A few years ago I was walking with a friend and decided to use a very old joke. “Do you know what the most important thing in comedy is?”, I asked her. “No.”, she said. “Go ahead and ask me what the most important thing about comedy is.” I said. She turned to me, “What’s the most important…” “Timing!”, I interrupted and she collapsed in laughter. Old jokes are still the best jokes sometimes.
Timing. It’s important to good comedy but it’s also important to good dog training. Our dogs don’t understand language like we do. So we don’t have the option to simply explain what we want them to do. It becomes more like a game of “Charades” where we have to catch them doing something right (or something wrong) and help them understand that the behaviour they are doing is something we want (or don’t want). It’s a tricky thing and it’s made even more complicated if our timing isn’t good.
Almost, but not quite
I remember a training session when my girl Tiramisu was quite young, perhaps 6 months old. I was trying to teach her to touch her paw to my outstretched hand. I would put her in a “sit” position to keep her from wandering around and then work on the paw touch. Progress was slow and I was at a loss to explain why.
I use Mark & Reward training so I was trying to mark Tira when she started to reach her paw for my hand. Good timing would have quickly communicated that using her paw was what I was looking for but after just a few tries I noticed something odd. Each time I would offer my hand for her to touch with her paw, she would begin bobbing her head.
I used video to record our next session and the answer was as plain as day – poor timing on my part. You see, as Tira began to lift her paw she would also duck her head slightly. In my eagerness to mark that paw movement, I was marking too soon and she thought I was looking for the head bob. Fortunately, I caught on to what was happening early in the process but it was a valuable lesson about the importance of good timing in training my dog.
Not seeing enough of the picture
My mistake in that paw-touch session with Tira was that I was too narrowly focused and I was anticipating. I was so keen to capture the movement of her paw that I was starting to anticipate and “guess” when she was going to try. And that’s what produced my problem. I was “guessing” wrong enough of the time that she misunderstood.
That narrow focus also prevented me from seeing that there were other behaviours going on while we were training. You might think that guessing wrong would just slow down my training because I wasn’t marking the behaviour I wanted. But something else was happening. I was marking a totally DIFFERENT behaviour without even knowing it. If I hadn’t been so tightly focused on watching her paw, I might have seen Tira bobbing her head just before she reached out.
Seeing too much of the picture
The realization that I was focusing too intently on the one thing I was trying to train got me to think more generally and to be more observant when training my dog. I tried to notice everything that was going on with her body and her moods as well as anything that was going on in the immediate surroundings. This gave me a much clearer picture of what was going on and how to adjust my training to be more effective. But it created a new problem.
In the weeks that followed, I found that Tira was more frustrated with me than usual in our training. And once again, she was not learning things as quickly as she had previously. This time the answer was more obvious and I didn’t need video to show me what was going on.
We were working on a “back up” behaviour where I could offer a cue and Tira would walk backwards. The suggestions I had for training this were to watch for and mark any backward motion in her back feet. I was then to mark bigger and bigger movements until they turned into a step and then several steps. I quickly developed what people in the tech industry call “analysis paralysis.” Did she move far enough? Were there any other behaviours I might be inadvertently marking? Was I marking too early or too late? Did I need to move the chair out of the way for the next try? There were lots of things I was trying to consider. I wasn’t focused enough – I was worried about too much of that big picture.
Success in spite of myself
Over the years, my timing has been good enough to get the training done. Tira has turned out to be a great dog. But in large part, I depended on her patience and willingness to learn to get past my occasional bad timing. It’s one of the wonderful things we have selectively bred for in dogs and it explains why we can teach them with such a variety of methods.
Those early stumbles made me very aware of my timing issues and I worked hard to get better at it. You don’t have to have perfect timing to train a dog but you can save yourself and your dog some frustration if you work on improving what you have. Over the years I’ve developed a few techniques that I share with my students to help them improve their timing for working with their dogs.
The Basics – When I teach classes or do seminars, I always talk about the 3 most important things in dog training – 1) Watch the dog, 2) Watch the dog, and 3) Watch the dog! You can’t mark what you can’t see but find a balance between focusing your attention too much on expected behaviour and don’t try to take in so much that you can’t make sense of what you see.
Be Honest – We want our dog to succeed but “guessing” and “anticipating” can lead to deciding that was “close enough” to what we were looking for. If I’m not consistent in what I’m marking or if I mark variations of the behaviour I’m looking for, I’m only slowing down my dogs learning and possibly frustrating her as well. It’s important that I admit when I didn’t do something correctly and just fix it without wasting time being upset about it.
Practice – Something I’ve discovered is that good timing is a learned skill. I actually got better at it with practice. The best part of this is that I don’t have to be training my dog to practice my observation and timing skills. There are some easy things you can do to improve your timing. Practice marking specific things on television (i.e., sports events, when characters move, when commercials start or end), have a friend toss a ball and mark when they catch it, and you can even practice marking while watching someone else train their dog. The important thing is that you improve your observation and timing skills.
Timing is important
I’m tempted to ask you what you think the most important thing in dog training is at this point. But you would probably interrupt me and say “TIMING!” And you would be right. The best way we have found to communicate with our dogs is how we respond to them. The timing of those responses can be critical to making sure we are sending the message we intend.
Whether you train with rewards or punishments, timing will make the difference between your dog understanding you or staying confused. If you train with rewards, bad timing could mean that you get unexpected results or that your training will go a little more slowly. But dogs are likely to forgive those and you will improve with time.
Training with punishments or “corrections” is a very different matter. Bad timing in training that uses unpleasant corrections can cause real problems with your dog. Not only could they misunderstand what you do not want them to do, the process could be confusing and frustrating. Worse, it can be frightening for your dog if they can’t figure out which behaviour they can do to avoid that “correction.”
Mark & Reward training has helped me be a much more effective teacher for my dogs. Learning is fast and it’s fun for me and my dogs. Taking the time to improve my timing has not only made me a better trainer, it has taught me to see the creative intelligence in my dogs and to recognize that they really do want to work with me. I would say that working on my timing has been time well spent!
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
The NEW Canine Nation ebook is now available –
“Relationships: Life with Dogs”
Photo credits –