How to Get Started with Verbal Markers

The Importance of Verbal Markers

Having a solid foundation and communication with our dog is so important. But what does that mean and how do we start? Most of the time, when we hear about foundations and communication, we can easily think about more advanced training such as heel, using e-collars, obedience and more. But what's so easy to overlook are the little things that actually allow us to do the things above more effectively.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀


Verbal markers are one of these easily overlooked things and is so important because they allow us to consistently have a simplified form of communication to mark the behavior we are looking for -- or not looking for. To clarify, I am not including commands. Instead I am simply addressing how to communicate to our dog they did the right thing, while shaping behavior or bigger pictures, such as sit, down, heel, center, and other chains of commands.

How to Get Started with Verbal Markers
How to Get Started with Verbal Markers

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Verbal Markers Defined

Here’s how we defined our verbal markers.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀


Yes — you did the right thing, you are released from the command, come get your reward from me⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀


Good — you did the right thing, keep doing that command, I’ll bring your reward to you ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀


No — incorrect, try again (or let me guide you if you don’t know the command well yet)⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀


Break — you are released from commands, you may sniff, explore, say hi, whatever it is you’d like (motivated by) and that is your reward. No treat or other reward from me. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

Making A Clear Distinction Between Yes and Good

Since Yes is a terminal marker, and Good is a duration marker, these two markers have to look differently for our dog to truly understand them.

For example:

You lure (nose to hand) your dog into a sit without the verbal command.

If you say "yes", take a step back to encourage your dog to come to you, therefore releasing your dog from the command. This means that they do not get their reward while they are still sitting down, and instead, can either get their reward while in movement or when they come to you.

If you say "good", reward your dog before they have a chance to move. This way, they can start to understand that good is a duration marker, leading to 'stay'. Sometimes this might mean we start off by rewarding them without us moving.

Dog goes on a sit, "good", reward. After a second, say "good" again, reward. Once they are able to maintain it without us moving, then you can slowly add small movements. Say "good" before you move, then reward.

This then eventually builds into an implied stay, without having to say it.

As stated above, this is just an example and it's always best to work with a trainer that can help you real time.

How to Introduce "No"

This is my personal preference, but the word "no" to me, doesn't always get paired with a leash pop. Instead, if I say no, I prefer to show Etsu what I wanted from her. I also try to only use it when Etsu has a better concept of what I'm asking for and has a solid understanding of "yes" and "good". Meaning, in the beginning, I won't introduce a new command with "no" unless she's doing something that I don't want to be a habit at all such as biting on objects not meant to be bit.

For this to be effective, I'll keep the leash on Etsu while we're training so I can use it to guide her if needed and she's responding to the leash better than the lure.

For example:

Lure your dog into a sit. Mark with "good" but the dog gets up before you're able to reward. Say "no" and lure back into position, say "good" and reward as soon as the dog gets into the correction position.

I personally prefer to set the dog up for success by noticing when the dog tends to offer a different behavior right away and marking "good" then rewarding before they move. However, introducing "no" during basic and foundational training also helps them bring it into other parts of training.

Eventually, instead of using "leave it", I just use "no" and redirect them to whatever I was asking previously.

Where to Start

While it's easy to want to move in a much faster pace, it's always best to start at home when refining any training, even if your dog already has a foundation.

I usually start with "yes" and work on that for at least a week before introducing "good". This gives me time to charge the yes marker.

In terms of location, starting at home when we need to redefine verbal markers, helps set our dogs up for success. This way, there are less distractions, and they can fully process the information before introducing any of the 3 D's: distance, duration, distraction.

I've found that it's usually hardest for us owners to take a step back when we reason that our dog has been trained or already has a foundation. But taking a step back, and refining basics in a more controlled environment always helps a dog have a more solid foundation.

Common Mistakes I Still Sometimes Make

Using Yes and Good Interchangeably

The biggest change for us after defining our verbal markers was making sure I don’t use yes and good interchangeably. Since good is a duration marker, it can be confusing for our dogs when we say yes but bring the reward to them without terminating the command. To be honest, that was a habit I had to break. But an important one since this can cause our dogs to either come to us when we say "good" or to hesitate running towards us when we say "yes".

Combining Yes and Good

Another thing I found myself doing in the beginning is saying “yes! Goooood” 😅🤭 once I started catching myself and getting more intentional with my verbal markers, Etsu’s duration and implied stay became more consistent in different environments. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

Raising Our Voice When Saying No

Saying "no" loudly, out of a reaction. The beauty with defining verbal markers is, our dogs start to understand and associate them with the correct things after enough repetition. And sometimes, as humans, we generally say "no" when we're emotionally charged which can cause us to bring that habit when talking to our dogs. So I'm not here to address the moments we do it by accident. Instead, I'm mentioning this to bring awareness to the habit so we, as owners, can feel reassured that our dogs understand not from the loudness of our voice, but from repetition.

Have you tried defining your verbal markers?


Etsu & Me

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