I train to have the specific meaning to my dogs of ‘drive to back side and jump long’. I don’t need to be there, the continuous cue supports my dogs to perform this behaviour. The continuous cues I have for agility support the dog when he is performing a behaviour that has been trained to give him confidence and clarity about where he is going on course and to let him know what to do with his body.

For those of you who do agility, there’s more on the verbal cues with a pop quiz and short video on my blog post “Do Agility Dogs Really Understand Verbal Cues & A New Home for Handling360!“.

Keep going signals are very powerful. However, if not used well they can get you into trouble. Using a keep going signal before the behaviour is salient can end up attaching the cue to a behaviour you don’t want …. for example in the weave poles if you are saying ‘dat it dat it dat it’ and your dog is popping out at say pole 8, 9 or 10 that keep going signal is going to attach the behaviour of popping out.

Another way it can get you into trouble is if you are cheerleading. Often people cheerlead if their dog is going slow thinking they are encouraging their dog to go faster … but what you are doing is telling your dog “I really like that slow speed, keep it up, good job!”. Not being mindful of when we are using a keep going signal can have a similar outcome to when we are not mindful about what it is we are praising.

Keep going signals are very powerful for dog sports like agility.

Do you use all three of these markers?  Have you inadvertently used markers to reinforce your dog for something you don’t want to see him do? (and if you have, don’t worry, you are not alone). Let me know in the comments your thoughts and epiphanies about markers in dog training.

Today I am grateful for everything we know about cues and markers and the science of animal training, as it allows us to be the best we can be for our dogs.