Markers and motivators in positive training

The two most powerful tools in positive dog training are the marker and motivator. The marker tells your dog that the behavior he offered is correct and the motivator is the reward that follows the marker. With the proper marker and motivators you can train your dog to do almost anything.


Think of the marker as the shutter button on a camera. The moment your dog offers a behavior you want you use the marker to take a picture of that moment. He’ll then remember that behavior because the marker lets him know he’s going to be rewarded for what he just did.

One of the better known markers is the plastic and metal clicker used in clicker training. Because the metallic click! sound it makes is so distinctive, a clicker is extremely effective. However, you can use other sounds as markers. Snap your fingers, whistle, make a clicking sound with your tongue, use a clickable ink pen or the metal safety lid from a glass jar, or use a verbal marker like the word “yes!”. Whichever you decide to use to train your dog, make sure the sound is consistent so your dog can quickly associate it with the motivator.


No one works for free, including your dog. In positive dog training, the motivator is what makes your dog’s effort worthwhile, something he wants to work for. The best motivator is usually food. Some ideas for treats include:

  • cooked hot dog pieces
  • dried fruit
  • carrots
  • cheerios
  • liver snacks
  • popcorn
  • pieces of bread or a bagel
  • cooked pasta

Some dogs may be better motivated by rewards other than food like playing with a favorite toy, chasing a flashlight beam on the floor, or biting bubbles. (Motivational games and play can last five or ten seconds after you mark a behavior.) It’s up to you to figure out what motivates your dog the most. Training sessions can include both food and object/game motivators with the best rewards reserved for the best performances.

Tips on using food motivators

Keep food portions small

Pieces should be small enough that your dog can swallow them without chewing. This makes rewarding him quick and keeps him from getting full and losing interest in training.

Train before meals

Schedule training sessions before you give your dog his breakfast or dinner to ensure he’s hungry to perform.

Keep calories in mind

Remember to reduce your dog’s meal portions based on the amount of treats you use during training. You don’t want him to pack on the pounds in the name of education.

Food won’t be used forever

Using positive dog training methods doesn’t mean you’re stuck carrying treats around to get your dog to obey. This is a clicker training myth. Once your dog understands a command, you can phase out both the marker and food motivators in favor of praise or real-world rewards.

Once you have your marker and motivators, see Dog clicker training: What it is and how it works for information on how to use your new tools.


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