Tuesday’s Tip for Tired Trainers: #6 Verbal Markers

Preface: No One Right Way

With the last tip, about clickers, there were comments about what did and didn’t work for people. That is terrific! I definitely appreciate readers chiming in with suggestions and modifications. In fact, some of the suggestions were things I knew about and had forgotten to include, so that was really helpful.

However, I was concerned that I might also be giving the impression that if one of these tips doesn’t work for you, that you are training “wrong.” i.e., that there is one right way to train, or one right tool, etc.

I absolutely do not think that. I’m doing this series to try to expand the options for those of us with limitations (which is really everybody, to some degree, but some of us have more limitations than others) so that we feel less like we are doing it “wrong” when we can’t train a behavior the way it is traditionally taught. In fact, in today’s post, I describe the ideal verbal marker, and then explain why I use one that does not meet the ideal!

I thought I’d already posted the intro below on here or on Facebook, which explains my approach, but maybe I didn’t. So, here it is (again?). My essential message is, “Take what works, and ignore the rest. (Although if you have suggestions for what works for you, please comment, because they will likely help someone else.)”

Intro: Make Your Own “Family Recipe”

This is intended as a sort of dog training “cookbook” — but not just any cookbook. Imagine a cookbook for people with food allergies: The recipes all assume that the people using them have some food intolerances, but that these will vary widely. Some recipes will not work for some people, but that’s okay because there will be an entire book to choose from. Other recipes will include ingredients substitutions (if you can’t use milk, use soy milk. If you’re allergic to soy and dairy, use rice milk or hemp milk, etc.).

Like food allergies, chronic conditions and disabilities that cause fatigue affect people very differently. A terrific solution for one is totally unusable for another. Therefore, although I do my best to include a range of options in each tip, I know that some tips just won’t work for some people. For example, I know someone who is training her own service dog very successfully who tried a variety of clickers and found that it was more trouble than it was worth. She is doing all her training with verbal markers (today’s tip), instead of clicks, and it’s working great. I will also eventually post tips that don’t work for me, but that have worked for others I know. (This is where your comments are particularly useful!)

Thus, if one of these tips doesn’t work for you, just go on to the next one (the next week or the previous week). I also very much welcome suggestions of ways you modified my tips to work better for you.

Tip #6 — Verbal markers

While clickers offer the most precise and efficient way of communicating to your dog what behavior you’re paying for, there are other tools. One tool is a verbal marker.

Verbal markers have several advantages. If you have difficulty holding, manipulating, clicking, or otherwise using clickers, or if you have memory issues that make it difficult to keep track of where your clickers are, a verbal marker is a good alternate solution. As long as you can speak one word or make a repeatable sound with your mouth that your dog recognizes, you have your marker with you at all times.

I also use verbal markers when I can’t easily hold a clicker because my hands are both occupied with something else, or when I’m concentrating a great deal on what I’m doing with my hands. I use verbal markers almost exclusively for grooming tasks, such as tick-checking, hair clipping, brushing, toenail trimming, and tooth brushing. With hands on the dog, there’s just no easy place to put a clicker, and I also find that my spoken word creates less of a “bounce up in excitement” response than the clicker, which is desirable for grooming training, when the object of marking behavior is usually to teach the dog to relax and let you do what you need to do to his mouth, paws, ears, etc.

I also usually use verbal markers when going for a walk, because it is often difficult to drive my powerchair, watch Barnum, dispense treats, and click, all at once. Similar issues can arise when using other training props, such as target sticks, light switches, dumbbells, and the like. While the Clik-Stik provides a potential solution for target stick fumblings by placing a clicker in a target-stick handle, most homemade training tools don’t allow for this convenience.

Of course, having an assistant hold props for you while you concentrate on clicking and treating is ideal – assistants are often the easiest way to skirt fatigue issues in training – but we don’t all have this luxury. Or, even if you have people who can help sometimes, it’s useful to be able to work independently when your energy is best, regardless of whether a helper is available.

Introducing a verbal marker follows the same path as any other secondary reinforcer: Make your sound at the moment the dog is doing what you want to reinforce, and deliver your treat as quickly as possible after. After a few repetitions, your dog will get the idea.

There are a lot of opinions about what the best sound to use is. One universally agreed-upon criterion is that it be a short sound. For example, “Good dog” or “Good girl/boy” take much too long to say to mark the behavior with any precision.

Other than that, in the best case scenario, a verbal marker follows these guidelines:

  • It’s a word you and others don’t often use in other contexts, such as everyday conversation
  • It’s said in relatively the same tone, pitch, and volume each time;
  • It’s a quick, staccato sound, such as “Yip!” or “Yep!”;
  • It’s a word or sound that comes naturally to you and is easy to remember.

In my experience, the last criterion has been the most important. Since mental fatigue very often accompanies physical fatigue, and since a marker’s effectiveness is based on its timing (marking the behavior you’re reinforcing), if you have to search around in your memory banks for the word you’ve chosen, it’s not terribly useful. For example, I use the word, “Yes!” This does not meet two of the criteria above: “Yes” is used often in daily conversation and it is not a sharp, staccato sound. However, when I tried using “Yep!” I just couldn’t get it out in time or remember what I’d chosen. My natural instinct was to say, “Yes!” So I went with it.

For the same reason, some people use, “Good.” We say “good” to our dogs a lot anyway: Good dog, good girl, good puppy, who’s-a-good-boy? If you can shorten the “Gooboy!” to just “good,” it will be a better marker.

I am much more of a stickler about not using “everyday words” for other cues than I am about my secondary reinforcer (marker signal). I am particularly uptight about the release cue. A lot of people use, “OK,” but everyone I know, including me, says, “OK,” frequently, to and around your dog, because it’s just ubiquitous in any conversation.

If you have your dog in a stay as a safety measure – while you are approaching to put on a leash near a road, or if you are relying on him to stay while you use him to brace as you transfer – this is a very bad time for someone to say, “OK,” and have your dog bounce up. I’ve had dogs jump up in inappropriate circumstances upon hearing “OK,” even though it wasn’t the release word I’d taught them, because so many people around them had inadvertently taught them “OK” as a release — just out of instinct. I have had to train my dogs to ignore the word, “OK.” Nurses frequently start their interactions with, “OK, Sharon,” and I don’t want my dog to stop what he was doing because of that.

A verbal marker doesn’t carry the same price if it’s used accidentally. In my experience, the fact that “yes” is a commonplace word is not usually a problem, because the way I say it when training is not the way most people say it in conversation.

However, every once in a while, someone in my household (including me), will utter a jubilant, single-note, emphatic, “Yes!” Often, we only realize this has happened because Barnum whips his head around, looking for his treat (and acting surprised because he didn’t know he was doing something “click-worthy”). I always give him a primary reinforcer (food, toy, play) when this happens. A click (or a verbal marker — any secondary reinforcer) is a contract. If you break the rules, the dog won’t know if you can be trusted. So, you might have to offer a toy, treat, praise, or belly rub if your marker gets used unintentionally, thereby tragically forcing you to make your dog happy.

Another reason your verbal marker should be a word or sound you can remember and deliver quickly and easily is that verbal markers are particularly useful for unplanned training situations, also known as “capturing” behavior. For example, say you’ve been conducting training sessions to teach your dog to lie down on her bed when the doorbell rings, with a friend or family member ringing the doorbell for you at predetermined intervals. Then, one day, you get an unexpected package and the delivery person rings your doorbell. Much to your shock and delight, your dog heads to her bed. That’s when you say, “Yes!” (or whatever your marker is) and toss her whatever toy or treat is handy on your way to the door. If that’s not possible, quietly praise and then after the delivery person has left, you can shower your dog with affection.

As with clickers, verbal markers are not the perfect tool for every person or situation. There are times I can’t speak, and there are even more times it’s too tiring for me to speak a lot, which is required if I must repeat a word, over and over. (And making a clicking sound with my tongue over and over would be even more exhausting, as well as painful.)

Verbal markers also tend not to work well over distances; the sound of a click or a whistle carries much better. Sure, some people could  yell their marker, but I have found that most people with fatiguing illnesses aren’t up to a lot of shouting. You also lose a lot of your precision timing if you yell.

What to do if you can’t use a clicker or a verbal marker? That would be tip number 7: visual markers. If you have a deaf dog, you probably already use them!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (who was a bit hard of hearing), and Barnum, SDiT (“Yes!”)

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3 Responses to “Tuesday’s Tip for Tired Trainers: #6 Verbal Markers”


  1. 1 brilliantmindbrokenbody August 10, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    The commonness of usage is why I use ‘yay’ rather than ‘yes’, which is what my parents have used on their most recent pets. I also find that instinctively I hit ‘yay’ with a real upbeat tone and a slightly higher pitch, which is something Hudson likes.

    One of the things I think is important with verbal markers is making sure that you have qualities your dog likes to the way you say it as a verbal marker. If I say yay without that bright tone, Hudson goes yeah, whatever.

  2. 2 Angi May 19, 2012 at 3:07 pm

    I don’t agree that you need to treat your dog when your marker word happens outside of training. Dogs have no trouble learning when the click is for another dog. We use the same clicks for three dogs, and once in a while one of them hears a click directed at another dog and looks around for a treat. They generally just get ignored when that happens, and they quickly realize that that particular click was not for them. I haven’t seen that slow down training for anyone. Likewise when the click or word happens accidentally outside training. They’ll perk up and look for their treat, then realize that nobody is looking at them, shrug, and go back to their business. No problem.

  3. 3 Sharon Wachsler May 19, 2012 at 3:14 pm

    Hi Angi.
    Good point about multiple dog households. I always forget about that because I have been a one-dog household for so long. Yes, of course if you are working one dog, the other dog will learn easily when the click/marker is for them and when for the other dog.
    I do not treat if someone uses “yes” in a conversation in a way that does not sound like the way we use “Yes” for a marker. However, if someone says, “Yes!” in much the same way we say it in training, and because training happens all the time here (incidental events, capturing, finishing behaviors that are not yet fully established but that are starting to get used in the course of the day), I do treat.


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