Using Marker Training To Train Pets

I’m in the process of becoming certified by the International Association of Behavior Consultants and am taking a course called Animal Behavior Consulting: Principles & Practice. The setup of the course consists of teaching videos by animal experts, instructional handouts, a weekly online mentoring session with the teacher and all students, weekly quizzes, and a major assignment. Each week I’ll share highlights here from my studies.

The second week of my Principles and Practices course introduced three different topics. I learned about marking training from Gail Fisher, applied behavior analysis from Adria Karlsson and scientific studies from Jessica Hekman. Although I had been exposed to animal training principles through dog classes that my husband attended, and to scientific studies while doing research for my animal welfare blog, these lectures helped further solidify my knowledge. Here, I’ll overview the history and main principles of marker training.

According to Fisher, who is a certified dog behavior consultant and a national expert on dogs, operant learning can be applied to pet behavior modification “with skill and humaneness by communicating with them in a way that they understand.” She says that to effectively change the behavior of animals, one must find the approach that allows animals to learn a behavior in a quick and cooperative way. According to her, there are several approaches one can take–molding, luring, capturing, shaping and marking—with marking being the best of these.

How Did Marker Training Start?

As with operant learning, the principles behind marker training originated with B.F. Skinner. However, marking training itself became popular with the public due to the work of Keller and Marion Breland, Bob Bailey, and Karen Pryor.

Keller and Marion Breland were graduates of B.F. Skinner who applied his research to practical use. While helping Skinner with the training of pigeons for military work during World War II, they practiced the shaping technique and noticed the positive impact of a secondary reinforcer such as the unique sound from a clicker. After World War II ended, the couple started a business called Animal Behavior Enterprises, in which over 15,000 animals and 140 species were trained using knowledge acquired from their work with Skinner. In a paper about their work, they coined the term “applied animal psychology,” defining it as the union of two formerly unrelated fields of professional animal training and modern behavioral science.

The couple also started talking to the public about a new and more humane way to train dogs, namely that of shaping and secondary reinforcers, but their ideas were ignored until the 1950’s. At that time, a zoologist named Bob Baily began working with them to establish a program for the U.S. Navy called Dolphins at Sea. He used their learning principles as the foundation for his work with dolphins, and the Brelands finally attracted public interest. College students wanted to work with them, and scientists reacted positively to their ideas.

One person who took notice was Karen Pryor, a former dolphin trainer. Their techniques inspired her to write a book in the 1980’s called Don’t Shoot the Dog: The New Art of Teaching and Training. In her book, she explained behavior learning concepts in ways the average pet owner could understand and use. Later, in the early 1990s, she started giving clicker training seminars to dog owners. From there, the popularity of clicker training spread, first to horse owners, then to zookeepers, and finally to other animal caretakers including cat owners.

What is Marker Training?

To use marker training, one must first know what a marker is and what it is not. A marker is not an antecedent (the event immediately preceding a behavior), a cue (a signal to continue with a behavior), or a primary reinforcer (a reinforcer that an animal is born needing to have such as food, water, and shelter). Instead, a marker provides information to an animal. It pinpoints the moment that an animal correctly performed a behavior and tells the animal that a payoff has been earned. A marker tells an animal that a behavior was performed correctly.

As a secondary stimulus, a marker must be paired with a primary stimulus (usually food) to create the learning association. Because a marker identifies the desired response and then “bridges” the time between the animal’s response and the delivery of the primary reinforcer, a marker has also been called a bridging stimulus. If an animal hears a marker but doesn’t receive a primary reinforcer, the marker will lose its effectiveness.

There are several advantages to a marker. It is neutral. A marker also enables the trainer to shape a behavior when the animal is close. Finally, it is distinct.

The best marker is one that can be applied instantly and stands out from the environment. It can be a hand signal or other visual, a word, or a sound such as that made by a whistle. A well-recognized marker is the sound of a clicker; the mechanical sound is more effective than a verbal sound.

How Does Marker Training Work?

To use marker training, one must also understand a few concepts, starting with behavior. As long as an animal is alive, the animal will demonstrate behavior, no matter how slight. Hence, animals are always in a position to learn.

Fisher explained that marker training should be cooperative between the trainer and the animal:

  • The animal offers a desired behavior.
  • The trainer marks the behavior.
  • The trainer reinforces the behavior.
  • The animal learns the behavior.

For simple behaviors, the marker rewards the behavior itself. For more complicated behaviors, the marker rewards the steps to the behavior.

Fisher also said that the training must have contiguity. The trainer should mark the behavior and then present a treat, but the latter shouldn’t be rushed. Fisher suggested that trainers allow a brief pause. However, Fisher cautioned, don’t wait too long or you’ll lose contiguity. This could lead to frustration, fitful behavior (and aggression), or even feelings of futility on the part of the animal.

The delivery of treats can help or hinder the training process. Fisher recommended that an animal receive a treat in position, if the trainer is reinforcing a behavior in a set location or a behavior that an animal must hold for a set amount of time. Otherwise, she encouraged that trainer throw a treat to the animal. This resets the behavior and builds enthusiasm.

Finally, Fisher talked about how much reinforcement to offer. When a trainer is first teaching a new behavior, Fisher said to use continuous reinforcement (CR). If an animal receives a treat every time a behavior is successfully performed, the animal will develop a high level of expectation, and thereby stay engaged with the task. Fisher also covered other types of reinforcement:

  • Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behaviors (DRI): teach incompatible behaviors such as teaching a cat to sitting beside guests instead of jumping on them
  • Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behaviors (DRA): teach alternative behaviors such as teaching a cat to go to her crate instead of the door at the sound of a doorbell
  • Differential Reinforcement of Other Behaviors (DR): shaping other behaviors such as teaching a cat to go to a station to wait for food

How Do I Use Marker Training?

I’ve successfully used marker training with my three cats for obedience and agility. Every time they comply with a direction, I mark their behavior with a click. If my cats sit, stay, come, down, or jump, tunnel, or weave, I let them know they’ve correctly performed the behavior by pressing the button on my clicker. The clicker lets my cats know that food will soon come their way.

I’ve also successfully used marker training to teach my youngest cat to go to a “station” as part of teaching her to sit and stay on a blanket during pet therapy visits. As noted above, with more complicated behaviors, the marker rewards the steps of the behavior. To teach Rainy to stay at a station, I taught her to go to a blanket, sit on it, and remain until released. I shaped this behavior by rewarding her for any recognition of the mat, reinforcing her when she moved towards it, then only for touching the mat, and then only for staying on the mat.

As part of my course, I’ll need to write a Functional Assessment for a pet and a behavior I want to change. I hope to use the principles of going to a “station” to teach Rainy to wait on the floor during meal preparation. When my paper is done, I’ll share it here.

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