Does the marker end a behaviour? This is a really valid question, and one which I think is important to answer! I find marking behaviours really useful, not only when I’m working with pups who are just starting out but with my own dog who is 8 years old! Marking the behaviour, in my experience, really shows the dog exactly which behaviour is getting reinforced, and speeds up the learning process.
For example, say I am teaching a puppy to sit, if I lure him into his sit position and start praising ‘good boy oh you’re so good you’re so clever!’ and then reach for my treat pouch, I get a treat out and by this time my pup has got up and I am still telling him he is such a good boy. What exactly am I rewarding? Am I rewarding the following of the hand signal? Am I rewarding the actual sit? The getting up after the sit? The following of my hand (target) to the treat pouch? I want my pup to know exactly what behaviour earned that treat!
However, there is a very valid question when using any reward marker, be it verbal or clicker, does the marker end the behaviour thereby giving our pup a signal to get up, move and end the behaviour? I, myself, found this tricky to get my head around, for if it DOES end a behaviour, how are we ever to build up duration? In ANY behaviour? Or how are we to start teaching a behaviour chain?? If we want to teach our pup to retrieve, or send away, or stay, we need to surely mark and reward along the way, no? But this ends the behaviour? All very difficult.
Except it’s not, not really. Essentially, yes, a marker does indeed end a behaviour. It signals to a dog they have performed a behaviour which will be reinforced. If they are at a distance, or in the middle of a down stay for example, your dog will likely either come toward you for the reward or at least get up! So, we are clicking or marking at the end of a behaviour. One important point to remember is that once a behaviour is established, we don’t really need to mark that behaviour any more. When we’re teaching a new behaviour or shaping one, indeed those markers are very important, they help the pup to understand which behaviour is getting reinforced increasing the likelihood of it being repeated. Once that pup has the behaviour down to fine art, and it is put on cue, we don’t need to click and treat as we once did! If we click or mark a behaviour without following up with our reinforcer, we are essentially ‘unpairing’ the two, which we definitely do not want to do.
So, how do we go about this? Rewarding behaviours without ending the behaviour? Well one way is to see duration training as a different training exercise completely to the actual behaviour you are teaching. Say, for example, you are teaching down stays. You start off by teaching a fairly reliable ‘down’, this will be marked fairly quickly in those early stages. You may start off by marking the behaviour the second the body hits the floor, you then may mark after 2 seconds of being in the position. Then, you will start to work on duration. You will indeed mark to end the behaviour, however you will in tiny increments increase the time before you mark. By seeing the duration as something separate from the actual down position, you can start to build duration effectively. Many people may click and mark throughout a sit stay for example, which I have done myself, but this isn’t always as effective although you may have success. You may well still be pairing the marker with the reward but what exactly are we marking? The sit? Or the duration of the sit? Or the eye contact? Or the lack of eye contact? There is no obvious behaviour that we’re marking. Also be mindful of either ignoring undesired responses i.e. breaking out of position or using a no reward marker to signal to the dog ‘that’s not right’.
Another example may be when teaching a send away, I want my pup to go out to a target and drop into a down. How do I do this when I want to mark the going out, I want to mark the targeting, and I also want to mark the down! Lots to mark but I don’t want to ‘end the behaviour’ each time or we’ll never get a chain of behaviours. Well, we can shape. We can start off by marking the going out, we then will only mark when the pup targets, we then will only mark once we have the down, we then will only mark once we get to the pup to reward. Also, it’s worth bearing in mind ‘behaviour chaining’. I detailed this in another blog article, however to recap it is the process by which a cue becomes a reinforcer for a behaviour PLUS a cue for another behaviour. So, we mark, reinforce and cue the next behaviour all in one go!
So, as stated above, essentially a marker does indeed end a behaviour. However we can build duration in tiny increments by teaching it as an entirely separate exercise to the position or behaviour being performed. Bear in mind once a behaviour is established and attached to a cue word, we don’t need to repeatedly click and treat every single time the pup performs the behaviour forever more! Also, we can use our cues as markers, reinforcers AND cues all in one go!!