Golden Retriever Training: Using Markers


Golden Retrievers are one of the best dog breeds you could hope to have and make a great companion. Whether it’s a puppy or adult, Golden Retrievers are intelligent, eager to please, and easy to train. Their high trainability is one of the reasons many people choose the Golden Retriever as a companion.

Training is a must for all dogs, and every dog should learn basic obedience skills as part of being a good canine citizen. However, before teaching basic skills to your Golden Retriever, a fundamental concept should first be learned. Learning this concept lays the foundation for teaching your dog basic and advanced skills more quickly and efficiently. That concept is marker training.

So, you might be wondering what is marker training and how do I use markers in training my Golden Retriever? 

A marker is a specific word such as “yes” or the sound from a clicker device. The marker is used the moment a dog performs the desired behavior, followed immediately by a reward. Marker training teaches the dog that a payment (reward) is forthcoming once it has performed the desired behavior.

Teaching markers is the first step in learning other commands and is a core concept in positive, science-based training. Positive, reward-based training is a highly effective training method grounded in science and teaches skills in a positive, humane way. 

If you’re interested in why positive, reward-based training is best for Golden Retrievers, then be sure to check out this article:

Dog Training Methods: Which One is Best for Golden Retrievers?

Markers are a form of operant conditioning and are based on science-based training methods. The most prominent advocate of the technique is Karen Pryor (who developed the method for dogs). She teaches the process using a clicker. However, markers can also be a verbal cue such as “yes” or “nice.” 

In this first of the articles in the Golden Retriever training series, we start with marker training. Then we’ll move on to teaching the basic commands and maybe some more advanced ones. Markers will lay the foundation for teaching all other skills, which is why it is introduced first. 

Why Are Markers Useful In Training? 

Markers are a teaching tool and are especially useful in a dog learning both its basic and advanced commands. While marker training works well for all dogs, it’s especially beneficial to sensitive breeds such as Golden Retrievers. Golden Retrievers benefit best from positive methods only. 

Teaching Basic Commands

Once markers are established, teaching the basic skills becomes much easier. The basic commands are: look at me, leave it, sit, down, stand, stay, come, and off. Golden Retriever puppies are bright and should learn these commands rapidly. Our Golden puppy learned all skills within two weeks, except for “off.” 

The markers act as a bridge between the desired behavior (such as sit) and the reward. With repetition, the marker (word or click) quickly gets conditioned to a treat. The marker then lets the dog know that it did something good for which it will be rewarded. In this way, the cue or “marker” becomes a conditioned reinforcer.

Golden Retrievers are intelligent and will repeat a behavior that rewards them in some way. And, of course, in training, that is precisely what we want. A dog that will learn to repeat the desired behavior very quickly. Marker training is a practical, positive way to do that.

Teaching Advanced Techniques

Marker training also works well for teaching advanced techniques and tricks. Whether it’s closing a door with its nose, jumping over an obstacle, playing dead, shaking a paw, or jumping on your back, the fundamental of marker training is the same. 

However, the most critical aspect of using markers is when it might be best not to teach a verbal command. For example, let’s say you want to teach your Golden Retriever to stop at a point in front of the front door, so it does not run out if the door is open. This is an invisible border.

This “invisible” border is taught without a verbal command. So, a clicker or verbal marker is the most effective way of doing this. An invisible border can also be introduced to keep your Golden Retriever out of the kitchen or any other room.

The video below shows the teaching of an invisible border using a clicker. Notice that no command is given. Instead, the trainer uses a clicker as a marker, and it is being used to condition the dog not to cross the designated line. You could use verbal markers (recommended) to do this as well. However, this is an excellent demonstration of using a clicker as a marker when teaching an advanced skill.

What Do I Need To Teach Marker Training?

Before teaching your Golden Retriever to respond to markers, you will need a few things before starting.  

Rewards

You will need some form of reward when teaching your Golden Retriever its marker and to reinforce the desired behaviors afterward. Rewards are usually a food treat such as boiled chicken, freeze-dried liver treats such as liver, chicken or beef, or other commercially available snacks. 

The reward needs to be something that your dog desires. Because Golden Retrievers are usually very motivated by food, it is often the most effective reward. However, the reward can be a highly valued toy or even praise. It just has to be something that your Golden values. The higher the value, the more motivated your dog is to perform. 

Food treats are the most convenient because they’re easy to carry with you. You can also have rewards conveniently located throughout the house to “capture” behaviors during training. Capturing is a method of rewarding the desired behavior when your dog spontaneously performs it without being asked. 

You can also mix and match your reward. For example, you may use food treats when doing formal training sessions, but use a toy and praise during play when teaching your Golden Retriever to do certain behaviors like dropping a toy or letting go of a ball when retrieving. 

Make sure any dog treats you use are small in size. You don’t want to overfeed your Golden Retriever, so the treats should be pea-size. We cut low-calorie freeze-dried liver treats into tiny quarters. Doing this not only keeps the calories low but helps the budget.

Freeze-dried beef liver is Bailey’s favorite treat. One ingredient, low calorie, and inexpensive.

A Treat Pouch (Optional)

A treat pouch is a small pouch that you wear on a belt around your waist. It’s typically made out of plastic and has a large opening to access treats easily. Treats bags are beneficial when training outdoors or on walks. Still, even in the house, it can be convenient for capturing desired behaviors when they happen or a spontaneous training session.

Suppose you don’t have a treat pouch? That’s okay. A treat pouch is more important when we start teaching the basic commands, so it’s not needed at this stage. You can still use your hands. Have some treats nearby and up and out of the way, say on a countertop. Place a few pieces of kibble in your hand and reward when necessary. When you’re out, grab a few more tiny pieces. 

Or better yet, use a hoodie, sweatshirt, or light jacket with pockets. In this way, you can store and access treats quickly. In the summer, however, you may opt to purchase a pouch.

Use only one piece of kibble or a treat at a time. Rewarding a dog with more than one treat at a time is called a “jackpot,” and it is used when your Golden Retriever does a behavior perfectly. Jackpot rewards should be used occasionally but sparingly. It’s an extra special reward for doing great.

This is the treat pouch I use. The pouch holds a ton of treats, and the belt clip attaches to my waist.

Clicker (Optional)

A clicker is a small piece of plastic with a button on top that makes a very loud and pronounced “click” when pressed. The clicker is a handy device for beginners who are just learning to teach their dogs.

Timing is critical when training dogs with markers, and the clicker needs to be precise in timing. In contrast, verbal cues need tend to be easier to work with over the long run. Clickers are extremely effective and can work well for teaching advanced training techniques.

The clicker can be used as a standalone or in conjunction with verbal markers, as discussed below.

For beginners, I would suggest sticking to marker words. Later, if you opt to teach more advanced skills, a clicker can be used. However, I’m not a big fan of clickers. I believe your voice, tone, and words are easier to use, and they’re always at your disposal. You’ll never forget to have your voice or hands with you. Moreover, our voices are better for communication than a device.

Also, keep in mind that puppies can be startled by unfamiliar or loud noises. So, habituation should be used. Let your puppy smell and check out the clicker so that it can become familiar with this strange device. Provide lots of treats, so it associates the clicker with something good. Then perform some clicks at a distance from your puppy to see how it reacts while providing treats each time you do so.

If your puppy is okay with it, then click it at closer and closer distances. If your puppy seems uncomfortable with it, then use verbal markers instead for now. Better yet, just use verbal markers.

Verbal Markers (Recommended)

A verbal marker is simply a word that has been designated as a positive verbal response when your Golden Retriever performs the desired behavior. The term used can be “yes, excellent, nice, or fantastic”…whatever you want. It, however, needs to be a word that you can remember to say repeatedly.

For example, if you mix and match your marker words using yes and awesome interchangeably, they lose their effectiveness. It confuses your dog.

It’s best to stick to a short word for marker training. The word “yes” is great because it’s three letters and easy to remember for both you and your dog. You also want to sound very excited when saying the word because it teaches your dog that performing the desired behavior is very pleasing to you. Remember, Golden Retrievers are very eager to please. 

Whatever term you want to use to convey to your dog that you’re pleased and excited when it performs the desired behavior is acceptable. 

The word “nope” can also be a marker word when the desired behavior is not performed or if your dog does something you don’t like. The term “nope” is never followed by a reward.

“Nope” is never yelled or spoken angrily but is delivered in a casual, low-key manner. It is a relaxed, matter-of-fact way of telling your Golden Retriever, “nope, that’s not what I’m looking for, buddy.”

Nope is better than “no” because it’s much harder to say in an angry tone (try it). Nope is much more casual and low-key and less aggressive.

Good is also a marker word, and it is considered an intermediary marker. Good is used when a dog is holding a behavior, and it means “keep going.” For example, if your dog is in a stay position, you would use “good…good…good” to hold him in that position before releasing him with a “yes” and providing a reward.

What are Some Recommendations for Teaching Markers?

There are very few basic recommendations and one rule when teaching your dog using markers. These are just a few things to keep in mind to ensure you are learning conditions and frame of mind. 

Always Reward 

When you use your “yes” marker, ALWAYS provide the reward immediately afterward.

If you say your reward marker word or click by mistake, then provide the reward to the dog regardless. The intent is to teach the dog that a reward marker always equals a reward. 

Exercise Your Dog Before Training

I suggest doing the training after the puppy or dog has had some exercise. It helps burn some of the excess mental and physical energy, and they are typically more focused afterward. Golden Retriever puppies are especially high energy.

If you’re interested in reading about how active Golden Retriever puppies are throughout their puppyhood, then check out this article:

How Active Are Golden Retriever Puppies? (What You Need to Know)

The Training Session

So, let’s get started. The steps below are easy to learn. Your dog will learn the marker quickly, so you’ll be able to move on the core or basic commands very quickly. 

Have the puppy or dog face you. If your puppy sits or lays down, that is fine. Many dogs sit or lay down as their default position. You’ll train the sit and lay down as skills later, so don’t worry if they do it now automatically. As long as the dog is facing you, it’s all good.

  1. Start the session by saying something like: “Okay, let’s start.”
  2. Keep your arms by your side. 
  3. When your dog engages you with its attention, quickly retrieve a treat, step back, so the dog follows you, and say “yes” and reward.
  4. Repeat multiple times.
  5. End the session by holding your hands up and saying something like, “that’s it, all over.”

Notice that each session is started by a prompt and ended with one. This teaches your dog that training begins and ends when you say so. It gets him ready to start and releases him when done.

The keys are to be very methodical and deliberate. As discussed earlier, don’t use a plastic bag or telegraph a movement with the clicker or marker. We want to train the marker as the cue or bridge to the reward, not anything else. 

Also, provide the reward at about knee level and do not drop the treats on the floor. You always want to hand feed, and providing the prize at knee height trains the pup not to jump up or associate a treat with a specific place, like dropping the treat on the floor.  

Pups can be hyper or squirmy, and that’s fine. Reward after the marker regardless of your dog’s position.

The video below is the best information source I’ve ever seen on markers. It explains everything and why they’re so important (and effective in training). Notice in the video how the training is positive-based only.

Why Do We Use Food as Rewards? 

Food is a high-value reward, especially for food-motivated dogs. I have not met a Golden Retriever that is not food motivated. The food or reward is positive reinforcement, and it reinforces the marker word. The more a dog values a reward, the more motivated it is to learn. Food treats also have the added value of being easy to carry.

Do I Have To Use Food Rewards for the Rest of My Life? 

No, you do not. You will eventually wean your Golden Retriever off treats for rewards. However, rewarding your dog on occasion for life should be continued. It reinforces the ingrained behavior and is a treat for being awesome. 

We’ll also be teaching hand signals with our skills, and this will help to wean the dog more quickly from treats. But be patient. Don’t rush. Dogs are not good at generalizing, and it takes a while for them to learn to do that. For example, your dog might listen well at home, where you control the environment and distractions are little to none.

Outside at the park is a whole different ball game. New noises, sights, smells, and sounds mean your dog is going to be distracted. So, you’ll need to reteach in the environment and reward generously. 

Be patient. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Initially, you can begin to wean by using intermittent reinforcement, where you reward randomly. Or, you can start to string commands together and reward one of them randomly.

For example, you might ask to target, sit, lay down (reward) and then stand. Notice the lay down got the reward but no other commands. It keeps the puppy guessing what skill will get the reward. 

Bailey is doing a “let go” followed by a “sit.” Bailey is waiting for me to throw his favorite dog toy and for the “go get it” command. Play and the toy are the rewards, not food.

When Do I Start Teaching the Basic Obedience Skills? 

Basic skills training is next. Marker training should only take a few sessions at most. Golden Retrievers are amazingly smart dogs and will quickly catch on. 

Once your puppy or dog understands the game, you should find that they will begin to anticipate the training sessions and the rewards that follow. They have made the connection that this click or “yes” means a reward. When this happens, you can move on to 

I spent a day with few, 5-minute sessions to reinforce my marker of “yes”, but Bailey got it after the second session. 

What Training Instruction Should I Use?

I like Zak George as a trainer. I started with his training, and it works very well for beginners. I still use many of his techniques today. He’s fantastic. I have also used Ian Stone, Adrienne Farricelli, Ian Dunbar, and a few others.

All the training methods I have tried utilize marker training and science-based training methods in varying degrees.

If you’re interested, I provide a full breakdown of all the dog training courses I’ve tried, which I like, don’t like, and the ones I recommend. You can find it here: Gold Bar Products Gear

Conclusion

Marker training is an essential part of the training process. It is a core tool of positive, reward-based training. It takes little time to teach, but the value in laying the foundation of teaching this cue cannot be overstated. It makes teaching the upcoming basic skills and eventually more advanced skills much more effortlessly. 

Take a few sessions or, better yet, a day or two to do marker training before proceeding to teach the basic skills, and you’ll be glad you did. It’s a minor investment that pays big dividends. 

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