Timing is everything

I’m writing this as it’s a topic I find myself surprising dog enthusiasts with fairly often. Whether you’re using reward based training methods or finding yourself at wit’s end and resorting to a reprimand, there is one thing that holds true for both if it’s going to work in either case. Timing.

Timing is crucial for both the canny canines and the dopey doggies to associate your reward or reprimand with the desired action or inaction. At DOGgED I steer clear of punishments and try to focus on reward as much as possible, although I definitely don’t negate the power of a well timed no, I find encouraging the positive behaviours to have better long-term results.

I’ve mentioned in an earlier post (much earlier than I intended but life happened with a vengeance) the 2-4 second rule. This being that a reward or reprimand needs to happen within 2-4 seconds of the desired action or inaction for it to be positively or negatively associated with said action. I am generally inclined to stick to within 2 seconds with any dog as this minimises room for error.

Why is this important? Well, there are two classic examples of common issues where this is particularly relevant. Example one being recall. A human is exercising their dog off lead in a park, the human loves the dog and wants to maximize the time in which the dog enjoys it’s time outside, playing ball perhaps, sniffing butts probably. The human has left it to the last possible moment to recall the dog and the dog is not immediately returning (these are some good butts!) This leads to frustration in the human and possibly further reluctance in the dog to return.

Timing plays it’s part here in two ways. When the dog finally does return to it’s human, many humans are inclined to reprimand the dog at this point. The human may be late and believes the dog will understand that the reprimand is for not returning at the time of asking.

However understanding the 2-4 second rule, what the dog actually takes from this interaction is that it gets reprimanded on returning to it’s human. It is likely then that the next time the dog is off lead it will continue to be reluctant to return once the time for fun is up. We can easily see the cycle that can result from this, often the human will give up on allowing the dog off lead at all.

It may seem counterproductive to many but by only every praising or rewarding your potentially petulant pooch when it does finally return to you, no matter how long it takes, the dog will only maintain a positive association with this action. Over time, it will only get easier.

The second way in which timing plays it’s part with recall is through expectation, if you demand a dog leaves it’s favourite activity right when it’s started or you’re in a rush and are expecting it to return immediately regardless of circumstance, remember it’s only access to these activities are when you facilitate them. Compassion and patience is key. Allow a ten minute buffer if you’re time restricted, especially in early days. Our dogs are finely tuned to our emotions and if they sense frustration or irritation it may only exacerbate their reluctance to return. Humans have the option to come and go as we please, dogs are bound by our schedules and activity levels.

This brings me to my second common example of the importance of timing. Dogs don’t like to be alone. Even the dogs that seem calm when we leave them would much rather we didn’t. Some struggle with the absence of their humans more than others. Some don’t show any visible signs of this seperation anxiety, some communicate this any and every way they can.

A human leaves for a few hours and on returning finds that their beloved dog, their well fed, well cuddled dog that eats and sleeps better than they do has destroyed favoured possessions in an apparent rampage of bad behaviour. Worse still, depending on your perspective, it has left the smelliest of gifts on their place of respite, the bed.

Here, again, quite understandably the human perceives this to be deliberate misbehaviour and reprimands the dog assuming the dog understands it is for the mess the human has returned home to. Yet we must apply the 2 second rule, even though human logic dictates that since there are examples of the undesirable behaviour lying all around, the dog will understand the reprimand is for the pieces of expensive wall paper or remains of well worn slipper lying at our feet.

This is not the case, from the moment the human arrived home the dog would have sensed the unhappiness, the following reprimand only serves to reinforce that when a human leaves they return angry, leading to further anxiety in the dog, leading to increased negative behaviour in the human’s absence.

It only takes one incidence of this for a human to expect it, as I’ve said dogs are finely tuned to our emotions, the pitch of our voice, our facial expressions, even the gait with which we walk. If we expect something to be wrong before we even know it to be, dogs will know this, without even realising we can easily find ourselves returning home full of tension, maintaining the cycle of anxiety in the dog and frustration in ourselves.

It is extremely difficult at times but the best thing we can do if not able to apply the 2 second rule to a behaviour is to ignore it until we are able to apply it. Remembering that anything that occurs within the 2 seconds of anything happening in our dogs lives is what they may always associate with that thing/situation/action gives us a lot of power to shape their lives for worse or for better.
It takes a lot longer to undo a negative association or behaviour than it does to create a positive association or behaviour. If your dog does something you desire, be quick to praise it! They will be eager to repeat this over time.

Let your return to them and their return to you always be a positive one. Let us remember their only access to things they enjoy are on our terms yet, they are selfless in their willingness to make us happy with their presence. Let us remember that anything outside of 2-4 seconds is pointless in terms of desired behaviour modification and may only lead to the reinforcement of things we do not want or expect.

Before I go I will provide an answer to one of the great mysteries of dog. Why dog? Why on my bed?!
The answer to this whether it is why are you in it or why have you left this mess in it are one and the same. Our scent is at it’s strongest in our bed. Dogs derive comfort from being surrounded by our scent when we are absent. If they have toiletted in your bed it is because they were anxious at your absence but they had tried to seek comfort for the same reason.
It is love for you that takes them there, try not to be too unhappy at the drool puddle on the pillow, it is a love puddle.

Author: jendogged

I run my own my business, DOGgED, working with dogs. I provide specialist walking, human-dog education and a holistic approach to tackling canine behaviour with reward based training. DOGgED is two years old, I offer alternative options to dominance theory and hopefully improve the quality of life experienced by dogs and the people who care for them. Happiness is a five dog chasing circle.

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