Just what is an event marker? How are they used in modern dog training? And should you be using them too?
Pippa demystifies event markers in dog training, with this straightforward guide to what event markers are, and how modern dog trainers use them to help their dogs learn faster and more efficiently.
What is an event marker?
An event marker is a signal that identifies a specific action or moment in time. In dog training the event marker is almost always a sound, such a ‘click’ from a clicker, or a short word such as ‘yes’ or ‘good’.
Some trainers use a hand signal, light or vibration as an event marker when training deaf dogs, but noises as markers are the most common choice for most trainers. The principles of how event markers work and why, are the same for audible, tactile or visual markers.
What does a dog trainer’s event marker do?
An event marker identifies, or marks, for the dog, the behavior that the trainer likes and hopes the dog will repeat.
For example, if you use an event marker when teaching your dog to sit, you can ‘mark’ the exact moment that his bottom meets the ground so that he is very clear that that is what you want him to do.
You can also be selective about what types of ‘sit’ you mark.
So for example you can teach your dog to sit very rapidly, by only ‘marking’ the fastest of his sits.
How does the event marker work?
An event marker needs to be associated with a pleasant experience. Most commonly this is achieved by always following the event marker by giving the dog a small piece of food.
After a fairly short period of repeatedly associating the event marker with a pleasurable experience, the event marker itself has similar effects on the dog as the pleasurable experience with which it is associated.
Or to put it another way, when the dog hears the ‘marker’ he knows that he will almost immediately be rewarded. Over time he comes to find the marker itself rewarding. (Although we still follow the marker with a reward – more on that later.)
The event marker provides information and a good feeling to the dog. When he hears it he knows what you like, and knowing that the mark will be followed by reinforcement makes him feel good. This reinforces the marked behavior and encourages him to repeat it.
In summary – the event marker predicts a reward, which is in itself rewarding. Behaviors that lead to good consequences are likely to be repeated. So the event marker can be used to reward very specific behaviors, encouraging the dog to repeat those behaviors.
Let’s look at that in action.
How to use an event marker
To use an event marker we first need the dog to show us a behavior that we want or like. We immediately use the event marker to give a signal that ‘marks’ the behavior that we want.
We follow the event marker with a reward such as a little piece of food. Because of the precision of the marker, the dog knows exactly what he is being rewarded for. Even if what he did was quite brief, subtle, or difficult to detect.
For example, when we are trying to teach a whining dog to ‘be quiet’ he may stop whining only very briefly to begin with. We mark this brief pause in his whining with our event marker and give him a reward.
By the time we deliver the reward into his mouth, he may have started whining again. Despite this, if we mark the pause in the whining accurately, the whining will diminish, and the pauses will become longer.
If you’d like to learn more about training behaviors in small increments using markers and rewards, you might like to join one of my online training courses.
Why are event markers important in dog training?
Event markers in dog training are important for two key reasons.
Often, when we are training, a dog will exhibit several behaviors in a row.
He may sit down and then get up again very quickly. He may take hold of an object and drop it again, within a second or two.
When we want to reward a specific thing like the sit or the hold, this quick change in his action makes life difficult.
Without an event marker, we can often end up rewarding the very thing we want to discourage.
For example, it is very easy to inadvertently reward ‘getting up’ when we want a dog to ‘sit’, simply because he is already getting up again as we reach out to him with the treat. Especially in the beginning stages of training when he only sits very briefly.
A marker helps the dog to know exactly which of several rapid behaviors pleased you.
Your dog speaks a different language from you. And I don’t just mean he doesn’t speak English. His whole method of communication is different from yours.
A marker can bridge the gap between how your dog communicates, and how you do. Making you a better team.
Do I have to use an event marker?
No you certainly do not have to use an event marker. Many, many dogs have been trained without event markers, so they are certainly not essential.
There are, however, many advantages to training with an event marker. As a result, once you have got used to using one, you are unlikely to want to go back to training without one.
The benefits of training with an event marker
Event markers help your dog to avoid confusion, this means a happier and more confident dog. After all, no-one likes making mistakes.
It also means faster training times as fewer mistakes and more precision enables the dog to learn more quickly.
Event markers are also essential for certain types of training, where precision, and complexity are involved. If you don’t want to use an event marker you won’t for example be able to ‘shape’ new behaviors very effectively.
Choosing event markers in dog training
An event marker needs to be a signal that the dog recognizes.
It doesn’t have to be something you can see or get hold of.
It can, for example, be a sound you make with your voice.
A basic event marker in animal training is usually an audible signal such as a buzzer, a bell, a whistle, a click or a spoken word.
It could also be a visual signal such as a gesture or a flashing light. These can be especially useful for deaf dogs.
Verbal event markers
A spoken word is a common choice as an event marker.
There are some drawbacks to a verbal event marker.
It is harder to be very precise and consistent with a verbal event marker than it is with a mechanical event marker such as a whistle or click.
It is not possible for example to say “yes” or “good” in an identical way each and every time.
There are advantages to a verbal event marker though. It doesn’t occupy your hands in the same way that a clicker does. Whether or not this matters will depend on what kind of training you are doing.
Clickers as event markers
A clicker is a small mechanical box that makes a ‘click’ sound when a button or panel on it is pressed. They come in various designs, with different sounds and volumes.
The advantages of a clicker
Provided your dog has reasonably good hearing, the clicker is a clear signal, not likely to be confused with any other sound. Your dog will not hear clicks by accident, or at the wrong time. The pitch and ‘tone’ of the clicker will be consistent, even at the end of a long session if you are tired or losing patience!
Disadvantages of the clicker as an event marker
1. It needs to be with you.
Your clicker is only any use if you remember to bring it! So it’s important to keep the clicker with your treats, or have a spare one on your car keys, if you train outside your home.
You’re also unlikely to have a clicker to hand when training ‘opportunistically’. For example when teaching your dog to wait patiently to be let through doorways. So you may find a verbal marker better for these behaviors.
2. You don’t have three hands.
If you are using one hand for your treat bag, and one to manage a lead (with a dog on the other end), using a clicker as well can seem next to impossible. Often it just takes a little practice, but juggling everything in your hands is definitely a clicker downside!
Practical use of event markers in dog training
The use of an event marker is now a standard technique used in modern dog training.
In practice there are times when you will benefit from a verbal event marker, and times when a mechanical one would be best.
For this reason it is best to buy an item such as a clicker to use as an event marker, and get used to using it for at least some of your training. You are almost bound to need one at some point, and this way you will be prepared.
The best event markers for your puppy
The best event markers are very distinctive, very consistent, cheap, and easy to carry around. Their ‘signal’ is easily conveyed to the dog, whatever position he is in, and no matter what he is doing.
Choose a short crisp word as a verbal event marker. YES or GOOD are popular choices.
The most commonly used mechanical event marker in dog training, is a clicker, which is short, snappy, instantly recognisable by the dog, and fulfils all the other criteria for a good marker.
Maintaining the power of the marker
Unfortunately, the conditioning process which associates the signal given out by the event marker with the reinforcement that follows, and the pleasurable feelings it generates, are not very persistent.
If you cease following your event marker with food or some other immediate reward, it will rapidly lose its power.
It is important therefore to follow each event marked, with a reward. Every time you mark or click, you must reward (treat). You will often see this written like this “C&T” (click and treat).
This pairing of the two is important. Whilst the rule can be broken occasionally, it is best to make sure that you get into a habit of following every single click with a treat.
The bridging effect
It doesn’t matter if you cannot treat the dog instantly every single time you click.
Even if it takes you a few seconds to reach the dog after using your event marker, you should still give him his reward.
In fact, this ability of the click to maintain its power across occasional gaps in time is one of the benefits of an event marker.
This bridging effect allows us to reinforce behavior, even when we cannot get to the dog immediately.
The marker will reinforce the behavior at the right time, provided you still follow it up with a treat within a few seconds.
Puppy training and beyond
Event markers are most commonly used in early training with puppies, for achieving precision, and to establish new behaviors.
]In addition to their uses in training basic obedience skills, they can be used to teach dogs to carry out unnatural behaviors such as operating switches, or picking up the TV remote.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of event markers is that they offer us opportunities to train through the fascinating process called ‘shaping’.
We’ll look at that another day!
An event marker is a powerful tool, and one that every trainer can benefit from at some point in time. In essence, it makes things a lot easier for your dog to understand.
Event markers specifically identify an action or behavior for your dog. And the reinforcement (reward) that follows the marker makes the dog keen to repeat that behavior.
The use of an event marker is an integral part of modern, positive reinforcement, dog training.
Do you use an event marker when training your dog? Is it a word? Or a tool like the clicker? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below.
About Pippa Mattinson
Pippa is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.
She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program .
Pippa’s online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website.