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.