When training your dog, it is most important to understand the difference between Markers, Cues, and release words. As you dog’s leader and trainer, you must also use each of these correctly and consistently.
Most people refer to cues as commands. Example of cues are words that indicate that your dog should take action, such as SIT, STAY, COME, HEEL, etc. So in the most basic terms, a cue is a verbal or physical “signal” that tells the dog to perform some action.
This “signal” or “cue” can be either verbal or physical. Because humans are oral creatures, they generally use verbal cues, however, physical cues are just as strong. An example of a physical cue is a hand gesture that has the same meaning as the word such as holding your hand out palm up and raising your hand by bending the elbow to indicate that the dog should SIT.
If we are going to “signal” or “cue” our dog to do something, then we are assuming that they know what that cue or word means. And this is where most people get into trouble when it comes to training their dog! How does your dog know what SIT means? or What HEEL means? They don’t speak English. So when we ask our dog to SIT or HEEL or COME, how does your dog know what to do?
It is your job as the leader, dog handler to effectively teach your dog what each of the cues mean. We have come a long way in understanding how dogs learn. Dogs learn most quickly by receiving rewards for behaviors they perform. This is the basis of positive reinforcement training.
But have the question, “How do you teach a dog to understand what a cue means?” And this is where markers come in.
Markers are words or sounds that communicate or signal to the dog that he is doing something correctly or not correctly. The words or sounds are used to mark a behavior or action. In other words you are providing the dog with feedback telling him whether or not he is doing what you asked or not.
There are 2 primary markers:
- Positive Marker – A word or sound that tells your dog that he is doing something correctly and to keep doing it. Common positive markers are using clickers, or saying the word “Yes”
- Negative Marker – A word or sound that tells your dog to try something else. The action or behavior they are doing is not exactly what you are looking for. Common negative markers are saying “Eh Eh” or as Cesar Millan uses “Shsst” or “Wrong”.
Common feedback I receive from owners is we need to use all of these words and how do we know when to use a cue versus a marker? I know, it can all be very confusing… So let me provide you with an analogy by walking thru the I SPY game… Remember that game when you were a kid?
Player 1, let’s call her Mary, says to Player 2, Joe, “I SPY something RED”. This is the Cue. It is the signal from Mary to tell Joe to start looking for something Red that she has selected for him to find.
Joe then looks around the room and starts moving away from the “red thing”. Mary will say “COLD” which is a negative marker. By saying “COLD”, Joe stops and thinks about another direction he can go in — essentially he has changed his behavior as a result of receiving negative feedback. Joe then looks around the room again and starts moving in a different direction towards the “red thing”. Mary says “WARM” which is a positive marker. By saying “WARM”, Mary is telling Joe that he is moving in the right direction and he should keep doing it. When Joe is very close to the “red thing” Mary says HOT. This is another positive marker or positive feedback that tells Joe he is very close to finding the red thing. Joe looks around, and finds the “red thing”
Just like cues, markers must also be taught to your dog.
How to teach your dog what the markers mean:
Positive Marker — Prepare for lesson by having 4-5 small treats, and ensure your dog is near you. If this is the first time you are teaching, I recommend putting the dog on leash and dropping the leash on the floor and just step on the end of the leash so your dog can’t go wandering away if he should get distracted by something else.
- Pick your positive marker – “Yes” or Click using a Clicker. If multiple people live in the household, make sure everyone agrees to use the same markers.
- Say your positive marker word, or Click, then give your dog a treat.
- Repeat 2-3 times a day using 4-5 treats each time.
- Continue for 4-5 days
- Test! Have the clicker ready and a treat. Walk into the room where your dog several feet away and either click the clicker or say your positive marker word. If your dog swings his head towards you or comes running to you to get his treat, then the positive marker is “loaded”.
- Pick your negative marker “Eh Eh”, “Wrong”
- Whenever your dog performs a behavior or action that you do not want, Say the negative marker word
Once your dog knows that the marker words mean, then you can start to use them to provide feedback to your dog as you are teaching them cues (or commands). For example, if you are teaching your dog to come. With your dog either on leash or very close to you, you would say your dog’s name, then the cue, “COME”, if your dog moves towards you, you would use your positive marker, Click or “Yes”. If your dog doesn’t move, or moves away, you would say your negative marker, “Eh Eh” or “Wrong”. Of course there are a few more steps to teaching your dog come, but this is an example of how to incorporate the marker words or “feedback” into the process of teaching your dog a cue.
Release words are words or sounds that signal to your dog that he is done working. Common release words are “OK”, “Done”, “Free”. Generally the release word is first introduced to your dog, when you are teaching your dog to STAY. When you ask your dog to hold a position, whether it be a SIT STAY, DOWN STAY, or STAND STAY”, you must follow that up by signalling to your dog when he can break out of that position. And that is what the release word does. It tells your dog that he can get up from a DOWN STAY and do whatever he wants until you give him another cue to do something else.
It is critical that there is a common language between you and your dog in order for you to teach your dog the behaviors that you desire. And that is what the consistent and effective use of cues, markers, and release words give to you. Not only will you and your dog understand each other better, but your dog will learn new things faster and easier. And your bond with your dog will grow stronger than ever before!