Dog training is about communication. We don’t know what our dogs are thinking, or even how they think. Chances are though, it’s not in the sentences and paragraphs that we humans tend to use.
But we can communicate with them.
The most basic form of communication in dog training is a positive reward marker. It is a signal (usually audible) indicating that the behavior being performed at that very moment is correct or desirable. Some dog trainers use a clicker (a small device that makes a clicking noise) while others use a word such as Yes. With marine animals some trainers use a whistle. The only real requirement is a signal that is distinct and fast.
The marker is loaded or charged by creating an association between the marker and a reinforcer, usually food. This is done by giving the signal and following it with the reward. Some dog trainers will do this in conjunction with a basic behavior such as making eye contact, others will just pair the two stimuli until the relationship is apparent to the dog.
One important aspect of the positive reward marker is that the reinforcer does not have to immediately follow the signal – there can be a delay of a few seconds.
A clear and unambiguous means of communication has now been established: when this signal is sent a reward will follow. The implication being, “I like it when you do that!” Moreover, we can give this signal at the moment of the desired behavior and then reward our dogs a few seconds later: we not only don’t have to carry the food in hand, we can hide it, paving the way for removing constant rewards and also replacing food with other reinforcers such as play.
Being able to send this clear signal whenever we see what we like (and are prepared to reward it) is very powerful. We can communicate behaviors we want to see more of, even when we didn’t ask for them. For example, every time a jumpy puppy’s rear end touches the floor we can mark that moment. Over time, jumping will decrease. Every time a distracted dog looks at his human, the moment can be marked. Where will the distracted dog’s attention tend to wander to more often?
Training behaviors also becomes much easier. We can now communicate exactly what we are looking for, as opposed to communicating what we do not want, which may mean repeated punishments and maybe even training by process of elimination.