Post image for Event markers in dog training

Event markers in dog training

Many modern dog trainers use a useful ‘tool’ to help them train their dogs. This tool identifies,  for the dog,  the behaviour that the trainer wants.

We call it an “event marker”.

Why use an event marker?

Often, when we are training,  a dog will exhibit several behaviours in a row.

He may sit down and then get up again very quickly

He may take hold of an object and drop it again, within a second or two.

When we want to reward a specific thing like the sit or the hold, this quick change in his action makes life difficult.

We can often end up rewarding the very thing we want to discourage.

For example, it is very easy to inadvertently reward  ‘getting up’ when we want a dog to ‘sit’, simply because he is already getting up again as we reach out to him with the treat.  Especially in the beginning stages of training when he only sits very briefly.

Event markers help your dog to avoid confusion, and enable us to train him more effectively.  In essence, it makes things a lot easier for your dog to understand.

What does an event marker look like?

An event marker needs to be a signal that the dog recognises.

This could be an audible signal such as a buzzer, a bell,  a whistle,  a click or a spoken word.event marker dog training

It could also be a visual signal such as a gesture or a flashing light.  These can be especially useful for deaf dogs.

A spoken word would be a lot of people’s first choice, but this can be problematic as how you feel (physically and mentally) changes your tone or voice and the delivery of your words.

It is no possible to say “good” in an identical way each and every time.

For this reason it is best to buy an item to use as an event marker.

The best event markers are very distinctive,  very consistent, cheap, and easy to carry around.   Their ‘signal’ is easily conveyed to the dog, whatever position he is in, and no matter what he is doing.

The most commonly used event marker in dog training, is a clicker, which is short, snappy, instantly recognisable by the dog, and  fulfils all the other criteria for a good  marker.

How do we use an event marker?

We  use the event marker to give a signal that ‘marks’ the behaviour that we want.  The event marker identifies for the dog which of the things he did that we liked.

We follow the event marker with a reward and the dog knows exactly what he is being rewarded for.   This works even if the reward is given to the dog whilst he is doing something undesirable.

For example,  when we are trying to teach a whining dog to ‘be quiet’  he may stop whining only very briefly to begin with.  We mark this brief pause in his whining with our event marker and give him a reward.   By the time we deliver the reward into his mouth, he may have started whining again.  Despite this,  if we mark the pause in the whining accurately,  the whining will diminish, and the pauses will become longer.

This will happen even though the dog was doing the wrong thing when we gave him the reward.

So how does this neat dog training trick work?


How does the event marker work?

The event marker works because we use a process called ‘classical conditioning’  to associate it with eating or with some other very pleasurable activity.

After a fairly short period of repeatedly associating the event marker with a pleasurable experience,  the event marker itself has  similar effects on the dog as the pleasurable experience with which it was associated.

Charging the clicker

Before we begin dog training with a clicker (or any other event marker) we need to make sure that the clicker is able to generate pleasurable feelings for the dog through this process of association with something he really enjoys, like food.

We need to ensure that the click of the clicker has a ‘feel good factor’ for the dog.  And we do this by repeatedly clicking the clicker,  and immediately following the click with a nice tasty treat.

Dog trainers call this process ‘Charging the clicker’

In fact,  we are not changing the clicker at all, just the dog’s response to it.

Maintaining the power of the marker

Unfortunately,  the conditioning process which associates the signal given out by the event marker,  and the pleasurable feelings it generates,  are not very persistent.

If you cease following your event marker with food or some other immediate reward, it will rapidly lose its power.

It is important therefore to follow each event marked, with a reward.   Every time you click,  you must treat.   You will often see this written like this C&T.

This pairing of the two is important.  Whilst the rule can be broken occasionally, it is best to make sure that you get into a habit of following every single click with a treat.

The bridging effect

It doesn’t matter if you cannot treat the dog instantly every single time you click.  Even if it takes you a few seconds to reach the dog after using your event marker,  you should still give him his reward.  In fact this ability of the click to maintain its power across occasional gaps in time is one of the benefits of an event marker.

This bridging effect  allows us to reinforce behaviour, even when we cannot get to the dog immediately.

Early training

Event markers are most commonly used in early training and to establish new behaviours.   In addition to their uses in training basic obedience skills,  they can be used to teach dogs to carry out unnatural behaviours such as operating switches.  Perhaps the greatest benefit of event markers is that they offer us opportunities to train through the fascinating process called ‘shaping’.  We’ll look at that another day!

An event marker is a powerful tool, and one that every trainer can benefit from at some point in time.

Do you use an event marker when training your dog?   Is it a word?  Or a tool like the clicker?   Why not share your thoughts in the box below:


This article was first published in 2013, and has been revised and updated for 2015. 

This website is brought to you by Pippa Mattinson

Pippa's book Total Recall is a complete recall training programme for puppies and adult dogs, and her Happy Puppy Handbook is a definitive guide to puppy care and early training

by Pippa Mattinson on July 3, 2015

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

susanna November 17, 2013 at 10:09 am

Yes, I used a clicker all the time when I first got my spaniel. In the last few years, I have not had to use it but I am about to again as I want to undo some bad habits she’s picked up in retrieving


Leonie August 31, 2014 at 2:17 pm

Hi Pippa,

Thanks for this great article, love your clear writing style. Particularly the following bit you wrote made me really think and reflect on what we use with Bertie: “If you cease following your event marker with food or some other immediate reward, it will rapidly lose its power”

We have been using the word ‘good’ as an event marker but I’ve got a feeling we’ve have been overusing the word without realising it! We use ‘good’ and ‘good boy’ throughout the day to generally praise our dog Bertie (without treats) for an already established behaviour when he is being ‘good’, eg leaving food, heeling, staying in his basket, etc. What word do you use to praise your dogs for an already established behaviour? Should we not verbally praise him without the use of a treat when he is doing well? Perhaps we need to change our event marker to ‘yes!’… and just use ‘good’ to praise.

I hope you don’t mind but I have another question. A friend is using the exact same whistle we use (the one you recommend in your book Total Recall.) She uses ‘pip pip pip pip’, we use ‘piiiiiip, pip’. We occasionally walk and train together. The more popular your book becomes the more people will be using the same whistle :) Is this a problem? Can the dog hear the difference?

Thanks a lot for your thoughts and advice, much appreciated.

Best wishes, Leonie


Pippa Mattinson September 4, 2014 at 10:42 am

Hi Leonie, many people do what you have been doing and so diminish the power of their event marker. This is another good reason to use a clicker as it much easier to always remember to follow it with a treat. I do use ‘good’, but in a very precise way and I almost always follow it with food or some other reward. I think the term ‘already established behaviour’ is rather vague. I don’t have different event markers for behaviours that have been well proofed if that is what you mean. Nor for behaviours where I have added duration (like a longer stay in the basket) I just give my usual marker at the end of the behaviour followed by a reward. Sometimes I may simply release the dog without a rewards, but in this case I don’t give an event marker either. Verbally praising without the use of a treat is simply a way of fading rewards by lowering their value. If you do this, be careful you don’t weaken the behaviour. Try and offer more powerful rewards from time to time so that the dog never quite knows what to expect. Hope that helps. Pippa


Carolan September 4, 2014 at 12:57 pm

I use the word “tick” as my verbal event marker – I still think the mechanical sound of the clicker is better and so use that for planned/more difficult training but a word is sometimes more convenient.


Leave a Comment

Previous post: