Thursday, March 31, 2011

It's about time

I've been wanting to write about this for a long time.

But I never seemed to have time.

So this morning I'm going to make time to do it.

Timing. Along with patience and clear criteria, having good timing is one of the keys to successful training, especially in obedience where there are a dozen separate skills packed into each individual "exercise" and many of those exercises are not intrinsically rewarding to the dog (like racing through a tunnel or flying over jumps). The dog needs feedback to know if he's right, since just doing the behavior (heeling especially) is probably not going to be a reward in itself.

Over the last few weeks, I've had the chance to watch trainers and their dogs in group practice sessions, in classes and at matches. It really made me aware of the importance of timing (in terms of both reward and correction) and how critical it is in helping your dog learn what you want him to do.

I noticed people are very quick to tell their dogs they were wrong. I heard lots of "No!" "Stop it!" "Wrong!" and the accompanying leash pops and human facial expressions of frustration, exasperation and temper (resulting in canine body language of confusion, stress, boredom and general unhappiness).

Yet these same handlers missed opportunity after opportunity to reward and reinforce when their dogs did desirable things. When their dogs gave attention, they did nothing. When their dogs made a clear decision between a distraction and their job, it was ignored. I think the dogs were trying hard to find out what their crazy humans wanted them to do, but the crazy humans weren't making it very easy.

People often say "My timing sucks" or "I have terrible timing." Yeah, been there. Nobody is born with pinpoint accuracy for giving dogs feedback. It takes effort on the trainer's part to develop good timing. It's not something that happens over night but it's totally worth making the conscious effort to improve. I believe that the top trainers in any sport have gotten there due in part to the fact they have excellent timing skills which allow them to communicate clearly (and thus successfully) with their dogs.

I've had students who I had to tell repeatedly, "That was perfect! Give him a cookie!" If I didn't tell them to do it, they never rewarded their dog. Of course, by the time the dog did the behavior, I told the student to treat the dog and the student actually delivered the treat, the moment was probably lost.

Sometimes when you are teaching your dog something new, especially if you are a beginning trainer yourself, it can be difficult to to see that critical point where you need to reward and it's helpful to have a training partner or instructor help you pin point it (kind of like a clicker for humans).

But you can't rely on someone else to do that for your dog's entire career. Good timing skills are something each handler needs to develop on their own. If you rely on other people to tell you when you should reinforce your dog's behavior, you're missing a big link in your relationship.

Timing isn't just about giving rewards. Timing comes into play when setting your dog up for an exercise, cuing your dog for what comes next, releasing to celebrate a job well done at a critical point while training an exercise and staying connected when moving from one exercise to another, both in training and in the ring. Timing and attention/focus are very much woven together. Dogs who have wonderful attention usually have trainers with good timing and vice versa.

Developing good timing is a challenge. You'll make mistakes. You'll miss opportunities. But if you're making the effort, you'll improve. It will gradually become like second nature and not something you have to make a conscious effort to do.

Happy training!


  1. "When their dogs made a clear decision between a distraction and their job, it was ignored."

    This is my favorite moment! I love when you can *see* a dog make a choice to keep working.

  2. Oh, I LOVE this post!

    Working on my timing is something that I'm consistently trying to improve. Not just with praise - I'm better at that - but more with corrections. It's really frustrating since I have to rely so much on other people to tell me when I'm doing something wrong, since I'm so new to this, that I often miss the opportunity. A common example is: Layla does something incorrect, I do nothing, the instructor tells me I should've corrected her. We re-do the exercise, Layla again does the same mistake, I correct her, then the instructor says that that time, that was my fault, and I shouldn't have corrected her. Ugh!

    I have noticed a lot of people in class (even in my own beginner naivete) who miss perfect opportunities, mostly with rewarding. For example, the dog's struggling on a particular part of an agility sequence. When the dog FINALLY gets it, instead of stopping and rewarding (not even necessarily a jackpot party, but SOME semblance of a reward or praise), they just continue on like nothing happened. I feel bad for the dogs! Yesterday in class, Layla was struggling with a part of an agility sequence (coming out of a tunnel she needed to make a sharp turn, and even though I was calling her to me before she was out of the tunnel, she kept taking an off course jump), but as soon as she did it right, I stopped and rewarded her. I'm getting better at least!

    Also, I totally agree with you on the issue of how some exercises (mostly obedience) aren't as rewarding as agility. Even if Layla takes the wrong obstacle, she's still rewarded by taking an obstacle in the first place. In obedience, I really have to show her what a great job she's doing, otherwise she'd have no idea.

    Coincidentally, I noticed at the obedience trial last weekend the huge number of people walking around with their dogs with gigantic fake smiles plastered on their face. I understand the concept, really, I do. But I guarantee Layla would be able to tell the difference between a genuine smile, and a fake psychotic smile - I give her more credit than that! Sometimes I'm happy and I don't smile. Plus, if I start walking around with a huge grin on my face, I'd feel like a total liar.

    Thanks so much for your comment on our first obedience trial. I LOVE the idea that the "winding up on the wrong side of the Figure 8" is a sign of future brilliance!

  3. Great post. I totally agree. When I was teaching some classes at the clinic it was so hard to get people to undertand the timing and importance of rewards.