Guide to using a bridge/marker in animal training


What is a bridge/marker?

A bridge (or marker) is a signal to the animal that a reward is coming. Often the signal used is a sound like a clicker or spoken word, but may also be a hand signal like a thumbs-up (especially useful for deaf dogs or situations that must maintain quiet such as therapy work). The signal acts as a “bridge” between a desired behavior and the followup reward. The term “marker” also applies, meaning the signal “marks” the correct behavior before a reward is given.


Why use a bridge/marker?

Using a bridge/marker system is based on the scientific principles of Classical Conditioning (where Pavlov’s dogs salivated at the sound of a bell because they had learned to associate that sound with food) and Operant Conditions (where Skinner’s pigeons performed a series of movements in order to receive food). Using a bridge/marker system helps you teach the animal to repeat behaviors that lead to rewarding outcomes (like food or play).



How does the sound of the bridge/marker train the animal?

Initially, it doesn’t! The sound of a clicker (or marker word like “Good,” or “YES,”) must first be paired with something the animal naturally finds enjoyable, such as tasty food in easy-to-consume sizes. (Treats in the size of a navy bean work well, or you can use paste or pate’s squeezed from a food tube.)


Clicking or saying a marker word the instant the animal does something right, and then giving him a bite-sized treat, will teach your dog to associate the action with a reward. With practice, this association means good behaviors are more likely to reoccur in favor of a reward.


Pro Tip: You can “Load the Clicker” (or marker word) by simply clicking/marking and immediately following the sound with a treat. There is no need to wait or ask for a behavior -- you are simply building an association of SOUND = FOOD. See Marker Conditioning below for the step-by-step process. (Keep in mind you can use silent markers like a thumbs-up gesture.)


Reminder: You should always follow up the sound of the marker with a reward! You don’t want the animal to lose the association of SOUND = REWARD. Don’t ever use the marker to interrupt inappropriate behavior or follow the sound with punishment! The bridge should always be an indicator of positive outcomes.



How to ensure success:

  • Train in a quiet location that is free from distraction, yet familiar to the animal.

  • Keep the duration of the training session to less than 15 minutes. You should try for at least one (1) session per day, up to three (3) sessions throughout the day. (Never “double-up” sessions. It doesn’t help the animal to learn any faster by training longer, and too long of a session may decrease the animal’s enthusiasm.)

  • Ensure the animal will be motivated by food by training at times when he has not recently eaten. Pro Tip: Portion out the animal’s allotted meals for use as rewards during training to avoid loss of interest in the food reward or over-treating.



Training Session Examples:

Marker Conditioning (aka Loading the Clicker):

1. Hold the leash and/or clicker in one hand and have treats available in the other (a treat pouch is recommended)

2. Click and/or say, “Good,” (or “YES,” if that is your marker word) and immediately give the animal a treat.

3. Repeat the above sequence for 25 repetitions.

4. Practice Conditioning for two (2) training sessions. After the second session, the animal should understand that a treat follows the sound of the bridge/marker.


Marker Conditioning with Attention:

Dogs think about what they are looking at, so the goal is to involve having the animal look at you to then bridge/mark and reward.

1. Hold the leash and/or clicker in one hand and have treats available on your other sides (a treat pouch is recommended)

2. With your free hand, hold a treat up to your face. When the dog looks into your eyes, immediately click and/or say, “Good,” (or “YES,” if that is your marker word). Bring your treat hand from your face and reward the animal with the treat. Pro Tip: If you hold the treat between your eyes or next to your eye -- especially for dogs uncomfortable with making eye contact -- you can better encourage the animal to look you in the eye.

3. If the animal becomes distracted, hold the treat slightly in front of his nose before bringing it up to your face.

4. Repeat the above sequence for 25 repetitions.

Pro Tip: Ensure success by first practicing the behavior somewhere quiet and familiar, like in the house away from distractions, until the animal can comfortable hold your gaze for several seconds. Then begin training the sequence again (from the beginning steps) under distraction, in a different room, or outside.


Teaching Sit:

The Sit cue is the most commonly used exercise by dog owners. Most dogs have some understanding of what Sit means, so pairing the behavior with a bridge/marker to be rewarded (and thus likely to be repeated) makes it easier for the dog to learn the Sit cue.


1. Hold the leash and/or clicker in one hand and have treats available in the other (a training pouch is recommended). Hold a treat in your hand between your thumb and forefinger, with the rest of your fingers together and palm facing up (as though cupped to catch a falling object).

2. Hold the treat slightly in front of the dog’s nose and raise it slowly in an upward arc over the dog’s head. Pro Tip: As the dog looks up toward the treat, his hind end will naturally lower to the ground. If the dog stands to get the treat, you may be holding the treat too far from his nose! (You do not need to use the verbal cue “Sit” at this stage, as you are teaching him a hand signal through luring with a treat.)

3. The moment your dog sits, click/mark and reward your dog with the treat.

4. Repeat the above sequence for 15 repetitions.

5. Practice Sit without the spoken cue for two (2) training sessions.

6. On the third (3rd) training session, begin using the verbal Sit cue the moment your dog sit. Immediately click/mark and reward him. (Adding the verbal cue after your dog has an idea of what to do make it easier for him to learn what the verbal cue means. You will apply the same principles to Come When Called.)


Come When Called

Come When Called is the most important behavior you can teach your dog. Because of the importance of this potentially life-saving behavior, it is important to train only when you can guarantee a successful recall from the animal.

1. Hold the leash and/or clicker in one hand and have treats available in the other (a training pouch is recommended).

2. Wait for the animal to become distracted, and then hold the treat slightly in front of his nose.

3. When the animal shows interest in the treat, back away from them with your treat hand extended in front of your body.

4. As you back up, bring your treat hand close to your body. When the animal reaches your treat hand, click/mark and then reward him.

5. Repeat this exercise until it is apparent that the animal understands he is rewarded with a treat when he comes to you (15-20 repetitions should suffice).

6. Now, pair the cue “Come” with step 4, when you back up. Click/mark first and then reward the animal when he comes to you.

7. Once the animal begins to understand the exercise, gradually increase the distance between you with the use of a long-line. Pro Tip: Start indoors in a less distracting environment until the animal has learned to recall from a greater distance and then add distractions or move outside, going back to the first steps of the training sequence whenever an element of difficulty is added.