Starting obedience training with our pets is a lot like teaching someone a new language. In the past, it was common for trainers to use physical correction, coercion, and punishment to force animals to perform behaviors. Recently, with the help of psychological research, we’ve learned that animals can be taught in a more efficient and humane way. By using a mixture of “shaping” (using a lure to guide your pet into a desired position or behavior) and “capturing” (rewarding your pet for demonstrating a desired position or behavior on his/her own), trainers have found a way to help pets learn without the use of harsher methods that can lead to future problems. The most important aspects of positive reinforcement training and reward marking are:
- Being specific
- Being consistent
In today’s post, I want to talk about specificity—which is all about timing.
Reward Marking: Making Your Mark
Let’s say you’re taking a spelling test that has twenty words. You have never seen the words spelled out before, but you sound them out and take guesses. When your teacher grades your test, the only note they make is, “Five words are correct.” You don’t know which five words. There are no check marks or “x” marks. It would be pretty confusing and, if you took the same test again, you’d get the same wrong answers.
To learn and to avoid repeating mistakes, we need reward marking to show us when we get things right or wrong. The same is true for our pets. They learn much more effectively when their behaviors are marked for them.
The Reward Marker
It’s exactly what it sounds like. Reward marking is a word or sound used to mark the exact moment your pet demonstrates a position (i.e., “sit”) or behavior (or “quiet”) that has been requested or is desirable. Combined with a reward (such as a food treat, play, or affection) the reward marker gives your pet a definite landmark for good work.
For example, you lure your dog into the “sit” position using a yummy treat. The moment your dog’s bottom hits the floor, you mark the position with the word “yes,” followed immediately by a treat. You repeat the process, each time using the reward marker, followed immediately by the reward. Your dog learns like a boss. You’re incredibly proud of your genius-IQ dog.
It’s all about timing and consistency. Always give the reward marker the second your dog complies with the behavior you’ve requested. Use the same word or sound EVERY TIME. Always immediately follow with a reward.
Reward marking also comes in handy when your pet has gotten to the point where s/he has learned a cue (like “sit”), and you want to start phasing out treats. By that point, there will be a strong psychological connection for your pet between your reward marker and the reward itself. By randomizing rewards while maintaining a consistent reward marker, your pet can be weaned from treats while still enjoying the endorphin rush associated with a job well done.
Make sure to check out my next blog post, where I’ll talk about the “No Reward Marker.” It’s what I like to think of as the doggy version of “close, but no cigar.” Guthrie Pet Hospital offers one-on-one training and behavioral consultations along with group obedience classes. Contact us today for more information.