Monday, February 13, 2012

Marking the behavior - click, word, finger snap, tongue click, or what?

Marking the action of a skill or behavior can be difficult for some clients. The why is hard to pinpoint - some get it, others do not.

Karen Pryor says "Clicker training" is an animal training method based on behavioral psychology that relies on marking desirable behavior and rewarding it."

Clients have simply left out the marker altogether.  This is a challenge in the Day of a Behavior Trainer, because communicating to the dog the correct response is a very big part of positive reward-based, results-oriented training. Something so simple to trainers who use this daily can be like climbing Mt. Everest for some students. It is common practice for a marker (usually the sound of a click from a device known as a "clicker") to mark the action of a dog delivering the correct response and then following it with payment or a reward, which makes the behavior wanted stronger. It makes sense that timing is important.

The marker would be issued in the cue to "come!" immediately as the dog is heading toward you - the ACTION. The reward would be given when the dog is in front of their person - the POSITION. Rewarding position makes the behavior wanted stronger. The position for sit is butt on ground, for down lying flat belly to the ground. The reward is delivered for butt on ground and while the dog is lying flat. The marker comes for the ACTION of moving into sit or down.

Let's get real. Most clients haven't heard of clicker training, let alone perfectly timing a marker. This is something behaviior trainers need to keep reminding themselves during each and every client session or class.

Some clients try so hard. A scenario might be teaching name plus come cue. Client says "come" forgets to use the dogs name and doesn't mark the movement forward. However, they are very good at rewarding the dog when they return to them. This is a good thing, despite the botch in technique, because the dog will continue to come to them.  Finding the marker that this type of client can master is the key.

How I do that is to take the dog out of the equation and do some exercises with me playing the dog, and then the client playing the role of their dog. In a class, students will be paired with each other and in turn take on the role of dog or owner. Then we discuss what occurred. It always gets big laughs and that is good for training. We use quarters or dollar bills as rewards.  Behavior trainers must work WITH the client and find the solution. Train the client and the odds are very good the dog will progress quicker and goals will be accomplished. Clients also need to be able to communicate with their dogs when the trainer has left the building.

Practicing how to "mark a behavior" is very much an orientation process for those who are less than a quick study.  It is the trainer's job then to mark and reward what the client is doing correctly.  Marking goes both ways and yet often the client will not know you are marking their "right" behavior.  Still, they will get the concept and apply it to their dog.

Other ways to increase understanding would be to raise your hand and every time a hand is raised, have the client mark that action with whatever marker they have chosen.  Bounce a tennis ball and have client mark the ground hit OR the airborne toss. Repetition is good and yet still some may find it challenging when the living, breathing dog is added again.  Luckily, dogs are quite quick studies and the technique is very forgiving. Purists will argue that timing is everything and it better be for those teaching it. In reality, timing means very little to the client who just wants their dog trained, so showing how they can achieve that goal will be the critical bridge between the dog owner and the behavior trainer.

Until next time - happy positive training!

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