They say that timing is everything. As a matter of fact, in my (and many other trainers’) opinion, timing is one of the things that is critical to being a good dog trainer. What exactly do we mean when we talk about “timing” anyway? Timing refers to that instant that you deliver some type of stimulus to your dog, whether that stimulus be a reward or a correction. Studies have shown that you have 1.3 seconds to apply the stimulus to be deemed effective for your dog. In other words…you have one second to connect your dog’s behavior with the applied stimulus in order to effect change to their behavior.
Now, let’s apply this to a real world situation that Ray and I witnessed this morning. We saw an owner walking her dog toward us and, from about one block away, the typical change of behavior that happens when a dog is “reactive” on leash. The ears perk, the tail goes into a flag (PLEASE don’t make the mistake that we hear all too often, “but his tail was wagging”!) and the gaze hardens on the trigger…which in this case was Luna and Nero. As we got closer, the dog escalated into a completely adrenalized state, pulling, lunging, growling and barking. And what was the owner doing? She was bent over her dog, putting back pressure on the leash (which was attached to a harness and exacerbated the pulling issue), praising, clicking her clicker and treating the dog. Her click and reward was rapid fire…the timing was perfect…for all the WRONG behaviors (let alone the other errors in handling, such as the back pressure on leash and poor posture). She was, inadvertently, rewarding the behaviors she clearly didn’t want her dog doing…communicating all the wrong signals to the dog and probably causing some serious confusion in Fido’s world. Rewards are designed to increase the likelihood of behaviors, and the timing of the reward connects your dog’s actions to your reaction. In this example, Fido here has been told that acting a fool on leash gets him a cookie. No bueno.
So think about that the next time you are walking with or training your dog. Think about your timing, your delivery, the message that you are sending to your dog. Are you fast enough with your delivery to effect change to your dog’s behavior? And, of equal importance, are you applying the correct stimulus to the correct behavior? Dog training is equally and art and a science in my book. Timing is something that takes, well, TIME. It takes practice and consistency. Which is a great segue to my next article…on consistency! Stay tuned!