If reinforcing behavior is the most important thing you can do when training a dog, then marking that behavior probably is the second most important. But then, the trainer’s ability to see behavior is also important. Honestly, it almost feels like a chicken-and-egg argument; you could make an argument that they are equally important.
Kathy thinks that teaching people how to mark behavior takes precedence over sharpening their observational skills. Of course, marking behavior does require seeing it, but she likes to backchain when training humans as well as animals, so let’s talk about marking first.
|Kathy works with a small group on their skills!|
Marking is important, Kathy told us, because figuring out which behaviors are correct is harder for the animal if the reward is functioning as both information and the reinforcer. It’s just not as clear. And of course, a marker like a clicker has a number of other benefits. Kathy identified four: the clicker acts as information (yes! That is the behavior I want!), a secondary reinforcer (which strengthens the behavior), a bridge (making a promise that reinforcement is coming), and also as a cue (to eat).
Good markers are SURE:
Short, preferably only a fraction of a second.
Unique and unlike any other signal the animal will recognize.
Reliable or consistent across trainers, contexts, and times, and
Evident and easily distinguished from other stimuli.
Once you have an effective marker, you need to protect it. Markers become weak when they don’t provide information, have become poisoned or infected by use during anxious situations more often than calm ones, or don’t actually mark anything. They can also become weak if the trainer requires the dog to do more behavior after the marker has been given.
But marking a behavior is only worthwhile when the timing is good, which requires us to clearly see what it is we are marking. Good timing is essential because otherwise you run the risk of inadvertently mark and reward the wrong thing! It’s also challenging to have good timing because there is an inevitable time lag between seeing the behavior and the physical action of clicking. Assuming absolutely no cognitive processing time, the nerve impulses needed to travel from the eye to the brain and then the brain to the fingers is about 125 milliseconds. It may not sound like much, but remember that you will need time to think and then your animal will need time to process the sound.
Which means that good timing requires you to be able to see a behavior before it happens; you’re clicking the earliest precursor to the behavior. You also need to pay attention, which is, let’s face it, harder than it sounds. You need to be very clear about what you’re looking for and give your full brain power to the act of seeing even the tiniest of changes.
You’ll need to get past your judgment and analysis, past talking and prompting, past labels and preconceptions, and past the audience effect (people watching you) if you are to see clearly. Really, seeing requires you to be fully, completely present, something that is far more difficult to do than it sounds.
See- Mark- Reward. All important, all dependent on one another. And all skills that you can not only learn but also improve. So, what do you do to improve your ability to train effectively?