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.
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.
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.