Knowing exactly what reinforcement cues are and how they work will result in faster learning and less frustration. The clearer we can be with our dogs about what and how we’re rewarding, the better it is for everyone! If you’re looking to clean up your training, read on!
Before we get started, let’s define what I mean by reinforcement cues so we are all on the same page. Some trainers think of reward markers and reinforcement cues as two separate things, but I believe they are interchangeable.
Let’s dive deeper. Reinforcement has a couple of meanings, but all have to do with strengthening or encouraging a behavior. Reinforcement makes a behavior more likely to happen again. It means to increase.
In behavioral psychology, reinforcement has nothing to do with good. Behaviors WILL increase when reinforced with something the learner finds is pleasant. However, on the flip side, learners can be encouraged to repeat a behavior by taking away something that the learner finds bad or aversive. In learning theory, this is called negative reinforcement and means to take away something to increase behavior.
When it comes to dog training, the term reinforcement typically implies something positive and is generally interchangeable with the word reward. Both are pleasant things for the learner and are designed to increase behavior. For most dog trainers, reinforcement would generally refer to a food or treat, although there are many other ways to reward your dog.
A marker and a cue are also interchangeable. A marker is a word or signal that tells the dog reinforcement is coming. When the marker (whether that’s a word, sound, or signal such as movement) is consistently paired with a treat, the dog comes to expect the treat when he sees/hears the marker.
A cue tells the dog to do a behavior, such as eat the treat or get the toy. If a certain cue is always followed by something the dog finds pleasant, such as a treat, the dog will begin to expect that treat when they hear the cue, which is exactly what happens with a marker.
So, now that we got all that definition stuff out of the way, let’s go into more detail!
Timing of Reinforcement Cues
It’s important to tell our dogs exactly when they are right. The clarity this gives our dogs helps them to learn behaviors faster. So correct timing is critical.
Let’s walk through an example. You tell your dog to sit. When the dog’s rear end hits the ground, you say “yes” and give the dog a treat. The dog understands that he was rewarded for putting his butt on the ground because the word “yes” happened right when he sat.
What if you’re a little bit late with your timing? Your excited puppy sits for 1.2 seconds and bounces back up, and your marker was a bit late, so what did you actually reward? Ooops – you rewarded the dog for getting up!! Timing is everything!
If you need to improve your timing, join me in my online class, The PROOF is in the Training! We specifically will talk about and work on timing of reinforcement cues!
Isolate Your Reinforcement Cue
Remember how I said earlier that a marker can be a word, sound, or signal? Sometimes what we think is marking the behavior is not always what is actually marking the behavior. Because dogs communicate mostly through body language, they tend to notice movements more than everything else, even subtle ones!
If you’ve ever done agility, you’ve likely been told that your motion and body language will override verbals cues in most situations. (If you spend a lot of time training verbals, this may not apply, but we won’t go there since most agility trainers don’t spend a ton of time on verbals without supporting body language.) I know that there have been times that I have been running toward the tunnel yelling “teeter! Teeter!” and my dog didn’t shoot across the ring to find the teeter, but instead took the tunnel. My body language was much more important to him than the verbals coming out of my mouth.
Dogs will notice body language (movement) way before the verbal cue registers. In regards to reward markers, it’s sometimes difficult for the dog to determine exactly what the marker is. If you reach toward your pocket every time you say “yes”, what does the dog think the verbal marker is? Is it reaching into your pocket? It is your hand twitching preparing to reach into your pocket? Most likely your dog is noticing these movements and linking them to the reward, rather than linking the actual sound of the reward marker. We often talk about how important good timing is in dog training, but if you’re not sure what exactly your dog is reading as your reward marker, it’s pretty hard to have good timing! Imagine the confusion if your dog thinks moving your hand is the cue for reinforcement?
Let’s look at an example. One common behavior that many trainers teach is eye contact. In order to teach a dog to look at your face, your timing has to be really good. At first the dog will often quickly glance at your face, and if you are too slow to mark, you accidently say “yes” as the dog looks away from you. Not good!
Furthermore, if you say “yes” and move to reward at the same time, the dog is going to pick up on your body movement before the verbal and will be glancing toward your hand when you say yes. If this happens, you just marked your dog for looking away from you! Definitely not what we want.
In the following video, I am not doing a good job marking THEN moving to reward. When I slow the video down, do you see how I’m actually marking my dog looking away from me?? Not good, but SO incredibly common!
Now take a look at this video. Here I am thinking: mark, pause, move to reward.
Be sure you are isolating your marker cue. Think mark, pause, treat. Your body should be completely still as you are marking the behavior. Isolating your marker cue will allow you to have clearer communication with your dog, which will allow behaviors to progress much faster and with less frustration.
Location Specific Reinforcement Cues
There’s another piece to this puzzle that many people don’t think of, and that’s what happens after the marker and before the dog collects the reinforcement. Remember that everything that happens before the dog gets the reward is reinforced (more likely to increase).
Take a look at this example. You’re working on the down cue. Your dog lays down, you say yes, and reward from your hand, above the dog. After a couple reps, your dog is stretching up more and more to get the treat. Pretty soon your dog is laying but their elbows are hovering above the ground. The dog’s down behavior is deteriorating because of what happens between the marker and collecting the reinforcement, which is the dog coming up.
Where the reward comes from will affect the next rep.
Thankfully there is an answer to this: location specific reinforcement cues! Once trained, these cues will tell the dog WHERE the reinforcement is coming from, so you can start to affect the behavior that happens in between your marker and the dog collecting the reinforcement.
Going back to our down example, you can see how this works. Your pup is learning down. When his elbows hit the ground, you say “ground” which was previously trained to mean the dog will get one treat on the floor in between his front legs. When you say ground, the dog looks down and waits for the treat to show up. He is not thinking about getting up at all, and the reward marker is enforcing the behavior that he’s doing, which is down. Everything that happens from the marker to the delivery of the treat is reinforcing what you want to teach the dog.
One more thing about location specific reinforcement cues. They REPLACE whatever your marker word was. Let’s say your marker word is yes, and the dog always comes to your hand to get the treat. If you say yes, then ground, your dog is going to move toward your hand and when he hears ground he’s going to be confused. So instead of saying yes then ground, we simply replace the yes with ground.
Need some help teaching new reinforcement cues? This will be a big topic in my class The PROOF is in the Training. Join me and learn more about which ones I use and how I teach them. We’ll also cover which one to choose in which situation and how to use reinforcement cues to ask the dog if he or she is ready to work! Class starts Feb. 1st and registration is open now!
Examples of Reinforcement Cues
“There’s no way I can remember all those markers” is something I hear a lot! And you’re right – it’s hard!! What I recommend is to start with 2 markers and add more as you need them.
I always have people start with a marker that means come to my hand to get the reward and a marker that means chase the tossed treat. Just start there! When you’re comfortable, we can look at what other ones might be beneficial to you and your dog.
Here’s a list of what I commonly use.
Yes – come to hand and get treat
Good – I will deliver treat to your mouth
Get it – chase thrown treat
Ground – treat delivered on ground between front legs
Bee – treat pre-placed behind dog, dog turns away to get it
Dish – take food from dish
Bounce – treat delivered between arm and body near armpit when dog is heeling
Tush – dog spins away and comes to right side when heeling
Through – treat thrown between legs for fronts
Cookies – we run to treat container together and I feed multiple treats
Here’s a video that shows me using many of these reward markers.
Thankfully, reinforcement cues are easy to train! You might need to encourage the dog a couple times, but since the rate of reinforcement is so high, the dog picks up on them quickly!
I hope that you now have a better understanding of reinforcement cues and how they work. Used thoughtfully, reinforcement cues can speed up your dog’s learning and result in more confident and cleaner behavior!