Train your dog hands-free!
What is marker training?
Marker training is an essential tool for any animal trainer. You’ve likely run across marker training in its most prevalent form, clicker training. The marker is a signal to the animal that primary reinforcement (usually food) is on its way. Many dog trainers use a clicker as an audible signal when marker training. Another popular choice of audible marker is a whistle.
Both clickers and whistles are effective markers for distance work with dogs. This is because of their usually loud, distinct sound. Trainers pair these sounds with the desired behavior to increase that behavior.
To learn more about marker training, read Karen Pryor’s “Don’t Shoot the Dog” and “Click for Joy!” by Melissa Alexander. (As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made through this site.)
In this post, we’ll talk about how to use marker training to train an animal at a distance.
Using marker training as a bridge
What do trainers mean when they use the term “bridge,” or “bridging stimulus”? McGreevy and Boakes (2009) offer the following definition of a bridging stimulus:
A stimulus “used by the trainer to fill the gap between the correct response and a delayed primary reinforcer”;
A stimulus “intended to function as a secondary reinforcer that reduces the otherwise weakening of the primary reinforcement by the delay.”(“Carrots and Sticks: Principles of Animal Training,” McGreevy and Boakes, 2009). As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases of this book.
You can see how a trainer would need to fill the gap between a correct response from the animal at a distance, and the delivery of the primary reinforcer, or food, in the first definition.
Examples include sending your dog to a target some feet away, or directing your dog to the correct tunnel in agility. You would mark (click or whistle) to let the dog know he has reached the correct spot, and follow it with reinforcement soon after. This means the dog associates the desired behavior with the reinforcement, even though you aren’t with the dog to deliver it immediately.
Trainers see that the click or whistle itself holds reinforcement value for the dog. Think of secondary reinforcement as a “stand-in” for the real thing: the food! All reinforcers that act as substitutes for the real thing are secondary reinforcers.
Can you think of a powerful secondary reinforcer we use in our daily lives? Hint: most of us don’t want to work for free!
How to deliver reinforcement at a distance
Here are easy ways to deliver reinforcement to your dog at a distance:
- A dish of food or a toy placed in the spot you want the dog to be
- Another person with food or a toy, ready to deliver reinforcement in the place you want your dog to go.
- Tossing food or a toy where you want the dog to be, shortly after he arrives or right before he gets there.
The last option is the fastest when using marker training to teach behavior at a distance. Practice tossing treats without your dog present. This will ensure you can put the reinforcer within a reasonable distance of the dog.
Remote-controlled feeders can aid your creativity in marking behaviors at a distance. The PetTutor and PetSafe Treat & Train Manners Minder Remote Reward Dog Trainer are two such devices on the market now. (As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made on Amazon.)
Delivering reinforcement at a distance, using games and tools
Here’s a game you can play with your dog: Roll treats along the floor, away from your dog. I find this easiest to do up or down the stairs, or in the hallway. Mark when your dog finishes eating the first treat and turns to look at you, feeding a second treat when he returns. Then toss another treat, mark when he’s done eating, feed when he returns — repeating the cycle.
Teach a stop cue using marker training
A stop cue can come in handy in several scenarios, including those which might put your dog in harm’s way. In the finished behavior, your dog will stop and look at you, and wait (as in a stay) for your release cue.
To begin: Grab a handful of tasty treats. With your dog contained in a small area (think living room or porch), but not cornered, walk to within 10 paces of your dog. (If your dog is sticking next to you, begging for treats, ignore her. Once she moves away, walk in the opposite direction until you are a short distance away. Next, say “Stop,” mark, and toss food in your dog’s direction. Toss the food so that it lands right next to or behind your dog — you do not want your dog to move towards you to eat the food. As soon as your dog finishes eating and begins to raise her head, say “Stop” again, mark, and feed. Repeat until you are out of treats.
What if my dog takes a step towards me?
If your dog takes a step toward you between treats, walk a few steps toward her, averting your gaze. She will likely go back to sniffing the floor. As soon as she does, say “Stop” and mark and toss a treat, before she has a chance to step toward you again. Teach the release by rolling a treat as you near the end of handful of treats in your hand. Pair this last treat with a release word or phrase, such as “Break,” or “All done,” to let her know she can chase the treat.
Grab another handful of treats and repeat the process, this time allowing a 1-2 second pause between saying “Stop,” clicking (or whistling) and treating. Again, your goal is to reinforce your whippet for standing still. If she moves during that pause, do not mark and treat.
Keep the pause much shorter, with several successful repetitions before increasing the length of the pause. Build the pause up to 4-5 seconds, over the course of six or so sessions. Once your dog is pausing for up to 5 seconds after you say “Stop,” you can start to increase her distance from you, as well.
How do I increase distance while training my dog to stop?
Keep your distance increases gradual. When you first increase distance, work indoors. As you train the behavior outdoors, make sure your dog can hear you! Distractions you can add include other dogs, people walking by, tossing a crumpled piece of paper, dropping food, or the sound of someone opening the front door.
Teaching an advanced stop cue
In the advanced version of this exercise, you cue your moving whippet to “Stop,” walk up to your stationary dog, and gently take her by the collar or harness. To begin, review your stop cue in a familiar location.
After a few successful repetitions, try slowly taking a step or two towards her before you mark and toss the treat. When you can slowly approach your dog and she calmlywaits for you to bring her treat, repeat the process, but at a normal walking pace. You may also want to repeat the training using a hurried pace, or with a bit of running. When working on “Stop” with an approach, begin walking toward your dog on a curve. Do not make eye contact.
Prevent your dog from running away from you
If your dog is wearing a leash with a harness, you may also step on and then walk up the leash (do not do this with a dog wearing a collar). Halt before any pressure is put on the leash. This is a handy way to practice in a large outdoor space, to prevent your whippet heading out to chase something on the other side of the fence!
Repeat this process until you can approach your dog without him moving away. Next, mark, toss food, and release. Now it is time to add the collar (or harness) touch. Build from reaching towards the dog, and marking and feeding, to touching, and then grasping the collar before you mark and feed.
Other distance tricks you can teach your dog
A few other distance skills you can use marker training to reinforce are position changes (sit, down, stay), and tricks such as spin, leap into the air or roll over, and back up.
And don’t forget everyone’s favorite distance-decreasing trick: come when called! Try marking and tossing food when your dog is just a few feet away from you once or twice in the course of your recall training.
This helps slow a pup who is coming in fast, while creating a solid reinforcement history for doing so!