Markers and Secondary Reinforcers
We’ve been talking about secondary reinforcers and markers, and the good question has come up about the difference between them. On the one hand, we know that a click or a “yes” can be used to communicate to a dog that a specific behavior is what is about to be reinforced. Clicking or saying “yes” at exactly the right moment is incredibly powerful in that it is a precise way of communicating to an animal exactly what it was doing that will elicit the reinforcement (clicks are more precise than words, by the way).
However, you could also call a click or “yes” a 2ndary reinforcer, since to be effective it is paired with a primary reinforcer like food, and the animal learns to associate the click/marker with the treat, right? So which is it? Ah, you gotta love the English language: sometimes it helps us understand things, sometimes it makes things more confusing.
Let me answer that question from a different perspective. Ethology, the study of animal behavior in its natural environment, spends a lot of time studying communication. One of the traditional ways at looking at communication is to distinguish between the Message and the Meaning. The Message can be thought of as what the sender is trying to convey, whether intentionally or not. The Meaning, on the other hand, is the information the receiver gets from the signal. As every human who has ever been in a relationship knows, those aren’t always the same thing. So in this case, the Message of a click or other marker is clear: “THAT, what you JUST did, is what will get you a treat!” [I first inadvertently wrote "meaning," thanks to an alert reader for noticing the mistake! Jeez]
At the other side of the signal, we don’t know what the receiver makes of it–do they have any idea that we are intentionally ‘marking’ a behavior? Are they consciously aware that the click/yes leads to a treat if they do that exact, specific thing again? (They don’t have to be to perform brilliantly, as a matter of fact we’ve all seen animals perform perfectly and then have it all fall apart, often when they start thinking about what they are doing!) Are they simultaneously or uniquely becoming classically conditioned to the sound of a marker (I think they are being CC’d, no matter what else is going on)… It seems reasonable that our dogs, if we could talk to them, would define the Message of a marker as both a marker AND as a 2ndary reinforcer. Perhaps what is most important from our perspective is how we define it, because that is what drives how we use it.Does this make sense? I have to admit sometimes I worry less about labels and more about actual behavior, but still, it’s a fun intellectual inquiry.
Question for you: I’m curious: How many of you use markers, of any kind, at all? Did you consciously decide to use a marker and follow it up with praise (sometimes, as a 2ndary)…? If you use a marker in the strict sense of the word, what do you use? Click from a clicker? A word?
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Over 6 inches in the last 24 hours. No kidding. Another 1 to 3 today. Eeeeeps. Last night there were many small tornadoes reported in the area, one not far at all from the farm. I take these babies very seriously, the infamous Barneveld tornado (9 people killed, the town 90% destroyed) freight-trained just one valley away from my farm, less than a 1/2 mile away, and I will never forget the impact of the first view I had of a close neighbor’s farm, metal roofing blown over a 1/2 mile into tree trunks, 5 buildings destroyed, the ground littered with siding and bricks and fertilizer and corn and thousands of things in tiny pieces too small to identify.
I was in town with friends during the worst of it, and we were all happy to return home to find the structures still standing, the dogs, cats, sheep, etc. fine. Sorry, no pictures yet, it was raining, again, so hard this morning when I left that I didn’t want to take the camera outside.
But here’s Hopey-boy (don’t you love knicknames?), a helpless victim of Sherman the Sheep, who somehow developed a wound in his neck and is attempting to blame it all on an innocent little puppy. Tall two-leg female is not upset, however. Sherman has been played with, tugged upon, bitten, and thrown around every day for a long time, and has shown an impressive amount of stamina. Besides, we just got in Polly the Pig (seriously) to sell on the website, and Tall Two-Leg is forced to take her home for the dogs to try out. Poor dogs.