Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Marker training basics I

Worth a thousand words?
On the definition and choice of a marker.

Even (or especially) among experienced animal trainers and savvy pet owners, I often encounter a strong prejudice against "clicker training." The phrase itself is a turnoff to many, which is one reason I've come to prefer the more or less interchangeable terms "marker training" or "bridge training." These latter phrases describe the approach more accurately and inclusively -- people naturally get confused when you tell them that "clicker training" doesn't necessarily involve a clicker. Another reason I favor the second two terms is that they have so far escaped strong commercial association and appropriation.**

"Marker training" is the most literal and straightforward of the three, so it's the one I'll use from now on. My aim here and in future "basics" posts is to lay out the foundational principles, reasoning, and tools of this approach so that you'll be free to adapt them to your own needs and ends. I'll also try to anticipate some of the challenges you might encounter when starting out, and to offer possible solutions. But one of the foremost advantages of marker training is its flexibility: once you have a good command of the core ideas, you and the animal you're training have infinite creative license in putting them to use!

Marker training falls under the larger umbrella of positive training methods; indeed, it's something we all practice whenever we say "good dog!" But a solid understanding of how and why it works can help us practice it much more deliberately and effectively.

As with the "good dog!" example, a marker is simply a stimulus chosen by the trainer to signal two things and establish a vital connection between them:
  1. I like that behavior.
  2. You will be rewarded.
An effective marker satisfies a few important criteria:
  1. It is specific.
  2. It is easily reproduced by the trainer.
  3. It is easily perceived by the trainee.
  4. It is initially neutral, meaning that it has little or no intrinsic meaning to the trainee.
I don't know of any successful use of taste markers, given that few tastes are truly neutral to any animal; smells can be tricky for the same reason but are sometimes used as markers, most obviously and often in tracking work. Sight markers are tops in neutrality, but not always easily reproduced or perceived. Like touch markers, they may be most useful with animals who have lost use of one or more of their senses, or in situations where sound markers are impractical or forbidden. For most trainers and trainees, in most situations, sound markers tend to be most adaptable and workable. That said, they require more care in their choice and use than you might expect.

Why is that? Part of the problem ironically arises from our great facility in producing varied and complex sounds, our gift of the gab. The general human reliance on words to convey meaning makes many of us sloppy with tone (unless we speak a tonal language), volume, enunciation, inflection, and emphasis. In other words, we take the least care with precisely those variables that other animals are most likely to find intelligible. We toss flurries of meaningless syllables their way like so many snowballs -- and instead of congratulating them for catching a few on the fly, we berate them for being stubborn and slow. Our carelessness in expression is mirrored by our bluntness in perception. Few of us can reliably hear the difference between one "good dog!" and another (less enthusiastic, slower in tempo, higher in pitch, etc.) but a dog can. "Sit, Stormy. Sit! Get down, Stormy! No, Stormy! Sit!" may be roughly translated as: "My poor owner is working herself unnecessarily into a lather." The more loquacious we are, the more faith we place in language, the less likely it is that our pets will understand us.

So choosing and using sound markers effectively requires that we get humble; we need to begin from a recognition of our limitations. Most of us just don't possess the emotional and vocal control we need to produce sounds that are highly specific, consistent, and intrinsically neutral. Which is not to say that words cannot work as markers, only that their ease of use masks (and even contributes to) their inefficacy relative to other, more precise sound markers. Like clickers, yes, but also like whistles, chimes, and bells. Training by whoopee cushion, anyone?

**I am an ardent fan of Karen Pryor (trainer and educator extraordinaire, founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clickertraining), forever grateful to her for her insight, her dedication to reality over "common knowledge" (e.g. dominance theory), and her tireless advocacy of positive training methods. The six months I spent under the instruction of Helix Fairweather with the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training and Behavior were tremendously illuminating and rewarding. I am proud to be certified by KPA as a trainer, and I plan to attend ClickerExpo here in Portland at the end of the month. I do, however, think there's a downside to Karen's mostly laudable efforts to establish common professional standards and gather like-minded trainers into one big tent, particularly when there are fees collected at many of the tent's entrances. I had a mostly friendly tussle with KPCT's president, Aaron Clayton, when I graduated from KPA and learned that my promised year of free access to the alumni message boards was contingent upon my entering a marketing agreement that would require me to display the KPA logo on my website and anywhere else I advertised my services as a trainer. In this instance and a few others, I found that independence of thought and self-presentation ran somewhat at odds with the commercial imperatives of KPCT (as they would with those of most for-profit ventures).

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