A conditioned reinforcer, simply put, is a sound we train/condition our dog to find rewarding.  Then we use the sound to reinforce our dogs behaviour. I think of conditioned reinforcers as one of the main communication tools to use everyday with your dog.
You can easily use a conditioned reinforcer in a variety of different situations to let your dog know that what they are doing is what you want them to do. Examples of when to use a conditioned reinforcer include:

  • When your dog has complied to a given command
  • When your dog offers you a behaviour you want like choosing to sit or lie on their mat (instead of the couch!) or looks at you when out on a walk
  • When you are teaching your dog a new skill or trick
  • When you want to shape behaviour (i.e work towards a goal behaviour or trick)

There are two main types of conditioned reinforcers; verbal or mechanical. You can decide to use just one or both (for different situations but you wouldn’t use them both at the same time.)
Verbal: Marker word – usually a one syllable sound like “Yes” or “Good”

Mechanical: Clicker or whistle.
Once you have decided it is time to set it up.
First you need to train/condition the dog to the sound you want to use. If you do want to use both for different aspects of training set them up one at a time. I personally use a marker word (“yes”) every day with my dogs and use the clicker for training tricks or more complicated behaviour.
Choose the reward you want to use which must be something highly valuable to your dog. There is little point in using something that don’t like or is only a little bit rewarding. That is why food treats are the easiest to use as they are highly rewarding for your dog and easy to use for this purpose. But you can definitely use a pat as the reward if your dog highly values your attention.
When your dog is not doing anything in particular you want to either say your chosen marker word or click the clicker and WITHIN 3 SECONDS get the reward to your dog. You can drop the food on the ground or give it to your dog from your hand as long as they hear the sound then get the reward. As your dog won’t be looking at you, you may need to drop the food on the floor in front of them or reach your hand around to give them the food.
You will need to repeat this in short sessions (only a couple of minutes) a couple of times a day until your dog recognises the sound and that food is coming!
How will you know when your dog recognises the sound?
When you make the sound (marker word or click) your dog will turn their head to look for the reward. And they will usually do it pretty quickly too! This may not happen straight away and it can take a few sessions, so just stick with it, make sure you are delivering the reward quick enough and that the reward is worth it for your dog.
To demonstrate how to set up either the verbal or mechanical conditioned reinforcer I have created the following videos so you can really see what happens.

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