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Cues in Action! Verbal Marker, Clicker, Environmental Cues, Targeting, Redirecting, Click for Calm

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

The training we do here at the ranch allows our dogs to be calm and confident, even in environments unlike any they have ever seen!

#Maremmasheepdogtraining, #positivereinforcementtrainingforlgds, These six-month-old pups traveled with me all the way to South Dakota. Nothing ever phased them. Yes, I think these are exceptional dogs, but what really helped them is their extensive training history.

When people watch my videos and watch the training of the dogs, some of the feedback I get from viewers is that it doesn't look like I am doing anything; the pups are well-behaved, and it all looks easy. When teaching specific behaviors to young pups, that is pretty obvious in the videos. Once those behaviors are trained, though, the cues for the behaviors are often so subtle that viewers don't recognize the communication I have with my dogs,

I did some training recently that I recorded and wrote a blog about lots of subtle cues. The blog is listed below. For fun, if you are interested, watch the two full-length videos on the blog below, and then come back here.

Sarika x Milan 2021 Litter - 8-Month-Old Pups Meet the Goats

I teased out 16 short video clips from the two full-length videos. I will post them here and tell you what is happening in each. I should probably set the stage, though, so here goes:

I teach my pups to be "brave explorers" while on long lines.

I want them to go out ahead of me and own whatever new area I have taken them to. They know they can make their own choices. I use leashes or long lines as safety lines only. I do not use them to direct the dog. I use environmental cues, targeting, and redirection to move the dogs with me. In real life, I can walk out into a field with my dog, and he'll move with me as if on a leash. That is very handy since I seldom carry a leash around!

Leash Work – How It Differs From Companion Dogs

Environmental cues

Environmental cues are anything in a dog's environment that provides a signal to him of the behavior expected of him. A dog's primary way of communicating is through his body language. I use my body the same way to communicate with my dogs. This makes sense to dogs! It is a much more valuable way to let a dog know what I want than using a verbal cue because it is easier for the dog to understand, and he is more likely to be able to comply.


I teach my dogs to target their nose to my hand and sometimes to follow my hand as a target. I have also taught them that a flat hand on their back means to stand still. This is often an easy way to re-set an excited dog or a frightened dog and give him a little time to get back to a "learning brain" rather than a "reactive brain."


In these training sessions, the handler used this technique only when the dog reached the end of the safety line. If the dog is headed somewhere she doesn't want to go, or he is moving too fast and becoming excited, she stops moving. When a front attachment harness is used, when the dog hits the end of the lead, it will turn his body slightly sideways: The handler speaks, the dog glances at her, and now she has eye contact. She can click and pay for eye contact. To get paid, the dog will return to her. And now they start again. Beautiful and oh so easy.

OK, here goes...

Environmental cue, verbal marker, targeting

The way the handler enters the field with this young dog is critical to their success! That cannot be overstated. Her training session with this dog began before they came through the gate. Her slow, measured stride, quiet hands, soft voice, and slack long line let the dog know that we want her to move as she is: slowly. Notice also that Pink does an excellent job of using her investigative brain, even in the face of an approaching goat herd. She has never been in a field with goats or donkeys. Superstar!

She becomes excited as she approaches the goat herd that is purposefully headed her way. That makes sense, and the handler is ready for her. She allows the pup to investigate the goats a little, even though she is a bit speedy. Pink needs some latitude to figure out what these animals are, including the need to put her nose on them. The handler allows Pink to hit the end of the lead, speaks to her, and verbally marks her for eye contact; the pup comes to her for tactile reinforcement.

Pink has a long training history with me. Her behaviors were taught using a clicker and treats. At this point, most of the time, a verbal marker and snuggles are enough to reinforce behaviors we want to see more of. But in this circumstance, because the stimulus to the dog is so great, the handler will need her clicker and treats.

The handler walked into the field with Pink wearing her fully loaded treat pouch but had forgotten to put the clicker on her wrist. Watch the change in the dog when she switches from a verbal marker to using the clicker; remember, the treats are the same. With just one click and pay for eye contact, Pink lifts her head and gives all her attention to the handler. The handler also used her hand as a target for Pink to follow. Now they are truly partners and stay that way throughout the rest of the encounter with the goats.

Watch how the handler allows Pink to move among the goats, and as Pink is doing everything right, the handler clicks. Did you hear it? Pink leaves the goats to come for her treat, promised by the sound of the click. She's just been told that what she is doing with the goats at that moment is perfect. Having Pink come back allows the handler to reset her, and they start again. The handler's body is slow. She conveys complete confidence in this young dog and frequently reinforces her. Pink checks in several times, all on her own, in an effort to stay connected to the handler because this is a safe place in a very stimulating, novel environment.

Pink does a quick bounce near the end of the video clip. She hits the end of the lead; the handler speaks to her, uses a verbal marker for eye contact and verbal praise. She makes this training choice because she wants to keep moving with Pink. Pink shows her she is ready for that by continuing on softly and confidently.

The handler allows Pink quite a bit of time just to interact with the goats on her terms. We want to support her excellent behavior by marking and reinforcing her, but we also want to allow her to make her own decisions without interrupting her. The handler clicks and pays three times for calm behavior, delivering the treats as she keeps moving. She then uses her hand as a target to move Pink past the herd.

The handler allows Pink to move among the goats. On her own, Pink turns back, goes to her, and looks up into her eyes. She knows the handler will click and pay her for this. Clicker training builds confidence in dogs. Maybe Pink felt a little insecure; perhaps she just wanted a free snack; who knows, who cares. This is a two-way dialog, and you train the dog in front of you. This 14-second video clip makes me smile every time I watch it. Independent indeed; our dogs love working with us!

Notice that when Pink approached the donkeys, for her first time, they were less than enthused. She lowered her body, backed away, and checked in for a click and pay: Yes, Pink, that was perfect! Throughout this video, the handler is clicking and paying for behaviors Pink volunteers that she knows she'll be paid for and marking her and paying for her flawless calm behavior.

This is the end of Pink's very successful training session. Would you like to know why I think it was successful? It's because Pink chose to stay engaged with her handler. She chose to investigate the goats. She could have made a different choice, such as doing a perimeter check or just going off to play. The handler would have allowed her to do that because training is all about the dogs' choices. Pink was able to follow every subtle cue given her, and Pink felt safe in reaching back with her own requests as a working partner. An overly frightened or excited dog can't respond as Pink did. A dog trained with traditional correction-based methods would certainly not have behaved like Pink.

This is the beginning of the session with Turq, our Turquoise Sarika male. Turq is a very different dog than Pink; he's very friendly and enthusiastic. He is thrilled to meet the goats. The handler has entered the field with him giving him the same environmental cue she gave Pink to ask for slow and calm behavior. That's more than Turq can give her here at the start, so she directs him by speaking to him. She uses a verbal marker, and he comes to her for snuggles. She then uses a hand target to his back, which is a cue to stand still. She uses this time to steady Turq and emotionally reset him. And then she lets him bound over to the little goat, knowing she will need to be ready to redirect him again because of his joyous nature.

The handler let Turq investigate the goats; the second he showed her calm behavior, she clicked. This marks this immediate behavior. In this way, she tells Turq this is the way she wants him to behave around goats. He goes to her for his promised treat. This allows the handler to start with him again.

The handler allows Turq a little more bounce-around time as he investigates what goats are and celebrates his new circumstance. Then she brings him in for another hand target for stand still while she tells him he is wonderful. All verbal communication is soft and slow. Notice the behavior of the goats. A new, somewhat speedy dog is moving among them, and yet none of them ever show signs of fear. Nothing in Turq's body language tells them they need to be afraid.

Notice here how substantially differently Turq carries himself by this point. If you watch the full video of his training, I think this is about three minutes in; that's not very long! This young dog goes from bouncy smiles to settling in and going to work in a very short time. Part of the reason he can do this is his confidence in himself and his handler because she has never put him in a situation he can't handle, so he believes her about this one. Can you imagine how Turq would feel right now had this handler ever scolded him for being bouncy or "cautioned" him to be good? And yet, people do this to dogs all the time. It used to be the truth about training; it isn't anymore.

The handler gives Turq a lot of latitude to interact with the goats and clicks and pays for his flawless, calm behavior.

This was an interesting moment. I. Turq walked right past that young goat as if it was all in a day's work, when in fact, he met his very first goat only minutes ago.

Turq picks up his pace here and goes on patrol. His handler just keeps up with him. When he stops and turns back to her to check in, she clicks and treats; for eye contact, calm behavior, simply breathing, you name it. We never need a good reason to say "thank you" to dogs.

The handler leaves the field with a calm, happy dog that just had a really fun experience with goats. The next time we bring him in with the goats, he'll start from this point. So wise. Train for the future!

I hope you have enjoyed this blog, certainly the longest one I have ever written. It took me four hours to write this! Time to go feed a dog!

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