equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

ASAT Conference 2018: Emily Larlham on ” Using multiple markers to prevent mixed messages.”


This is the fourth in a series of posts based on my notes from the 2018 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference that was held in Irving, Texas on March 24-25, 2018.

While I try to take accurate notes, it is possible that there are errors or that some detail is lacking. If you post a comment or email me, I can try to clarify or provide some additional information. Many thanks to the speakers and organizers who allow me to share.  To learn more about the conference, you can visit the conference website.

Emily Larlham gave a 20 minute presentation on using different marker signals to indicate different types of food delivery. She had quite a lot of video so this report is quite short, but if you go to her YouTube channel Kikopup, you can see examples of different markers being used.

Why use multiple markers?

People learn to distinguish between multiple markers – we learn to recognize which markers signal different types of reinforcement. When you hear the microwave ding, you know to go look for your food in the microwave.  When the UPS guy arrives, you know to go to the door. Wouldn’t it be confusing if they were both the same sound?

And wouldn’t it be helpful if the choice of marker gave your dog information about how the reinforcer would be delivered?

She likes to use different markers to help create different emotional responses and outcomes.  The marker can tell the dog whether the food  (or reinforcer) is coming to him, or if he should go get it.

Different markers can create different emotional responses

Think of dogs and doorbells.  Does you dog respond to different sounds in different ways? These are conditioned responses and we can use them to our advantage. The biggest advantage is being able to use markers that promote calm vs. markers that are associated with arousal.

Calm markers are useful for:

  • encouraging relaxation or waiting in position
  • Group situations
  • Husbandry behaviors
  • Long duration behaviors

Arousing markers are useful for:

  • Behaviors that requires strength
  • building enthusiasm, speed

Here’s a video describing using a calm marker: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHRhiwqrYRg

Choosing markers

People tend to think some marker signals are more suited to different emotional responses, but it’s not about the marker, it’s about how you trained it.  The click seems like it would generate an excited state, but she had a video example of a Doberman who did really well with click as his calm marker.

If you already use several markers, you can pay attention to how your dog responds to your markers and choose the appropriate one for each behavior.

With her dogs, she has markers that mean different things:

  • Stay – wait, reinforcement is coming
  • Continue – continue moving, reinforcement will appear in front of you
  • Go – release to toy or food in the environment
  • Come – release to trainer for toy or food
  • Do – release to do a specific behavior – go say hi, go play, go sniff

Video examples 

She had several videos showing her dogs using different markers.  I didn’t write down descriptions of all of them, but here are two that showed the effectiveness of different markers.

  • She showed taking her dogs to the park where they get to run off leash. In the first example, she used an “arousing release” and as soon as the dogs were released, they zoomed off out of view.  Then she showed using a calm release – “go sniff” and they stayed with her, even after she released them.
  • Teaching the terrier a behavior where she wanted him to stay in position  and wait for the reinforcement to come to him. She used “Good” which means stay -reinforcement is coming.  The terrier stayed in position during food delivery which made it easier to continue the behavior because she doesn’t have to restart after each “click and treat.”

Teach your markers separately, before you use them

You should train your markers and methods for reinforcement delivery before you start using them in training.  You don’t want the dog to get frustrated if he doesn’t understand how he will be reinforced.  She shared the B. F. Skinner quote about the importance of teaching the rat how to get food, before any training is done.

Calm markers are ideal for teaching duration

A calm marker makes it easier for the dog to stay in position and minimizes frustration. She trains duration behaviors with a calm marker and ends the behavior with a release cue.

Most long duration behaviors have a release cue, sometimes the trainer doesn’t know what it is, and then when they add a new one, it creates confusion because the dog is using the one it was using before.

She had a video showing her dog standing on two platforms (front feet on one, back feet on another).  She has marking the behavior  with her “stay” marker and feeding the dog with her head in the up position. In this case, the dog chose to keep her head up while eating, but it’s ok to allow the dog to drop her head to eat, so she can enjoy her reinforcement.

Her point was that staying in position doesn’t mean the dog can’t move at all. It just means the dog should stay in a position so that she can re-start the behavior again immediately after the reinforcer is delivered.

Emily Larlham is based in San Diego, Ca. Her website http://www.dogmantics.com and her YouTube channel have tons of free material if you want to learn more about using clicker training.

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2 replies

  1. Thanks for posting this. I was at the conference too but you were better at taking notes than I was. After hearing this I’ve started to see all sorts of instances where a variety of markers would have enhanced communication and success . I’m sure the animals will pick the new markets right up. As always, getting consistent behavior out of the human participant will be the challenge!


  2. Hi Linda, Yes, I think there are lots of opportunities to play with this. As for the human challenge – I totally agree. I’ve only experimented a little as I worry I will use the wrong marker and confuse everyone. But, it’s definitely on my list of things to play with more. Thanks for commenting.


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