There’s one thing that good dog training and great comedy have in common: timing. It doesn’t matter how great your material (cheese, chicken, side-splitting one liners), without spot on timing, it can all fall flat. That applies whether you are general obedience training or trying to make positive associations for fearful dogs.
Why is timing so important? Well, it’s pretty obvious that dogs don’t come with understanding of our language pre-installed. They have to learn by trial and error so marking success for them is crucial and that’s all about timing.
The art of marking success
With obedience behaviours, if you are trying to teach a new command, whether a gesture or a word, you often start by using a treat as a lure to encourage them into a particular action. For example, if you’ve ever taught a puppy to sit, you know that bringing a treat up over the head, encourages them to try and follow it with their nose. As the nose goes up, the bottom goes down and they sit. But once you’ve got the behaviour you want, you need to let them know as near to instantly as you can that they’ve done what you’ve asked with a verbal marker (such as ‘good’) and a treat. Timing is all.
Sometimes, for behaviours that are tricky for a dog to learn, you might have to ‘mark’ a partial success – a move in the right direction – and hold out for more and better over time. But timing the verbal marker and treat is still key.
Timing takes work
It all sounds really simple, but often we don’t really work on timing, which means it’s tough for a dog to be sure what we want or what we mean. (If you want to experience how this works from a dog’s perspective, do try this at home. It’s a variant of a party game. Next time you’re with a group of friends, get one of your group to leave the room. The rest of you decide what you want them to do when they come back. I’d recommend keeping it really simple, like sitting on a particular chair. Now you have to coach them to give you the ‘behaviour’ you want by simply saying ‘good’ when they move in the right direction until they finally get there. Once they’ve done it, you can give them lots of praise and chuck them a Haribo. Easy, right? Not so much.)
Timing is just as important when working with fearful dogs. You want to ‘pair’ the object of their anxiety with something positive. And to make that association reliably, you want your timing to be really slick. If it’s fear of other dogs, treat really soon after they see another dog. (They must see the dog first so that the dog predicts the treat). Keep treating while they can still see the dog. Stop treating the moment the dog is out of view.
Preparation and practice
As any great stand-up comedian will tell you, good timing comes with preparation and practice. So when you’re training, make sure you’ve got treats prepped where you need them, make sure they’re accessible and easy to deliver and you’ve got plenty of them. Do plenty of practice when you’re feeling calm in quiet environments. The more you practice, the better your timing and the slicker your treat delivery. If you do find you can’t instantly treat, use your verbal marker and lots of praise as a ‘bridge’ to mark success and let them know the good stuff is on its way.
Of course, there’ll be occasions when it all doesn’t go quite to plan and the dog just doesn’t seem to get it, but persevere. And remember that in training, as with comedy, a highly developed sense of humour about the pitfalls, pratfalls and absurdities of life helps as well.