Timing, Patience and Consistency
After teaching group classes and private lessons for quite some time now, I have observed some common traits among all clients. Almost all of them have trouble with the three terms above. And frankly, when your timing is off you become impatient and inconsistent and send mixed signals to your dog.
Dogs are very physical beings. They respond to hand signals and body language better than verbal commands. When we use our body, we are speaking “dog” and communicating on a level they can understand.
Timing is an important aspect of training. In order to praise your dog for the correct behavior or desired response, our reward must come immediately following the behavior. Immediately=1-3 seconds. On the other side of the coin, when we need to correct our dog for unwanted and undesirable behavior, the correction must also be timed correctly to coincide immediately with the dog’s behavior. Punishing a dog 5 minutes after he jumped on you or knocked something off the coffee table does not register to the dog. He is being punished for what he did 1-3 seconds previously. Similarily, punishing a dog for pottying in the house after the fact is a little too late. Management and safety are important aspects of training. Use baby gates, crates and tethers to set your dog up for success.
Corrections must be given immediately and they must fit the temperament of the dog. All dogs have different levels of tolerance. You want to apply a correction that will get your dog’s attention and stop him from engaging in the undesired behavior. It may be different for each dog. Another important aspect is to make sure the correction is not too weak (dog ignores you), too high (dog is yelping) but just right (Thanks to Robin McFarlane for that term). If you keep tugging on the collar over and over again for pulling on the leash, all you are doing is “nagging” your dog. To put it in human perspective, If your mom said, clean your room, clean your room, clean your room, I SAID CLEAN YOUR ROOM! The last directive will get your attention immediately and if you are a good child, you will promptly go and clean your room. You will either be rewarded or punished by not following orders. You can use this analogy in dog training. If you nag the entire time on your walk by giving light collar corrections for pulling on leash, I guarantee you won’t be walking for very long. It is exhausting and mentally draining. Apply a quick, decisive correction and move on. No grudges, no lingering attitudes. Apply a quick correction and then go back to your enjoyable walk in the park with calm praise along the way. Don’t forget the calm praise along the way. Give your dog some feedback and let them know you like the loose leash.
As I was teaching group classes this last week, I observed owners becoming frustrated with their dog’s behavior because of improper timing. As soon as I come over to coach them I usually get the desired behavior quickly. Your goal as an owner is to help your dog succeed. I don’t advocate punishing your dog over and over again. Use patience, body language and training tools to teach them what you want them to learn and then follow through on each command. Use your leash, hand gestures, and body language to communicate to your dog and as soon as you get the desired outcome, PRAISE your dog using treats, toys, or petting – whatever your dog will enjoy the most. Remember the higher the distraction=a higher value reward.
Timing of the reward is HUGE. I see a lot of people bringing treats to class, which is WONDERFUL, but they are stuck so deep in the owners’ pant’s pocket that by the time you get the treat, the dog has moved onto another behavior or activity and is then rewarded for what he was just doing. How many of you have seen this happening or has this happened to you? Ideally you want to use some type of treat bag or pouch to keep treats in. Have them broken up into small pieces before your training sessions begin. Pulling the treat out of your pouch but then spending 10 minutes trying to break it in half doesn’t work either. All you will have is 1) sad puppy dog eyes waiting for the treat or 2) a foodie that jumps all over you to get to the treat. I like the magnetic pouches that open really easily and snap shut when I am done. They can clip onto your belt or go through your pant loops. Another popular bait bag is a tool bag like hardware store employees use. You can purchase them for $1. You can have someone make a bag for you but you want to have immediate access to your treats so you can reward immediately and do more repetitions of each behavior.
Patience is a virtue. I know it is not easy and I tell all my classes that if you are frustrated, had a bad day at work, not feeling well or just have no tolerance, DO NOT train your dog with that mental attitude. It will rub off on your dog and neither of you will have a good experience. When we train with our dogs they deserve our undivided attention so we can reward or correct appropriately. Trying to train while multi-tasking is often unfair to the dog. Be “in the moment” with your dog while you work with them for 5-10 minutes. Controlled distractions are one thing but we need to keep a close eye on them to maintain good behavior.
Owners also need to give their pets a few seconds to process the command. If there is no reaction, then we can assist physically or with a lure. I am a very patient person (maybe sometimes too patient) but it has served me well as a dog trainer. I bring a positive attitude, visualization of the outcome, patience and a yummy reward to each training class or demonstration to ensure success. I find that owners have the most trouble with the “down” command. It is not easy for some dogs to understand and many people push the dog down or pull the treat to the ground so fast the dog never saw it. The dog is not learning anything from either of these methods. If you take your time and go slow, the dog will eventually lay down. Using furniture, your leg and a trick called “magic hands” also helps with this behavior.
There are many excellent trainers that I truly admire and they have these two skills mastered. Their timing is impeccable-instinctively they know when to interrupt, distract, reward and correct and make it look effortless. Experience and education help make these professionals the wonderful mentors and trainers they are today. Having a positive attitude and patience are keys to a happy relationship with your dog. They also promote an enjoyable training session. Remember to reward the small steps. Maybe your dog won’t down the first night of class. Then start by rewarding the bow, then the bow and the back legs crouching, then the crouch, and then the down all the way. This is called shaping but if we gradually increase our criteria for what we expect, we will help the dog learn the behavior without using physical energy. The more calm and patient you are, the quicker you will get the desired behavior.
Consistency is the last skill that is critical when working with a dog and especially a puppy. Everyone in the household needs to be using the same hand signals, commands and using similar positive reinforcement or corrections. If one family member says down and one says off, the dogs will be confused. In the same way if one family member says down and the other says lay, the dogs may have a hard time figuring out what you want. I love working with kids because they get so excited and are so positive. Their attitudes are contagious and most dogs do very well for kids because they want to please. Children know what end result they are hoping to achieve and get their pet to buy into their enthusiasm. Some pet parents display a negative attitude (my dog can’t do that), (are you crazy), (ha-whatever). I discourage negative thoughts, feelings and energy. Believe it or not, your dog can sense your energy level and confidence. Think about it-if you were to overhear your boss say that you couldn’t do something or was speaking in a negative tone, does that make you want to work hard? Would you go to work if you didn’t get paid? It can be discouraging and demotivating. Find some friends, family members, or a good trainer that can help you find the fun in training. Through jokes, venting, and sharing your frustrations, you will be better prepared to be the confident leader your dog needs. There is nothing wrong with an “owner time out.” Sometimes everyone needs a break from their dog to de-stress, compose and relax. Check in with your dog and try to practice a little later. It takes a special person to own, raise and train an animal. We owe it to them to put our best foot forward and give them 100% of our attention when we are training.
Think about these three traits and how you can put your best foot forward when working with your dog. Share your ideas, creative thoughts, and goals with us.
Stay tuned for an update on my new years resolution in the next blog entry and happy training!