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A reward marker is a cue to your dog that he just did what you wanted him to do. It can be a sound, a word, a gesture, or even a flash of light. It doesn't matter, as long as you use the same marker every time. Picking one cue and sticking with it will help you teach your dog proper behavior faster because he only needs to understand that the cue means "you got it", and he can apply it to any behavior. The reason reward markers are so beneficial has to do with timing. For a dog to understand what he is being rewarded for, you have to give him the reward instantly. Three seconds later, it's too late. He may be doing something else 3 seconds later, and he won't know that he's being rewarded for what he did 3 seconds ago instead of what he's doing now. For example, your dog sits. By the time you can grab a treat and give it to him, he's already stood up. He will not know that the treat was for sitting. To connect the reward with the action, he has to receive the treat the instant his butt touches the ground. This is easy enough to do when you're standing right beside him, but eventually, you want to teach him to sit when you're standing across the room. That is when you need your reward marker.
Choosing a Reward Marker
Pick something quick and easy for you to use. If you use a word, it should be short and snappy, like "Yes!". The most popular choice is probably the clicker, a little box you hold in your hand that makes a CLICK! sound when you press it. You can even click your tongue if you want. If your dog is deaf, you can use a flash light or laser pointer and make one flash of the light your reward marker. My personal preference is the word "Yes" because I always have my voice with me, and it's easy to get out quickly.
Establishing the Reward Marker
The way a reward marker works has something to do with psychology. It works with humans, too. If you pair something neutral with something positive, the neutral thing will soon become associated with the positive thing and become just as valuable. For humans, money is a great reward marker. Money is neutral; it's just paper or plastic. But, it has great value to humans because it represents all the things we want that we can get with that money. So, a stack of paper has as much value as the car it can buy. For dogs, food is most often the thing with the highest value. There are a few exceptions where dogs value toys or attention more than food, but usually, dogs are all about the food. To establish your reward marker, you have to pair the marker with food so that the marker begins to hold as much value to the dog as the food itself.