Location-specific reward markers: What they are and how (+ why!) to use them

Most of us use reward markers to tell our dogs when they are right. Some people use clickers, others use verbal markers. When the dog is rewarded for something, he will be more likely to repeat that behavior. Location-specific reward markers take that a step farther by affecting how the dog might perform the behavior in future repetitions.

A location-specific reward marker is much like it sounds — it's a marker that tells the dog not only that he or she is right, but also provides information on where the reward will be delivered. By being strategic about reward placement, we can affect the tendencies of the dog over time.

Dogs are very efficient creatures, and they will quickly figure out how to most effectively get the treat. Therefore, they tend to gravitate towards where the treat comes from. Because of this, where you give the treat is important!

Here's an example. Your dog loves to pop up on the down. No matter what you do, your dog is still getting up! Because the treat is being delivered from above the dog's head, he's just trying to be smart by going where the treat is coming from.

To change this tendency, try rewarding on the ground. Even if your dog gets up after you've marked, put that treat on the ground. The dog will want to be close to where the treat is going to appear, so it won't take long for the dog to remain in a down because it will be easier to get the treat. Over a period of time, the tendency of the dog will change. 

How we use (and teach!) location-specific reward markers

We can take this a step farther by introducing cues to the dog that explain where we will deliver the treat. 

I like to look at what happens the moment after I say a reward marker to the dog. Does the dog move toward me? Does he back away? Sometimes moving toward me is not what I want, so if I can explain to the dog that the reward will be out there, he will be more likely to stay out there. Rewarding in this way can strengthen the behavior that you're working on.

Let's look at some common location-specific reward markers. The words listed are ones I use, but you can name these anything that you'd like.

Getting started with location-specific markers

 These are the location-specific markers that I use for food. Many trainers, including myself, use different ones for toys. By doing this, we are able to communicate to the dog not only that he or she was right and where the reward will be delivered, but also what kind of reward the dog will get. Being very clear about the reward sequence can help reduce frustration in training and the dog can actually learn faster due to the clear communication.

Teaching location-specific reward markers is pretty easy, because the dog gets rewarded every time. Simply say the word and make the treat appear in the location that you want to associate with that marker word. The most important thing to consider is that you are consistent in the words you use and where the treat is placed. It won't take your dog long to figure out the game!

If this list of location-specific reward markers looks overwhelming, start with just one or two! I like to start with one that means come to my hand and get the treat, and one to tell the dog that you will deliver the treat to the dog. From there, I add a marker for a tossed treat. The next one I teach is a marker that means the treat will be delivered on the floor. Once the dog understands those and you are able to handle those four, you can start adding on other ones that you think will be beneficial for your dog.

If you aren't already using location-specific reward makers, what are you waiting for? Try them out and see how much they can improve your training!

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