Sometimes anticipating a special gift is as much fun as opening it. That’s the way our dogs feel when we use reward markers (specific words or sounds) to let them know they’ve just earned a treat. That’s why we use reward markers to train dogs at Cascade Pet Camp.

Dogs naturally respond to all kinds of reward markers in their everyday environments. When you pick up a leash, your dog goes crazy with excitement because she knows she’s going for a walk — even if it takes you a while to put on your shoes and open the door.

In training, we can use a quick word (such as “yes”) or sound — a clicker or whistle for instance — to help our dogs figure out cause-and-effect relationships between desirable behaviors and yummy treats.

Once your dog figures out that special word or sound is always followed by a treat, it triggers that happy feeling of anticipation. Thus, the marker itself serves as positive reinforcement while bridging the time between your pup’s action and his reward. (No wonder reward markers are sometimes called “bridges.”)

How it works

Imagine that you’d like to teach your dog to sit. Use the marker the moment her rump meets the floor, and then immediately give her a treat. She will quickly learn to associate the marker with the reward and try to repeat whatever she did so you’ll mark and treat her again.

To keep that association clear in your dog’s mind, always mark first (before reaching for a treat), and always follow a marker with a treat.

Why use a reward marker plus a treat instead of treats only?

Because we can’t always deliver a treat with precise timing before Fido moves on to another behavior and then doesn’t know what he did to earn a reward.

Animals live in the moment. They don’t associate present events, whether positive or negative, with anything they did in the past. (That’s why it’s useless to scold a dog after the fact for making a mess.)

And because dogs can’t understand language the way we do, they can’t process messages about time. Tell an adult you’ll reward him for his hard work next week when payday rolls around, and he’ll probably accept that. But try that logic on a toddler, and you’ll get a different reaction. Dogs think more like toddlers.

If you want your dog to learn from the consequences of her behaviors, she’s got to experience those consequences within 2 seconds of her action. But it’s hard to treat a dog that fast, especially if you’re training from a few feet away.

Even verbal praise can take too long. “Good job! What a goooood dog! You’re so smart!” See? That took 5 seconds.

Reward markers are a great way to act within the critical 2-second window so we can communicate to our dogs exactly what we want them to do.

Key points to keep in mind

Reward markers catch your dog in the act of doing something right and communicate the message: “I like what you’re doing right now!”

They pinpoint the exact behavior that earned him a reward, making it easy for him to repeat it.

And they bridge the time between a desired behavior and the reward by telling your dog a treat is on the way.

In short, using a reward marker to let your dog know precisely what you want him to do is a great way to hold his attention, motivate him to cooperate with you, and speed up training outcomes.

Get hands-on dog training tips for your puppy > Enroll in Puppy Kindergarten at Cascade Pet Camp.