Markers, Rewards, and Eye Contact

In this lesson we're building a foundation for teaching new things: the marker. A marker is an audible sound, usually a tonally neutral “yes” followed immediately by a reward. After your dog becomes conditioned to love this sound, we can use the marker to sound to accelerate their learning. The first thing we’ll teach, once they become conditioned to the marker, is eye contact.

Exercise: Conditioning the Marker with Mealtime

Buckle up because it’s actually kind of boring and repetitive (for you)! All you’re going to do is sit next to your dog or stand in front of them with their breakfast or dinner in your hand. Here’s the process:

  1. Mark: Consistent sounding “yes.”

  2. Reward: In less than 2 seconds, deliver a couple kibble straight to their mouths.

  3. Repeat.

After a couple meals of this, you’ll see that when you issue your marker, your dog will visibly look up at you, lick their lips, or even wag their tail a bit. Perfect! They’re becoming conditioned to the marker.



Important: Separate the marker from the reward. If you don’t do this, your dog will never become conditioned to the marker.


Try not to drop food when delivering the reward. It makes them search on the ground, and slows down the repetition. Better to do just a couple kibble at a time.


Have to get to work? No problem. You don’t have to do the whole meal. Just do half and give them the rest in their bowl as you normally would.

Before moving to the next skill, your dog needs to be conditioned to the marker. You can test this by issuing your marker ("yes") at some random point in the day, preferably when they're not paying attention to you but also not fully engaged with something else.

What we're looking for is visible anticipation or excitement in the dog when you say this specific word in contrast with some other word like "frog." If you say your marker word and they lick their lips, run over to you, wag their tail, or drool then congratulations: YOU DID IT! Onto the next exercise.

Exercise: Mark and Reward Randomly

Let’s mix it up now! The goal here is to get them to understand that markers don’t just happen at mealtime or when they're sitting right in front of you. They can happen any time! Save part of their meal or grab some high-value treats and head to the backyard, patio, or some open area that isn't too distracting for them. Here’s what you’ll do:

  1. Walk around them in an unpredictable way. We’re adding movement and excitement here. Remember, training is fun time!

  2. Mark then reward.

  3. Repeat.



Really focus on separating your marker and your reward delivery. Remember they need to be separate things.


Be truly random with your marker in this exercise. We don’t want your dog anticipating you slowing down, turning to face them, and reaching into the treat pouch. We don't want anything but the marker to predict the reward.


If your dog is a puppy and the distractions are too high for them then you need either head to a less distracting area or go back to just conditioning the marker (the previous exercise).

At this point, your dog should be responding to the marker with enthusiasm. In fact they might be offering things like “sit” or a paw or other things they know to try and earn a mark (and reward).

Exercise: Mark and Reward Eye Contact

Now that your dog is conditioned to the marker, let’s use it to pinpoint our first behavior: eye contact. Without a marker, it’s actually hard to teach a dog that eye contact is the thing you want because it's so hard to capture the precise moment they lock eyes with you. Your newly conditioned marker will make it so much easier! Here’s what you’ll do:

  1. Sit or kneel in front of your dog.

  2. Show them that you have a couple kibble in your hand.

  3. Move your hand slightly away from your direct line of sight.

  4. The millisecond they make eye contact with you, mark then reward (open your hand).

If your timing is good, they’ll start to figure out the game: eye contact is what unlocks the hand.



They’re trying to figure out what unlocks your fist and they’re going to try all kinds of things. Licking, nibbling, pawing, staring, or even barking in frustration. That’s okay! Stay still and just wait for that eye contact.


Some dogs figure this out within 2 or 3 reps. Some dogs take a while. Remember this new to them so don’t get frustrated.


Remember it’s a chain reaction so keep the events distinct but quickly sequential:
👁️👁️ then 🗣️ then 🍪

After they understand the game, try and change up the picture a bit. Hold the kibble further from your face and wait for them to fully turn their head. Try switching hands. Move from the kitchen to the living room. Move from tile to the grass. By changing up the other variables we help them understand that the thing in common here is eye contact. Remember that dogs are bad at generalization and learning something in one environment doesn’t necessarily mean they “know” it in another environment.



Practice the skills, starting with the first. Remember that each skill builds on the next. If you get to the last one and find that your dog isn’t understanding the “eye contact” game then don’t be afraid to go back to the first skill and keep working on conditioning the marker. If your dog isn’t very food motivated it could take some time to become conditioned to the marker.

If your dog already knows some commands like “sit” or “down” then mark those behaviors too! We want to mark any behavior we like, the exact moment they do it. As we go along, they're starting to understand exactly what we like.

If your dog is a puppy less than 5 or 6 months old, be extra patient. They're a mushy-brained toddler after all! There's a good chance they'll find the environment all around them more interesting than you. Do what you can, don't push it, and keep your training sessions fun but short.

The Bigger Picture


Pavlov and Classical Conditioning

Remember Pavlov’s Dogs from Psychology 101? These experiments in the 1890’s revolutionized our understanding of animal behavior and how so much of the learning process happens through association. Our marker, just like Pavlov’s bell, becomes associated with a reward in the conditioning phase. What used to be just another sound now has value to the dog because of what it predicts.

How Markers Speed Up Learning

If the reward is what the dog ultimately values, why do we use a marker?

The main reason is precision. Unlike a treat, our marker can be delivered to the dog at the speed of sound. The pinpoint accuracy of a marker helps the dog understand exactly what action is being rewarded and accelerates learning dramatically. A secondary reason is that it allows us to more easily phase out food rewards because the marker itself becomes valuable to the dog.

Why Timing is So Important

When it comes to conditioned behaviors Pavlov also discovered what does not work. His findings here are especially relevant to us:

  1. When he rang the bell while the food was delivered, most dogs never became conditioned to the marker.

  2. When the food delivery took longer than 1.5 seconds after the bell, most dogs never became conditioned to the marker.

This is why our timing as trainers is so critical during this conditioning phase. For markers to have any power, Pavlov taught us that markers and rewards must be separate events that happen in quick succession. Otherwise the conditioning process won't work.

Thanks Pavlov! 🔔

Ivan Pavlov in 1890. The godfather of Classical Conditioning