From the Field Editor

By Phyllis Walsh

The Importance of Timing

There is a time for every season, and in every season timing controls success or failure. This is the premise of the topic of timing. I live on a farm and in the spring there is a proper time to fertilize, to sow seeds and to harvest the crops. Weather is very important so our weather reports on local television are detailed and specific. When I lived in New York City, the weather reports were geared to how predicted weather would affect both road conditions and the clothing you would need to wear for protection. Here, in rural upstate New York, weather reports provide the necessary information that the farmer will need to make important decisions. These details help the farmer decide if the activities he is planning for the day can be completed successfully. Information provided guides the farmer's choices when he plans his workday.

As dog trainers we are no different than the farmer for timing requires that we pay attention to small details in order to be effective. While it seems like a small subject to warrant the attention of this article, it is often the critical factor, which determines whether you are successful, or not. Timing is particularly important when you look at the following areas:

  • Introducing New Concepts
  • Administering Corrections
  • The Rhythm of Training
  • Peaking for Competition

1. Introducing New Concepts

When we train our dogs we are constantly introducing new concepts. We have a plan to take the dog from one stage of performance to another, but this plan is a flexible outline, which can be modified as needed. Modification is what makes the plan work, and paying attention to small detail is what causes you to modify your plan. Choosing the right timing to introduce new concepts to the dog helps both of you to be successful when you train for the dog must be up to the challenge this will present. Training includes three separate stages: Teaching, Proofing and Re-enforcing the training. During the Teaching phase you take all the responsibility to clearly explain the concepts you are trying to teach the dog. If the dog makes a mistake, then you weren't clear enough, so you simplify the drill or test even further so that the dog will understand. In the Reinforcing stage of training the dog knows what you expect it to do but it sometimes makes mistakes. When you are in this stage you take some of the responsibility and make it clearer, but now you also correct the dog if he is wrong. The dog will learn from these corrections. In the Proofing stage of training the dog has integrated the learning and knows what it is to do. Therefore you set up a trap for the dog when you set up the test or drill by adding an additional difficulty such as: obstacles; changes of cover; sloping land; etc., so that it is more likely for the dog to fail. This stage is very important to include in your training program because the dog must learn that these new skills are applied in all situations, even those it hasn't met yet. If the dog falls for the trap then you correct it. Once the dog can complete the task without making mistakes even though you have set traps for it then you know that the learning is fully integrated and you can go on and teach new skills once again. Timing is involved when you decide to introduce new material to the dog but also when you move the dog through the Teaching, Reinforcing, and Proofing stages. By evaluating your dog's performance at the current level you will be able to determine if you can progress with the training. If you have difficulty bringing a specific dog along with its training, a dog that has been evaluated to have ability to do fieldwork, then maybe you have a problem with timing.

Timing when introducing new concepts requires that you pay attention to the total dog, its age, health, and condition. If the dog is young, then you want to be careful about bringing it along too quickly. You can sour a talented puppy if you try to introduce too many concepts before the pup has the mental maturity to handle the training. Even the most focused puppy can't maintain the focus for any length of time. Puppies have less physical endurance than adult dogs, so just 2 successful retrieves of marks may be enough. Plan on two for if the puppy does not successfully complete one of these retrieves then you will be repeating in on different land or water. Two planned retrieves might end up being five before the dog is successful. Once you tire a puppy it will lose interest in the training so you must always be evaluating his attention level to avoid this. A tired puppy will make more mistakes and it will be hard to have the pup complete a retrieve successfully without drastically simplifying the test. Remember you always want to end a training session on a successful retrieve so that the puppy will feel good about itself and want and come out to retrieve next time. Successful retrieves in the field help to develop a happy and willing worker. Training a tired dog will eventually cause it to retrieve without animation or even worse, piggishly. Timing is important here; because as you are training the dog you should know how many retrieves it can do today based on its current performance. If the dog is "off" today, but it usually does 5 nice retrieves in a session, then today, just do three. Paying close attention to timing might appear to slow you down but it will increase your ratio of success.

2. Administering Corrections

Corrections must occur when the incident occurs, not after. Timing is very important for the corrections must be quick and forceful enough to get the dog's attention and its respect. However, if you have a dog that tends to have the same problem, time and again, then evaluate the situation. Think about the circumstances that occurred when the problem surfaced so that you will be ready next time it occurs. Sometimes a correction just before the problem surfaces is more effective than correcting after the incident. For example, when training a horse, if a horse spooks at a certain spot in the ring because of something unusual happening or something new that it saw, the rider will bring the horse around again and, knowing the horse will probably try to spook again at this spot, he or she will correct the horse with the crop just before reaching the spot where the horse spooked before. This is to tell the horse "listen to me and obey me to keep out of trouble". This is also an effective method for you to use in some situations when you are training a dog for fieldwork. For example, if the dog didn't want to pick up a grungy bird when you sent it for a mark, then a little "force fetch" reminder before it does its next retrieve would be effective. Of course, I hope you made the dog pick up the grungy bird on the retrieve immediately when the problem occurred, and did what you had to do to correct the problem. However, the force fetch exercise will reinforce, "you pick up what I send you for", so that the dog will be less likely to refuse a bird the next time. Some problems only seem to appear when you are least ready to correct them. These problems can be corrected by "flushing them out", so to speak. Set a test that will offer the dog lots of opportunity to expose the problem. Be ready with a quick and effective correction that will convince the dog that you mean business. Bank running is a problem that can be corrected this way. When you flush out a problem, you have timing on your side because you are expecting the problem and are ready to correct it.

Sometimes the dog will anticipate your corrections and will have a compensating behavior that is problematic. If this occurs when you train or handle the dog then change your routine responses to keep the dog off balance. This will help you to control any negative responses to you. It's good to keep the dog off balance because it must really focus on you in order to be successful.

3. Rhythm in Training

While I just said that it is often good to keep the dog off balance when you train or handle it, it is also important to use your rhythms to assist you in training the dog. The key is to be able to determine when to keep him off balance and when to use rhythm as an aid to training. The rhythm in an exercise is timing at its ultimate. When a dog is learning a new concept this rhythm will cause anticipation, which can be healthy and assist you. For example, the dog learns that when a Gunner is out in the field a mark is going to be thrown. The dog is very focused on the Gunner and eager to see the mark thrown. You don't have to do much to focus the dog. Within a certain period of time the Gunner will throw the mark and the dog is ready to be sent for the retrieve. This is the rhythm that the dog has been conditioned to expect. This anticipation to be sent to retrieve is a big help to you. Think about all of the instances that occur when you train that include anticipation. You will probably be amazed that there are so many opportunities that arise through a training session that include anticipation. After the dog is experienced it is also a good idea to vary the rhythm (timing) once in a while. This will help keep the dog focused on you so that the timing of an event won't be his cue, rather you will give the signal to complete the test.

4. Peaking for Competition

If you are training for competition then you want the dog to be at its best performance when the Hunt Test or Field Trial season in your area approaches. Think through the training you want to accomplish before the training season starts so that you can work on the dog peaking when you are ready to compete. Peaking occurs when you put the polishing effects on the dog's performance. Usually handlers pay attention to the basic performance first then put the finishing touches on the dog, paying attention to the fine details. You want to "fix" the little sloppy things your dog does just before the trial season so plan...plan...plan.

If you are training a bitch then think about her cycle of seasons and plan around them. They will take her off the Hunt Test or Field Trial circuit for up to 6 weeks so you don't want her to peak when she is ready to go into season. We once competed in Schutzhund with our German Shepherd bitch. We planned to get her ready for the local trial but she came in season. The following year we predicted when she would be in season again and it would also be around the time of the local trial. Therefore we decided to prepare her for an earlier trial and began training her sooner so that she would be ready.

5. A Few Words About Consistency

We all have our own training styles and training theories that are part of our training program. Most will be successful if they are followed consistently. A problem arises when a person jumps from one training program to another. It keeps the dog off balance and it won't know what to expect from you. This is not the healthy "off balance" that helps a dog to focus, since jumping from one training program to another will only confuse the dog. A dog needs to know where it stands and what it needs to do to please you therefore a consistent approach to training is necessary. Many of you will attend conferences, training clinics and seminars on training the dog. You may hear, or see demonstrated, training methods that are different. There is value to considering the inclusion of the new method or drill, but, think it through first. You want to enhance your dog's training with these new techniques or drills, not confuse the dog. Also, I have a rule. Whenever I attend a seminar that includes a demonstration. I never volunteer my dog to be used in the demonstration. This trainer may be wonderful, but he or she doesn't know your dog, therefore, the experience may be negative for your dog. Watch the demonstration that includes other dogs, and mentally note how effective the trainer's methods would be on your dog, for you know best what will work and what will not work. If you see a benefit to using these new drills or techniques practice on your own training grounds away from the noise and confusion of the seminar, where the dog will be most comfortable; but modify them, if necessary, so that the dog won't be confused. Here the dog will have the most opportunity for success. If they are sound, established training techniques that have withstood the test of time you can add them to your "bag of tricks". However, techniques do not stand on their own merit, for they are only effective when implemented by an effective trainer.

This article originally appeared in the Golden Retriever News, official magazine of The Golden Retriever Club of America.

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