Two Uses for the Marker Signal

There are at least two ways to use a clicker when clicker training your animal. The first is to mark a particular behavior (the training mode) and the second is to help change an animal’s emotional state. We’ll focus on the second option in this essay.

Once an animal becomes used to clicker training, the “click” becomes a good-feeling signal. You can understand the feeling by imagining sounds which instantly make you happy: the sound of food being prepared in your relative’s kitchen, the laughter of children, or the voice of someone you love on the other end of the phone.

All these sounds feel good to you because they’re paired with the anticipation of something good happening. Why? Because the pairing has happened enough in the past to make it almost certain it will occur again.

Imagine feeling little fearful or angry and hearing one of those pleasing sounds. There’s a good chance your emotions will shift towards the positive. When the clicker becomes linked to great tasting treats or fun games, this is its power. The clicker has the power to shift emotions from negative to the positive.

Because the clicker can shift emotions to the positive, we sometimes use it to bring an animal’s attention back to us. An example is a dog who rides in a car and barks excitedly at every dog she sees on the street. Her focus on the other dogs is so strong, there’s no training opportunity (she won’t take treats and will not be able to focus on you).

There are some options:

  1. Have the dog ride in a covered crate so she won’t be able to see dogs from the car and stop rehearsing the barking behavior.
  2. Stop the car when you see a dog at a distance and start working with your dog at a level she can handle.
  3. If the first two options are out, bring out your box clicker and click between barks (as best you can). Put treats (high value) down on the seat next to your dog and keep clicking.

The third option is the time it’s okay to click in a non-training situation. You might ask, “but, am I not reinforcing the barking and reacting by clicking while my dog is at this frenzied level?”

The answer is no. Your dog is not even close to thinking “if I do this, I’ll get a click and a treat.” Instead, your dog is focused on thinking “I need to bark at this dog to keep it away from the car, or I need to go after this other dog, or I need to get the attention of this other dog, or…”

But, after multiple clicks, there will come a time when your dog starts to focus on you again. She’ll start to hear the click as her barking slows down. Once she begins to flick her ear/s at you or even turn her head at the sound of the click, you’re now ready to train. She might even start cleaning up the extra treats you put down after each treat! At this point, we highly recommend bringing in the methods of Emma Parson’s Click to Calm work.

And why should you click/reward when your animal is over reactive and feeling negative emotions?

  1. It’s one of the best ways to help your animal re-focus on the good feeling emotions during a time they’re “out of touch.”
  2. It also helps you stay calm because you have a tool as well as a job to do while your animal is experiencing the high stress of negative emotions.
  3. And finally, believe it or not, you are subtly training your animal to feel good about the presence of a stressor. As in the example above, the appearance of a dog on the street becomes paired with a good feeling (ie: the sound of the “click”). So, with persistence, you’ll notice your animal starting to move away from those negative emotions sooner than before. It takes time, but our young border collie Britta – who precisely fit the example above – is back with us after around two clicks of the clicker. When we started, she barked until the dog was out of sight, then took around five to ten minutes to calm down and start training with us.

So hang in there! With practice and persistence, it will get better…and better.

~Kinna & Gene