Let me start out by saying that I’m a huge believer in using markers for Nosework training. I think it makes an incredible difference in clarity and confidence. Clarity sweeps away the clouds of uncertainty and gives the dog a way to truly understand how to win the game. Markers create clarity and can catapult learning. Without markers, the dog needs to draw a lot of conclusions and essentially triangulate an answer. What REALLY caused the dog to earn a cookie or a toy? Without a marker, we leave the dog guessing. Guessing reduces confidence.

Clarity creates confidence. Guessing reduces confidence.

However, once we realize how effective marker training is for detection based activities, we have to make the decision, verbal or clicker? Each has its own merits. Neither are wrong, however for the sports team, verbal wins out in my opinion. Keep in mind that there are distinct differences between the professional and the sport team when it comes to the type of dog (especially where drive is considered), the background of the dog and the reliance on final responses. My opinion regarding verbal versus clicker is for SPORTS trained dogs. Let’s explore.

Let’s talk about the downsides of a verbal marker versus the clicker…

A verbal marker is NOT as clear as a clicker. It never will be. I’m friends with a few very progressive professional trainers who I know support clickers over verbals. I agree 100% that clickers are more clear…

As an aside I have a HUGE amount of respect for these folks and will seek them out for training whenever our calendars work out! I give major props to the pros out there trying to help the Nosework community who have worked at understanding BOTH the professional AND the sport side. Quick shout out, you guys are the Real Deal. Thank you for your knowledge and love of the sport side in addition to all of the amazing things that you’ve done in support of professional handlers and this wonderful country. Seriously, thank you. For dogs with a strong history of clickers (most Sports dogs) and with handlers with little background in any scent type work, I prefer a verbal. This is not to disagree with these guys who are leading the charge on marker based detection training… it’s to add to the conversation with respect to sport dog training.

A clicker can help to refine a final response more effectively than a verbal marker. This is VERY VERY true. Clickers are easily used to mark physical behaviors. In sports, we use them all the time when training R+ to fine tune physical behaviors. I use a clicker all of the time in this context. My boy Judd who passed away a few weeks ago could learn a complicated series of behaviors in just a few minutes if I used a clicker. He understood a verbal marker, but the clicker just made things more “crisp”.

Clickers CAN elicit an emotional response! IF you have a history of creating an operant dog who loves the process of training, clickers can elicit a positive emotional response. When I couldn’t get Judd to eat due to his meds, all I had to do was pull out a clicker. Next thing I knew… I was getting him to take rewards. The clicker was an incredible tool.

Although this is shown with a verbal marker, these individual behaviors were taught with a clicker. Marker based training is powerful!

Let’s talk about the downsides of a clicker as opposed to a verbal marker in Nosework

The power of the clicker with sports dogs is actually its weakness. The clicker is AMAZING at creating clarity for physical behaviors. I remember camping with Judd when I decided to teach him to recycle. In a matter of about 5 minutes, I taught him to pick up an aluminum can and put it in a bin. It was incredible! But what about Nosework?

When the dog reaches the hide, he will give a series of unconscious behaviors. You might see a different curvature of the spine, a rotation of the hindquarters or a twist of the head and neck. This is the moment that I mark, specifically with a greener dog. (Once the dog clearly understands the Go To Source moment, I tend to start allowing the dog to offer a dog-chosen alert and will start to mark after the Alert. But I don’t do that until the dog has a solid Go To Source capability.). This moment is pretty precise, and the clicker in this instance can actually be TOO precise. Let’s explore.

Here you can clearly see the body curvature of Brava when she reaches source. This is the point at which I mark her. Once this behavior is solid, I can shift to marking after the final response (in her case, a Look Back).

Because I initially mark for understanding, using a clicker can make that slice of time too narrow. For an experienced trainer who can read the dog perfectly, a clicker can be ok for this. In fact, for my own personal dogs, I use a clicker during the imprint phase. However, once I transition to actual searches, I also transition to a verbal marker. The difference is that when imprinting, the dog is being marked for nose on source. Once searching, I mark the dog for realizing that he’s found source. The difference is subtle, yet powerful. Often that realization process seems to span a length of time longer than the sound of a clicker.

This is a very short clip of Brava’s odor imprinting. I started her on odor at 9 weeks old. Your choice as to whether to start a puppy directly on odor versus searching for primary should be dog specific. In her case it was acceptable. For many dogs, it’s not the right choice. I teach both ways depending on the dog. If you are interested in starting on primary first, I have a class starting in December: https://www.fenzidogsportsacademy.com/index.php/courses/20521
In this clip, you can see that Brava has transitioned to searching (this hide is odor only, no food). At this point, I generally use a verbal marker.

Also, with SPORTS dogs, the clicker usually has a long history of being related to physical behaviors. The transition between thinking physical to nasal can be a challenge for some dogs. If we aren’t careful, the dog will learn that the physical behavior of the alert gets the reward, not the physical behavior at an odor… Keep in mind that odor travels through the limbic system in the dog’s brain which is the primitive part of the brain that triggers the creation of memory. Physical behaviors and shaping activities trigger a more front of thought part of the brain. In the green dog, it can be challenging to connect these two processes. In my experience working with dogs who have a long history of using a clicker for physical behaviors, using a clicker for Nosework CAN create superstitious behaviors related to nose location and paw behavior, without taking scent into consideration.

However, I have to say that with my last couple of personal dogs, I used a clicker with great success during imprinting. Meaning, when the puppies put nose on source and showed understanding, I clicked. I am NOT anti-clicker… I prefer to use a clicker ONLY when working with a dog without a huge clicker background and ONLY when the handler has enough experience and background to recognize unconscious communication from the dog at source.

Here as a puppy, Powder is working on nose targeting a bulb of a target stick. With a clicker, you can see how the behavior is a physical one.
In this video, Powder starts to learn to indicate on target odor. Using a verbal marker actually gives her important time to be able to process olfactory information. The information is processed rather than her focusing on a behavior like the previous video.

When I started Brava (2 years older than Powder, although half-sisters) on odor I used a click to mark nose at source. I would click reward several times in order to solidify the behavior of nose to source. She learned very quickly. I then transitioned to a verbal marker.

Even with my greener dogs, I transition to a verbal marker when searches are started. This is in part due to the added emotion that I can apply easily with a verbal marker. This has the effect of jacking up the value of the marker. We like to think that primary reinforcers are the be all, end all when training dogs. However, these are social, emotional animals who truly LOVE us. There is also a huge amount of cognition that is occurring in their brains. Pairing emotion with reward with clarity… well that’s just a home run!

Here you can see how I pair food rewards with emotional rewards with my young dog, Powder. Her love for searching is reinforced by both.

The aspect of emotion is even MORE powerful when you are training a dog with low drives for food or toys…

Not all of us are working high drive dogs with either crazy toy drive or bottomless pit stomach stomachs (Labs!!). We need to be able to connect emotion to our marker in order to make it valuable. Because Nosework is so available to all dogs, we need to make sure that we are keeping our reinforcers and communication germane to the dog that we are working.

I have a 12 year old Standard Poodle who has no appreciable food or toy drive. In fact, he doesn’t have much hunt drive either… and… he’s a highly contemplative dog who likes to carry the 2 and take the square root of the hypotenuse before making a decision on doing ANYTHING. He is kind of like watching molasses when he searches. He is NOT like my girls. I still love searching with him though because it’s something that we can enjoy together. He has a NW3 title and we continue to trial for the experience and fun! For Joey the Standard Poodle, the food honestly is little more than a marker. He loves the praise that comes with it.

Without the addition of emotion to the food reward, the cookie would mean little to Joey.

Of course, we CAN add emotion to the clicker… it’s something that I’ve always tried to do. Keep in mind that dogs are both Emotional AND Cognitive animals!

Here’s a video from my archives of me working on pieces of Why’s Go Out for Obedience. You can see how I combine emotion with the click. With a dog like Why who is very soft and environmental, this is a great combination.

Using a clicker with Why was powerful. Adding emotion to the click was even MORE powerful!

CAN you use a clicker rather than a verbal?

Of course you can!! IF you decide to use a clicker rather than a verbal, keep these things in mind:

  1. Remember to ALSO add emotion. Make the reward an EVENT!
  2. Make sure you truly know what you are clicking!
  3. If your dog seems to default to targeting behavior, consider using a verbal to allow for more cognition related to scent to be processed.

There is ZERO wrong with using a clicker… if you DO decide on a clicker over a verbal, have a reason.

However, if you don’t use a marker at all… consider adding one!