What to know about timing and training

By Frania Shelley-Grielen. All rights reserved.

Interested in or trying to train your dog or yes, even your cat? From basic requests, like “sit,” “off” and “come” your pet needs to understand what you are asking her to do and know when she has done it and be rewarded for it. Training or teaching is basically a Request, Response, Reward sequence. Behaviors that are rewarded, whatever those rewards might be, tend to repeat. Sounds simple so far, right? It is as long as you have the all important detail of timing down to the nanosecond.

If you haven’t heard yet that training is a mechanical skill you will now. That famous mechanical skill means that your timing in the Request, Response, Reward sequence is what makes the teaching and learning happen, without it both dog and human are out of sync and confused. As much as your dog desires to please you, and they do, they cannot understand English. As well programmed as our dogs might be in reading our body language to determine our mood and doing their best to appease us they do not understand specific requests unless they have been taught them. They, unlike us, have not been to school and learned to understand the many words we used. They can learn, ‘though, requests, as long as we break them down very clearly and mark them and this is where the timing comes in.

Let’s look at “sit”: we can either lure a dog into position by holding a treat directly in front of the dog’s nose and pulling it slowly back over the head so the haunches lower to the ground (lifting the treat away from the dog at that point is luring a jump, a common error to watch for). We can also ask for the behavior if the dog already knows the request. The second the haunches hit the ground is when we need to mark/identify /label the behavior and reward it by saying “Good Sit!” and giving the treat. As humans, we tend to wait and observe the behaviors as they happen. We pause to observe and when we pause we lose the timing opportunity for coaching or teaching what that word/label “sit” means. The dog is able to learn “sit” means "put haunches on the floor" only because you are allowing for the association of your marking the behavior with the label ‘Good Sit” and the reward, which here would be the praise/label "Good Sit" at the exact moment the sit happens and the treat following immediately. (Beware of that other common trainer error, repeating the request, "sit" repeatedly, even as the dog is doing it or has done it. Putting the "Good !" in front of the request makes all the difference in asking for something and rewarding and marking what the dog is doing in response.)

Understanding how to use the skill of timing in training is work. The trainer has to learn how to mark the exact moment of a response. Powers of observation and paying close attention to intention movements are vital to develop. Clicker training seeks to assist in marking behaviors at their exact moment as long as the trainer engages the clicker in time. I prefer my voice simply because it is always there, starts up in symphony with seeing the behavior and does not require another device to manipulate or delay response.

The very best way to develop the skill of timing in training is to begin practicing with the focus being on your timing in concert with what the dog is doing in the Request, Response and Reward sequence. Think of the work as you improving on your own response and timing to what you are asking the dog to do and how quickly you can mark it and reinforce it. There is a definite learning curve with this and the more you practice, the better you get. Remember, they can’t learn if we can’t teach.

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