Marker, Shmarker! What Difference Does it Make? 12-3-14

IMG_2474My dog, Sophie, does not like to have her feet touched.  Therefore, she does not like having her toenails trimmed.  I’ve tried shaping her to offer a paw and my handling of said paw.  I’ve tried just feeding her while I handle her paws – counter conditioning and desensitization.  I’ve also tried trimming a nail or two while my son rubs her belly.  I’m still working on both since we haven’t gotten to the point of being able to trim those nails yet.  This is going to be a long-term project.

The other behavior I’ve been trying to shape as a less invasive way of shortening those nails is training her paw a piece of coarse sandpaper stapled to a board.  This has been going okay, but not great.

I use a tongue click.  I’ve been doing that for a long time since I use tongue clicks for my horses.  Being lazy me, I use a tongue click for the dogs I’ve had, too.  Most of the behaviors I’ve trained this way have been things like sit, down, come, etc.  Fairly “gross” behaviors.  By that I mean, not very fine tuned, not very specific as to exact spot, exact pressure, etc.

But with the scratching the sandpaper, I find that for one thing, my criteria are pretty specific.  I also began the project by using string cheese as the reinforcer.  It’s pretty high value, but it requires being cut up into chunks, which I didn’t do, or being torn into strings and then pinched off for feeding.  That’s what I did – tear and pinch behind my back.  Sophie watched my every move.  Duh.

I also realized that my fiddling with the string cheese caused my timing to be way off.  I was so involved with being ready with the cheese, that I didn’t click at the right time.  Repeatedly.  Bad trainer!

Then I switched to commercial Zuke’s training bits in a container behind my back.  My hand was back there ready to grab a treat.  Sophie’s eyes were on my hand, even though it was behind my back.  Bad trainer!

Eventually, it fully dawned on me that Sophie’s attention was not on what she was doing and I doubt she connected anything she did with my tongue click because she was so focused on what I was doing with my left hand.

I finally broke down and got out a box clicker and made myself put both hands in my lap.

Lo and behold, my timing of the click improved dramatically!  Duh!  And since my left hand was on my leg and not behind my back, there was nothing for Sophie to watch.

Now I could concentrate on the accuracy of where she put her foot to scratch the sandpaper.  I had to manipulate the environment still further (limiting the area and marking the area both), but the biggest contribution to more successful training was getting out that box clicker.  It improved the timing and made the “job” much clearer to Sophie.

Research has shown that using a mechanical clicker (or whistle, light flash, etc.) is much better at marking behavior than using a voice marker.  Kathy Sdao pointed out at a workshop I attended that having to inhale just before saying a marker word, delays the marker.  Or the inhale itself becomes the marker.  A tongue click may have a similar delay, but not because of an inhale.  There may be a delay in moving the mouth muscles in time.  I’ve been trying to feel that out (literally) but I’m not sure yet.

As Bob Bailey is noted for saying, “The clicker is a scalpel; don’t dull it.”  The clicker is used for very precise behaviors.  That’s the brilliance of it.  Don’t be sloppy with it through poor timing.  And for those “gross” behaviors I mentioned above, you might not need a marker at all.  But for those really precise behaviors, I recommend a mechanical marker of some kind.  Your voice (or tongue click) just won’t cut it finely enough.  clicker


About Laurie Higgins

I play with clicker training - with my horses, dogs, and cats. I also attempt to grow vegetables with the hope of one day being able to feed my family from my garden. My daughter and I are learning ballroom dancing. Well, we were. But she left me for a paying horse job, so now my husband and I are learning ballroom dancing. I'm also now helping Peggy Hogan, of Clicker Training Horses (and The Best Whisper is a Click) to teach people how to train their own horses using "clicker training".
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4 Responses to Marker, Shmarker! What Difference Does it Make? 12-3-14

  1. Dog Guy Josh says:

    A clicker is a great tool. Good post. Have you seen the Clicker Ring I’m working on? Sharpen your scalpel at


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