For years I resisted using marker training with our pets. I thought it would be too difficult to learn. Once I started, however, it quickly became my preferred training method. I’ve even enrolled in Karen Pryor’s Train Your Cat course to improve my technique.
What is marker training? It’s a research-based training method that enables us to communicate to our pets what behaviors we desire from them. It relies on positive reinforcement and is based on the idea that the more we reinforce a desired behavior, the more likely our pets are to repeat that behavior. Gail Fisher, a pioneer in the field of positive dog training, described marker training as a cooperative between the trainer and the animal.
She broke the steps down as follows:
- The animal offers a desired behavior.
- The trainer marks the behavior.
- The trainer reinforces the behavior.
- The animal learns the behavior.
In addition, she explained that for simple behaviors, the marker rewards the behavior itself. For more complicated behaviors, the marker rewards the steps to the behavior.
There are numerous advantages to using marker training as opposed to other methods. First, marker training allows us to teach our pets new behaviors without resorting to physical control such as corrections or punishment. This encourages our pets to explore and try new things. Second, because the marker indicates the exact behavior that we expect from our pets, they will learn that behavior more quickly. Third, because marker training uses rewards, our pets tend to maintain interest through many repetitions of the behavior. Finally, marker training teaches our pets to think and to exhibit self-control.
The best marker is one that stands out clearly from environmental distractions and can be applied instantly. It can be a hand signal or other visual, a word, or a sound such as that made by a whistle. The most common marker used today is the sound of a clicker. For behaviors that are familiar to the cats I’m training, I just use my tongue to make a clicking sound. For behaviors that are new to the cats I’m training, I use a commercial clicker. My preferred clicker is the one I received when I signed up for Karen Pryor’s Click with Your Cat course. The Clik Stik is actually two tools in one; it’s a clicker and a retractable pointer. When I do target training, I’ll extend the pointer and use it together with the clicker. If I’m doing other training, I’ll retract the pointer and just use the clicker. It’s an extremely handy training tool that I highly recommend
One of the things I learned from the Click with Your Cat course is I learned how to practice my own clicker training skills. The following exercises will help you practice your clicker skills before you start working with your pet.
- Bean Counter: You need beans (or dry kibble), treat bag, cup, and timer. Set the timer for one minute. Fill your treat bag with beans. Place your hands by your sides. Take one bean from your treat bag, deliver the bean to the cup, and return your hand to your side. Repeat this activity until the timer goes off. Count how many beans you placed in the cup. With each subsequent practice, the number should increase. Pryor says, “This activity will help you practice the essential skills of delivering treats swiftly and accurately and keeping your treat hand still.”
- Spill the Beans: You need beans (or dry kibble) and a treat bag. Fill your treat bag with beans. Place a folded towel on the floor and your hands by your sides. Toss the beans one at a time onto the folded towel until the beans are gone. With each subsequent practice, the number of treats that land on the towel should increase. Repeat with opposite hand. Challenge yourself by increasing your distance from the towel and then by moving slowly around the towel as your toss the beans onto it. Pryor says, “This activity will help you practice the essential skills of delivering treats accurately from a distance, while moving, and with either hand.”
- Click N Beans: You need clicker, beans, treat bag, cup, and timer. Set the timer for one minute. Fill your treat bag with beans. Place your hands by your sides. Click the clicker, then take one bean from your treat bag, deliver the bean to the cup, and return your hand to your side. Repeat until the timer goes off. Count how many beans you placed in the cup. With each subsequent practice, the number of beans should increase. Pryor says, “This will hone your ability to keep your hands still and in neutral positions between each click/treat.”
The Click with Your Cat course also taught me to apply several practical applications to marker training. In the remainder of this article, I’ll summarize my experiences with those. For each of these activities, you’ll need a clicker, treat bag, and treats.
- Click with Your Cat: Click the clicker and then immediately feed your pet a treat. Repeat this three times. Next, wait for your pet to look at you. When your pet does, click and treat. Pryor says, “This exercise will help you teach your pet that it’s worth paying attention to the clicker.” Despite Pryor’s assertion that as our pets will almost instantly look, because they’re curious about this intriguing new food game, my cats initially paid more attention to my treat hand. However, once they realized that staring at my hand wasn’t going to earn them any treats, Cinder and Rainy began looking around and soon they were looking up at me. In contrast, Bootsie is still uncomfortable with eye contact, probably because she’s a formal feral, and so for her I had to improvise. I held the Clik Stik directly in front of her face (with the pointer retracted) and slowly lifted it until it was in line with my face, and during that brief time she was looking in my direction I’d click.
- The Name Game: Wait for your pet to look at you. As soon as your pet does, click and treat. Once your pet is consistently returning its attention to your face immediately after finishing its treat, it’s time to add a new step: toss a treat, and as soon as your pet finishes but before it’s had time to look up at you, say your pet’s name, then treat when it does look at you. Pryor says, “This activity will teach your pet that their name means something great is about to happen! It will help you get enthusiastic, immediate eye contact when you call their name.” As with the previous activity, Cinder and Rainy caught on quickly, while I still have to trick Bootsie into looking at me.
- Teach a Finger Target: Present your finger right in front of the pet’s nose. The instant your pet touches or sniffs your finger, click and treat. Repeat this step several times, withdrawing and then presenting your finger again after each repetition. Once your pet is reliably touching your finger, challenge them by presenting your finger a little to their left or right so they’ll have to move in order to touch their nose to it. Upon mastery of that skill, increase the difficulty further by moving your finger further away, thereby requiring your pet to have to move a few steps (or follow you) to touch your finger and then by requiring your pet to lift their head up or down to touch your finger. Pryor recommends, “With each new session, do a quick warm-up of the early steps of this activity before moving to the more advanced steps. If, at any time, your pet’s progress stops, go back to the last point where she was successful and build again from there.” Rainy instantly figured out what to do; Cinder occasionally tried to touch my finger with her paw and would bat at me out of frustration when she didn’t receive a treat; Bootsie will sniff my finger with her nose but not follow it. As with the above activities, I have more success with Bootsie when I use the Clik Stik. My hope is that eventually I can wean her off it.
Once your pet has mastered all of these exercises, Pryor recommends using the skills you’ve both learned to teach your pet something new. I tried all the new behaviors she suggested: spinning, touching my foot with their paw nudging a toy with their paw. To teach them to spin, I positioned the Clik Stik (with the pointer extended) so that my cats had to turn their head to touch it. To teach them to touch my foot, I touched the Clik Sik’s target to the top of my foot. Based on this info, how would you train your pet to nudge a toy? Within a week, all my cats were proficient in these skills.