Sunday, May 15, 2011

Practical Marker Training for the Working Dog Part I

Marker training in some form or the other has been around for decades, but the last 10-15 years has really seen an explosion in the use of training with markers.  Some chose to use clickers, others use a verbal marker, and others use an LED, vibrating collar, or hand signal.  Whatever the handler chooses to use, training with markers is a powerful communication tool.  There are many websites, videos, books, and articles available explaining the basics of marker training, which are beyond the scope of this entry.  See the references at the bottom for more information.

The purpose of this entry is to address why handlers may want to incorporate marker training into their daily husbandry and care to make visits to the vet more pleasant for everyone.  The purpose of the next entry will be why veterinary professionals may want to incorporate marker training when working with patients.  As this is a working dog blog, we will focus on dogs, but these basic principles can also be used for cats, horses, food animals, and exotic species.  The key to applying marker training is thinking outside the box and taking your time.  Unfortunately, this is not always something that can be accomplished in a brief 10-15 minute wellness exam.  But for certain applications, the time invested will be returned many over with a more calm and cooperative patient and a happier and more compliant owner.

Many working and performance dog owners and handlers use marker training to perform complicated behaviors required for their "jobs."  Loading the marker by pairing the reward (typically food, but can be a toy) with the marker is often accomplished fairly quickly with higher drive dogs.  So once the dog understands the marker or clicker means a reward is coming, all sorts of practical things can be taught even as young puppies.  Some examples:

  • Nail trims:  start by touching the pup or adult dog on the shoulder or hip.  Mark and treat often.  Then slowly work your way down (keeping contact with their body) to the elbow or knee.  Mark and treat.  Continue on down to the hock or carpus.  Again mark and treat as necessary.  Proceed  to the feet, marking and treating, then the toes and nails.  The dog at this point should be either relaxed or very attentive that they've been rewarded for something that should not be painful or uncomfortable.  By this point, you can end the session.  By the next session, repeat the previous day's work and slowly proceed to trimming one nail at a time, marking and treating as you go.  I personally prefer a cordless Dremel tool, but the clipper style nail trimmers are fine too as long as they are sharp.  If you do choose to clip, have some quik stop powder nearby.  Inevitably I will quick a dog if I don't have some in the vicinity. 
  • Physical exam:  Just like the nail trim, practice with you as the handler inspecting the ears, lifting the lips to look at the teeth, lifting the tail, and so on.  Mark and treat often.  It is a good idea as a dog owner to learn how to take a dog's temperature for emergencies.  An ordinary quick reading thermometer with a bit of water based lubricant or petroleum jelly (both found at a pharmacy or superstore) is just fine. A dog's normal rectal body temperature runs a bit warmer than ours at around 98-102 F.  If it is above 102.5 F, consult your veterinarian right away.  Many dogs object to having their temperature taken at the vet's office.  Often by conditioning your dog to simply accept having his or her tail lifted is very helpful and your vet tech will thank you!  
  • Scale:  Most working and performance dog handlers are very mindful of their dog's weight and like to monitor weight as a way to assess body condition.  Almost all veterinary offices will be more than happy to allow you to come in to do a quick weight check on their scale and may even keep track of the weight for you.  Using marker training and using a combination of luring and shaping to gradually get the dog on the scale and to hold still, the trip to the scale does not need to be a pulling or shoving match.
  • Muzzle:  Some dogs, whether by their nature or for liability's sake because of the jobs they do, will need to be muzzled for visits to the vet.  Unfortunately, there is a stigma in the United States about muzzling one's dog.  Do not be shy about acclimating your dog to a muzzle as even bombproof therapy dogs may bite in extreme pain.  I recommend ALL dogs get used to wearing one at least temporarily.  I prefer plastic basket muzzles so the dog can breathe and pant more normally.  Some plastic muzzles, such as clear Jafco muzzle or a greyhound turnout muzzle shown below, can be used to gauge mucous membrane color without having to manipulate the dog's mouth.  I do NOT recommend cloth muzzles.  These can slip, are difficult to size, are not sturdy, and the dog cannot pant if fitted properly.  You do not want to pair the only time the muzzle goes on with some kind of unpleasantness (i.e.-blood draw at the vet).  With the Jafco and similarly styled muzzles, you can use markers to acclimate your dog to them and think of the muzzle as a treat cup and less of a punishment.

The next entry will discuss how marker training can be used by veterinary professionals to lower stress for all parties.  For more information on marker training, I recommend checking out:

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