Using a Marker and Release Cue in Dog Training

Small black dog with white chest, wearing a teal collar, sitting on a chair

In dog training, one of the veery first things we teach our clients is the concept of a marker word and a release cue.  Understanding these concepts and using them in everyday life with your dog will help with communication with your dog, help your dog better understand what you want and get you the results you want.  Training is much more successful with a marker word and release cue- let's dive into what they are and how train them.

What is a Marker word and Release Cue?

In a nutshell, a marker word tells your dog that what they are doing is what you want.  I often explain it to clients as pushing the button on a camera- it captures the moment in time, like a photograph, for your dog.

Dogs learn by association and are much more attune to the subtleties of their world, so we need a way to clearly indicate what the correct behavior or action is for the dog.  For example,  when we ask a dog to sit and they do, we use a marker word when their butt touches the floor.  Done several times, the dog learns that it is the butt touching the floor that we want and that what the dog was looking at, or the tilt of their head had nothing to do with it.  They learn to associate the word "sit" with the positioning of their body.

We do this when walking our dogs and they are walking with a nice loose leash- when we mark and reward that behavior, our dogs learn that by controlling their impulse to pull and run forward, they are rewarded and they know what we want to see.  Once they learn what behavior we are desiring, it is easier for them to offer it.

A release cue is the same concept but it tells our dog it is ok to move from a position.  It is sometimes necessary to ask our dogs to stay or wait- passing through a door, at a street corner or even when mat training.  It is not enough to tell your dog to "stay" or "wait" though, you must also communicate when they are free to break that stay.  By using a release cue, we clearly communicate to our dog when they move freely and reduce confusion and frustration.

small dog on mat

How to train a marker word

Before we can train a marker word, it is important that you select what the word will be.  I often encourage clients to use a word that is natural for them, like "yes" or "good", but in reality, it can be any word.  The key is to select a word that you will easily remember and is natural for you to use.

When you begin training behaviors like sit, or down, you will usually use a treat and lure your dog into position- as soon as your dog is in a sit or down position, you will mark that moment for them with your marker word and quickly follow the marker word with a treat.  Remember, dogs learn by association, and most are motivated by yummy treats, so they quickly learn that when you use your marker word, they are going to be rewarded.  What is rewarded is repeated!

As you pair the marker word with treats, an emotional response is conditioned to the word and soon, the marker word is enough to get the desired response from your dog.  I use this in loose leash walking often, we start by marking a rewarding every time the dog walks even a few steps with a loose leash.  After a bit, simply marking with a "yes" and treating every few marker words is enough to help my dog learn to walk nicely.

The key here is to pick one word that you will use, and use is consistently.  When my dog is calmly resting in his crate and I want to capture that, I can walk by his crate, say my marker word, and drop a treat between his paws.  By doing this, I am capturing his calm behavior and rewarding it, he learns that being calm in his crate is rewarding and beneficial.

For more advanced training, like trick training, marker words help us indicate to the dog exactly what we want to see from them.

How to Train a release cue

Training a release cue is important for your dog to know when it is ok to break a stay, leave a mat or move from a wait.  Imagine if I told you to stay in a position but didn't tell you how long or when you could move again- we often do this with our dogs, just expecting that they will understand how long to wait. A release cue clears that up for them.  It also helps us build duration into our wait/stay cue or mat training.

To train a release word, you need to first select a word.  Here, I tell clients to select a word they do NOT use in everyday language.  For example, my release cue with my dog is "ok", but a colleague of mine often says ok when she is indicating she understands something, so for her that would not be a good release cue.  Instead, she chooses to say "Free".  Remember, you will be training your dog that they are free to break the cue or leave the mat, etc when they hear the word you choose, so choose carefully!

Let me use mat training as an example of how to train the release cue.  Lure your dog onto the mat, as soon as all four paws are on the mat, use your marker word and reward.  I drop treats on the mat so that the dog begins to associate the mat with good things. Then, after a few seconds, I say my release word as I toss a treat away from the mat so that the dog needs to leave the mat for the treat.  After doing this a few times, the dog begins to learn that "Ok", "Break" or "Free", whatever release cue I have chosen, means it is ok to move freely.

dog waiting for release cue

Final Thoughts

In our classes, we teach both a marker word and release cue.  We teach the importance of consistency when using them, but also that they should be used in everyday life.

When we ask our dogs to wait as we open doors, we should follow that with a release cue.  When we notice our dogs have learned to sit patiently while we put their food bowls down, we need to be marking that for them.

The most important thing to remember is to have fun with your dog, mark and reward what you want to see repeated!  Happy training.

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