In my last blog, I mentioned the importance of timing and appropriate response in dog training. Here I want to touch upon it in depth. What does timing mean? Why is it so important in dog training?
When dog trainers refer to timing it means how quickly we respond, with reward or correction, to an action the dog has taken. Fido sits, we mark it and treat. Fido is chewing on a favorite pair of shoes, we correct them. The length of time we have have to get the maximum results for our response to a dog’s behavior is extremely short. The length of time we have to get them to even associate our response with the behavior at all is still shorter than most would guess. Seconds count.
A dog that gets a reward instantaneously is going to make the connection much quicker, thus learning at a higher rate. Within one second they are still doing good. After two seconds our response loses value, being tied less to the dog’s action. Between three and five seconds the response loses association between their actions and ours all together.
Think of it this way, you come in and catch your dog gnawing on the chair. You issue a verbal correction while they are in the act, they stop. The correction has worked. The path now branches. Some people, upset that their dog has just trashed their chair, continue to scold the dog, following the dog around the room, “No, bad dog. Why would you do that? Bad. You know better than that…” The dog stopped the action. The whole point of correction has been accomplished, further training doing set ups and teaching “leave it” while not allowing the dog opportunity to be unsupervised until the behavior is extinguished will assist in solving the issue. Continuing to castigate a dog that has ceased an unwanted behavior has zero value in dog training. After the first couple of seconds, all the dog knows is that they are trying to appease or get away from their human and doing so unsuccessfully. The principle of timing is key here.
Take the second possible branch of this path. The dog ceases the chewing upon being corrected. You don’t want to reward them for the chewing so you give them something positive to do, tell them “come,” they come, you mark that behavior and praise. Seems counterintuitive, right? I’m rewarding my dog for chewing. But you’re not. Due to the time limit of association, and your giving them something constructive to do, they are now associating the reward with a positive behavior. So your dog has responded to correction appropriately and learned that stopping an unwanted behavior then coming to you is a good thing. So we see the coupling of timing and appropriate response in dog training.
Another thing to consider is that the longer you take to reward the desired behavior, the more likely your dog will present a different behavior. Say you are teaching your dog to sit, you don’t have a treat ready, they sit, and as you are getting a treat out, they stand back up and start nosing at your treat pouch. A common thing I’ve seen when this happens is for people to still give the dog the treat. I mean, they did the required behavior, right? True, indeed. But the opportunity to reinforce the desired behavior has passed. If we reward at this juncture, in the dog’s mind, they are getting rewarded for nudging your treat pouch. Not the optimal outcome for our desired goal.
So, how do we ensure the quickest reward/correction? If our dog is within arms reach and we have a treat or leash in hand, we can be pretty quick about responding, but remember that seconds are a long time in this matter. And thrusting your arm hastily towards your dog in an effort to get the treat to them ASAP could at the very least be disconcerting to them. Also, if you are any more than arms length away, the response time plummets. Same thing goes for a correction, if you have a leash on and your dog lunges after a squirrel, you can give a collar correction, but if they’re off leash, this is not possible. This is where a marker comes in to play.
A marker is just what it sounds like, something we use in dog training to mark a behavior. You may have heard of a clicker and clicker training. A clicker is a small simple device that emits a click used as a marker for a desired behavior, your dog sits, you click, your dog downs, you click. However, as I have taught owners and new trainers over the years, I have come to appreciate the burden that one more piece of equipment can be when you are trying to juggle a leash, get a treat, and maneuver an exuberant dog, while trying to work on your skills as well.
To avoid unnecessary frustration for the human, and consequently the dog, and because I like to be able to mark a behavior at any time, whether in a formal training session or when it presents itself randomly, I have found that using a verbal marker is most efficacious in day to day training. The same principle applies, but our voice is a tool we always have with us and it doesn’t add another level of complexity or fill our hands with yet another piece of equipment. For our verbal marker, Rachel and I use “good”, but this isn’t written into law and as long you stick with one syllable and keep it consistent in it’s use by you and all people involved training your dog, the word itself doesn’t matter.
The marker is also referred to as a bridge. No matter how fast you are with a treat, you won’t be able to reward immediately with the behavior. So the marker is a stimulus that bridges that time span between behavior and reward so that value of the reinforcer isn’t diminished. Whether a click or a word, a marker is just a neutral stimulus until it is paired with a primary reinforcer such as food. But dogs are quite smart, they quickly realize that the marker means good things are on the way, and will want to repeat the behavior that elicited the marker.
No matter what type of dog training you are doing, what commands you are teaching, behavioral issues you are working on, timing is everything. Keep this in mind as you work with your dog, strive mark those behaviors as they occur, and watch your dog reach new heights.