Marking Good Behavior (the secret of dog training)

Dogs in general are easy to explain— “How can I get what I want now!” Now it’s not that they are sitting around your house, twiddling their paws, planning ways to thwart you. But they do experiment with behavior—barking, jumping, chewing, nipping, playing keep away, etc., all to get your attention. It works and you pay attention to them. They’ve got you perfectly trained.

Even if you tell them no, glare at them, or push them away, that’s attention and reinforces the bad behavior.

You can reverse that trend by paying more attention to them when they are being good. Don’t ever take good behavior for granted, especially calm sits and downs. If you don’t pay attention to them when they are being good, what do you think they’re going to do????? Be bad of course, because you’ll absolutely pay attention to them then.

Make sure your dog knows it’s doing something right by communicating that to them with a word (usually YES or GOOD) or a sound (a clicker) followed by a reinforcement.

Reinforcement doesn’t always have to be food treats. It can be playing with a toy, petting, praise, a smile from across the room, going for a walk, playing with another dog, chasing a squirrel in the yard, pointing a bird, etc. Basically anything your dog likes can be used as a reinforcement. But you must always and forever acknowledge your dog’s good behavior and ignore the bad behavior as much as possible.

Reinforcement must be reinforcing for your dog and not you. So if you are planning on using petting for reinforcement, make sure your dog likes it. The overwhelming majority of dogs hate being petted on top of their heads, but almost everyone pets them there. Put yourself in their place… “here comes the big hand coming down towards me with a giant body looming behind it.” They hate it!!! And, in the winter it’s easy to accidentally static shock your dog and you certainly don’t want to shock them on their heads. You can train them to like being petted on their heads by pairing it with treats. So when petting always start under the chin, on the chest or on the side of the neck, then come back to the head.

When teaching new behaviors, generally treats are used for reinforcement before switching to another reinforcement.

When your dog first hears a marker word or sound, he will not know that it means anything. So you have to help your dog understand what it means by “charging your marker.” In other words, give that word or sound some value by pairing it with treats—just like you’d charge a battery.

To charge your marker, start with a bag of tiny (about 1/4 inch square at the most), soft and stinky treats. Keep your treats handy but out of sight. Say your word or click your clicker, pause for no more than one second then deliver the treat. Repeat at least 20 times.

Test to see if your dog understands what that sound means. Wait for him to look away and make your sound. If he responds by looking at you or at least flicking his ears towards you then you’re ready to put your marker into action. Only do this one time and then never again use that word or click to get your dog’s attention.

If you are using a clicker, and I always use both a clicker and verbal marker, you make a pact with your dog. If I click I will deliver a treat to you. So if you want to use an alternate reinforcement, use your verbal marker only.

Once charged, the purpose of your marker changes from marking the food, like it was during charging, to marking the good behavior. Now you will be separating the marker from the reinforcement by 1-3 seconds, or more as your dog gets more experienced. For instance, you ask your dog to sit. As his butt hits the ground you mark that behavior, pause, then deliver a treat. Try to mark the split second his butt touches the ground. Mark and reinforce all good behavior all the time, especially calm, polite behavior.

If your dog does something bad on a regular basis, it has been reinforced in some way! It has been scientifically proven tens of thousands of times, behavior that is reinforced will be repeated. If this is happening, be a detective and figure out how your dog is being reinforced for this bad behavior. Here’s a hint—it’s probably you!

A better way to deal with bad behavior is to say nothing and turn away, or leave the room for 10 seconds and close a door. That physical barrier makes it black and white to your dog. “Not only did that not get me what I wanted, but my giant treat with the thumbs just left the room.”

Puppies are walking blank slates and learn constantly from you and the environment what works and what doesn’t. You must be careful not to let them train you.

What would you do in this scenario? Your puppy is chewing a shoe. Commonly people would advise you to give the pup an appropriate toy in place of the shoe. But if you do you’ve just reinforced the puppy for chewing the shoe! I would run away from the puppy and entice them to follow me, be exciting and fun so the pup wants to follow. As he follows, I’d be sure to mark that good behavior (no reinforcement yet). When he comes to you, he will have left the shoe behind. Ask him to do something like a sit or down, then you can legitimately mark and reinforce with an appropriate chew toy. Then make sure you teach your dog how to “drop it” and “leave it” to avoid similar situations in the future.

Help your puppies grow up to be calm, confident adults by letting them know now when they are doing something right.

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