One of the most common things you hear as a dog trainer, or even as someone wanting to train their own dog, is that your timing matters. Not just the aspect of how quickly you do something, but also the order in which you do something that can make or break your effectiveness at training the dog in front of you. There are lots of different ways to train dogs, really any animal. Some methods I strongly oppose to and some I am a huge proponent for. But at the end of the day, whether you use aversives or focus more on using positive reinforcement to train dogs, the issue of order and timing will continue to crop up and not understanding timing will make your dog training journey significantly more difficult than it really needs to be.
Timing and Classical Conditioning
I am not going to delve too much into what classical conditioning is, but the main crux of what you need to know about it, is that classical conditioning is all about associations, mainly is something perceived as good, neutral or bad. This is something that can cause headaches for people if they don't understand the order of how to condition something. Most of the time, when I as a professional trainer get a call or email where I know I am going to be doing some conditioning, mainly counter-conditioning, it is with a dog that is dealing with fear issues. That could be in the form of leash reactivity that is actually a fear-based issue, lunging and nipping at people coming into the house, guarding resources such as toys, treats, and food, or even just the general dog that is scared of everything to name a few examples. The goal when working with these dogs is to help them create a different association, one of a trigger being seen as something scary to one of a trigger being seen as a good thing or even something that they are no longer worried about, even if they don't love it. This is where the order is VERY important.
For example, I may be working with a client whose dog gets uncomfortable with people approaching it while it is eating food. One way I may work on this, depending on other factors involved, is I take a step towards the dog while it has a little bit in its food bowl, and then immediately toss a treat to the dog and walk away. I would repeat this a few times until I can visibly see there is no indication at all of stress or discomfort on the part of the dog, and these may be minute behaviors I see. Then I might proceed forward with another step forward before I toss a treat to the dog. Here is where order matters. The order needs to be: I approach at a tolerable and least stressful distance, I toss food, I walk away. What I am doing is teaching the dog that when I approach they will get something extra and I am going to leave, which is what the dog originally wants the whole time anyway. Here is where people get the order incorrect, they present the extra food before they approach. This could present itself as the owner (or trainer) holding a bag of treats, has a hand in their treat pouch, is physically showing the dog the food or it could be the owner literally tosses the dog a treat and uses that opportunity to get closer to the dog while they are eating. What ends up happening is the dog starts to learn not to trust the food because the food means you are probably going to do something the dog doesn't like. This is where it all goes downhill and the dog either stops making progress or gets worse.
Another example, you may see is with dogs that are scared of the vet, or even a person in your home. Well-intentioned owners really want their dogs to be more comfortable, so they bring treats. What typically happens is the vet comes in the room and the owners start giving treats, give another treat right before the dog gets a shot or something else intrusive, and then tell the dog how good they did. Again, it is all well-intentioned, but what it teaches the dog is that treats at the vet means a shot or poke in the you-know-where. A better idea to get the order more correct would first to do something in a less-stressful environment; this may mean actually going to your vet when you don't need something done. Go to the parking lot, if the dog hops out of the car, then present them with food and go home. Then the next time if that seemed to easy, go into the lobby, give some treats and then go home. Then maybe the next time, go into the lobby, ask if you can go into a room, bring the dog into the room, present with some treats and go home. This could keep on building up and is a very over-simplified way of working on it, but at the end of the day, we want to deliver the things the dog wants at the end of whatever is occurring. We also want to gradually build up (desensitize) to the big scary thing (vet poking you with things). Order is important!
I do also want to take a moment to mention the examples I used above are behavior issues and should really be worked with under the instruction and support of a credible dog trainer and/or veterinary behaviorist. This should also not be someone that promotes or uses shock, prong or choke collars which will make these issues worse. Again, I gave very over-simplified examples so you don't end up reading an entire book-length of a blog post and I don't have cookie-cutter methods for every single dog I work with since there may be other variables at play as well. Thank you!
Timing and Operant Conditioning
Now we need to go over the other side of animal training, operant conditioning. I am not going to cover the full extent that is operant conditioning, but the main thing to take from it is that it is about consequences. It either increases or decreases behavior. This is where a lot of people have issues with effectively training their dog. Order is important! And not only that, classical conditioning is happening in conjunction so you still can't escape that half of the equation. This is where a lot of behaviors fall apart because we unintentionally reinforce or unintentionally punish a behavior the dog is doing.
Let's take the most common one I get contacted about: recall, aka, come when called. There is a lot that go into teaching a good recall with a dog and I am not going to discuss those here. What typically occurs if timing is off is that the once perfect recall goes completely out the window. Typically this is where people tell me their dog won't come when called to go into the house or the dog won't come when they call when they are at the dog park, etc. Here is the number one reason I see these recalls go out the window: the owners punish the dogs for doing exactly what they asked them to do. Take for example the dogs at the dog park, when do most people actually call their dog to them? Usually it is when the owner wants to leave or their dog is being obnoxious and they are calling them over to reprimand them. If you call your dog because you want to leave, what happens is the order is call the dog, the dog comes, you put the leash on and go. This last piece is the important piece: is leaving something the dog wants to do? Unless they had a horrible time, the answer is no. The dog then learns that if they come to you, you will punish them by making them leave. In the future, that makes them coming to you less likely because you punish them. Lets dive in further, sometimes you get someone that knows this and wants to try to not punish the dog. This person then calls the dog to them, gives the dog a treat, then hooks the leash and leaves. Again, look at the last piece of the order, they still left, so the dog got punished even though they received their treat. So next time, the dog is likely to come because they know that cookie still means a punishment or they realize they are quick and come for the cookie and take off before you have a chance to hook the dog up. So what order would help with this? Again, there are many ways to work on a recall that can also impact this, but if we want to focus just on the order, I would recall the dog, give some cookies, and tell the dog to go play. I would repeat this countless times and on the 12th recall maybe then I would actually say it's time to leave. Yes, there is a punishment at the end, but more times than not, they are going to earn reinforcements instead. This will help to make it a higher probability behavior. Again, we have to be careful about the order. Say on that 12th recall where I am ready to leave, I pull out the leash as the dog is coming to me. That order then teaches the dog that if I bring out the leash the bad thing of having to leave (classical conditioning) is going to occur. You need to play with all the antecedents so one particular cue will not lead the dog to believe you are going to punish them after doing exactly what you asked!
With the timing aspect, we always need to look at if the outcome is going to be punishing or reinforcing to the dog. By definition, if it is reinforcing, it is going to increase behavior meaning the dog is going to do it again. By definition, if it is punishment, it will decrease the behavior meaning the dog is less likely to do it again. And we do not get to decide what is reinforcing or punishing. Again, just because you give a dog a cookie does not mean you are not punishing the dog. Look at the bigger picture if your dog isn't doing what you would like to do. Could it potentially be a timing issue? If you need help, look for a reputable dog trainer to help you and they can help to make sure your timing is correct and that the order of operations is arranged to set you up for success. If you are in the Northwest Arkansas area, feel free to contact Elite Pet University to see how we can help you! If you live outside of our area, we do offer online distance learning so we can still help you, even without physically being there with you.