Timing: It isn’t everything, but it’s close

Photo by Moyan_Brenn via Flickr creative commons license.
Photo by Moyan_Brenn via Flickr creative commons license.

Communication is full of nuances. Take the sentence, “Oh, I’m glad you arrived.” Then, take a slightly tweaked version of the sentence, “Oh, I’m glad you finally arrived.” Although there’s only a word’s difference between the two, said with the right tone of voice, the first sentence conveys enthusiasm whereas the second conveys annoyance. Despite being an evolved species with complex communication skills, humans have misunderstandings all the time.

If communication between two humans speaking the same language occasionally becomes fuzzy, imagine what happens when humans try to communicate with dogs. Misunderstandings abound! Some are quite humorous. One I’m guilty of is laughing and clapping each time my dog jumps on the bed, inadvertently rewarding the behavior and creating a permanent bed companion. Seeing as my dog is only 12 pounds and quite cute, it’s not too tragic.

Unfortunately, some misunderstandings are more detrimental. For example, punishing a dog for pottying in the house 30 minutes ago can result in your dog thinking the punishment is for the behavior she’s doing at that moment, not something that happened previously.

When it comes to dogs and humans, timing is paramount to effective communication. Without it, training can quickly dissolve into a whirlwind of missed connections, unwanted behaviors, and halted progress. 

How can your dog behave how you want her to if she’s unclear what you are rewarding and what you are punishing? 

This question is central when troubleshooting behavior change. Punishment (the humane, force-free kind) and reinforcement are effective if delivered within seconds of the dog performing the behavior, because your dog will understand which behavior leads to the consequence.

An example of botched timing I see at the dog park quite often is as follows: A dog misbehaves by snarling at a dog, but then resumes appropriate play. The owner notices the snarl from a distance and walks over to the dog. The owner drags dog to side of park and begins a litany of “you should know better,” “bad dog,” and finger waving. The frustration on the part of the owner may bleed into the rest of the outing.

From the dog’s perspective, this situation is beyond confusing. The punishment began during mid-play when the owner took her to the side of the park. Then, it continued awhile later when the owner made scolding noises. Throughout this entire interaction, the dog may have been punished for any number of behaviors, including playing with a dog, sniffing, walking on leash, and attending to her owner. All of the behaviors that might have been punished are, in fact, positive one that we want our dogs to perform. Note the one behavior the owner was trying to punish – the snarling – is never addressed. Why? Timing. At least one minute transpired between the snarling behavior and the beginning of a messy punishment, during which time the snarl disappeared into the history books.

Bridging communication gaps

Because the real world is messy and rarely resembles a lab environment, the best way to ensure accurate timing in training is by using a marker that bridges the time between the behavior and the delivery of the reward or punishment. This way, you communicate to the dog which behavior you are addressing, and you also have enough time to fumble with your treat bag or unwind and attach your leash to the dog’s collar for a time-out.

If you’ve ever taken a class on clicker training, you’ll be familiar with the use of the “click” as the bridge before reward delivery. You can also use a vocal marker, such as a “yes!” or “too bad,” depending on whether the behavior is desirable or undesirable. In either case, the verbal cue must come immediately after the behavior.

When emotions get involved

Up until this point, I’ve been discussing a branch of training called “operant conditioning,” which refers to behavior change training when a dog is not upset. When a dog is upset, a type of training called “classical conditioning” comes into play. In this branch of training, the trainer works on changing the dog’s associations with an upsetting stimulus, changing negative ones (fear, anxiety) to positive ones (anticipation of treats, praise, and other good things). While these two types of training are different, the principles of timing are the same.

When working on changing a dog’s associations to a fearful stimulus, the dog needs to know which stimulus leads to which consequences. If a dog reacts whenever she sees a stranger approaching around the corner, the dog must first see the stranger turn the corner and then receive the positive association. If the positive association comes before the dog sees the stranger, the dog will not make the desired association. Similarly, if the dog sees the stranger and does not receive a positive association within seconds, the dog will not make the desired association.

Timing ensures proper communication to the dog that stimulus A leads to consequence B. As in operant conditioning, be prepared. Have the treats and praise at the ready. Use a marker, either a clicker or verbal cue, to mark the appearance of the stimulus while you grab the treats. And always make sure the stimulus you’re working on appears before the treats and praise.

– Maureen Backman, MS

Maureen is the owner of Mutt About Town. Get in touch at muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.