Timing is Everything

By Adam Romsdahl CPDT-KA

In life, timing is everything. Just as in comedy you need to hit the right cue at precisely the right moment for the full effect. In love, if you hesitate or if you move too fast, chances can be blown. Precision timing in sports makes or breaks seasons, teams or even careers. Deadlines are set and expected to be completed where “almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades”. Timing in discipline is absolutely no exception. Though I personally believe that what I’m about to cover applies to all avenues of life, from parenting, to business, to dieting, etc.; I’m going to use it to talk about dog training specifically.

This seems a good spot to put a disclaimer that using positive punishment should always be well thought through and is typically recommended to use only if reward based training isn’t working. If you’re not sure exactly what you’re doing, I highly recommend getting a professional opinion before resorting to a positive punishment technique.

Consistency and quickness are the keys to timing proper discipline, or reward for that matter. If you don’t punish quickly enough, sometimes the dog can be confused as to what behavior was actually being punished. Punish before they’ve had the chance to misbehave and you’ll create a “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” brat. To them you’d be unpredictable, therefore an unreliable, unstable leader. It can’t be a guessing game for them. On the same token, mistiming a reward can be damaging as well but not as severely and in different ways. That is a discussion for a different post. Right now we’ll focus on the damage mistiming a punishment can cause.

Here is one example and consequence technique I’ve noted to help illustrate my point:
One of my tried and true samples is the discussion of how to keep your dog from getting on the couch. I’m not going to talk about how YOU should reward or punish your dog for this, that’s on you. I’m just talking about application of said consequence; in this case using your voice and tone to say “bad dog” or “off the couch” and to gently physically remove the dog from the couch are the chosen techniques. Here is a basic familiar script with a fictitious character named Rick:

Rick: “I’ve tried telling my dog not to get on the couch and he doesn’t listen to me.”
Me: “Ok. What do you do when you see the dog on the couch?”
Rick: “I tell him to get off.”
Me: “Then what happens?”
Rick: “He gets off”
Me: “And then?”
Rick: “He’ll sometimes look at me as he’s getting on the couch again. It’s like he’s trying to prove something!”
Me: “Ok, well what do you do then.”
Rick: “What am I supposed to do? I told him to get off, he should just listen.”
Me: “So you don’t tell him to get off again?”
Rick: “Sometimes.”
Me: “But not all the time?”
Rick: “Well, after he’s been sitting there for like 2 minutes, I’ll yell at him again. Or just give up.”

See the problem here Rick doesn’t realize is that though yes he technically explained what he wanted from the dog, he didn’t actually tell the dog what he wanted consistently. Dog’s can’t speak. They can learn a few words/commands and make you look impressive at parties, but overall, a majority of the time, they have zero clue what you are saying. So you can’t say “don’t do this going forward” in human english and expect them to understand. They certainly know HOW you’re saying it. Whether it be angry, frustrated, happy or sad; they get THAT part. But what you actually want from them has to be said in different ways…. Like timing.

The dog really doesn’t know any rules about the furniture innately. They don’t really think of a couch as anything but an extension of the floor. It’s just a little higher and a lot more comfortable. Besides, you sit there all the time and “I thought we were buddies?!” To speak to a dog, everything really needs to be boiled down into yes or no questions. The hard part is, you’re not the one asking the questions. He is. You’re the one answering with either a “yes” or a “no”.

So, the only way for a dog to navigate the set of rules in our crazy world is for them to ask questions, which looks an awful lot like testing boundaries…. because it is. The dog gets on the couch, not to disobey you, but to try to sit in a comfortable spot (that probably has your scent on it, and he loves you man!). He expects you to let him know if it’s ok or not. Saying nothing means “that’s cool buddy. Take a load off.” But a simple “off the couch”, means just that… to you. To them it’s that you’re unhappy and something has to change. They’re not necessarily able to immediately understand what part of their behavior was not acceptable. So then how do they narrow down whether you’re talking about sitting on the couch or them sniffing the air at that moment? Easy… Test the boundaries. That’s sometimes why it looks as though he’s looking you in the eye and defying you. He’s not. He’s seeing what your reaction will be. If you wait till he’s on the couch before saying anything, well to him it wasn’t really the couch. To him it could be something else, because if it were about getting on the couch you’d have told him before he actually got on the couch.

Rick: “But he gets on when I’m not looking.”
Me: “Ok, That’s a little harder to catch in the moment for sure. But when you see him on the couch what do you do?”
Rick: “I tell him to get off.”
Me: “And then?”
Rick: “…. oh.”

Without consistency they’re not going to know if it’s the action of being on the couch that’s the problem. If they aren’t allowed on the couch, they should NEVER be allowed on the couch. Otherwise it’s confusing, and in the training world, confusing is unfair.

Rick: “Well sometimes I say to get off the couch and he just looks at me.”
Me: “What do you do after you say it?”
Rick: “Nothing, they didn’t listen to me.”
Me: “Do you go over to get him off the couch?”
Rick: “Sometimes.”
Me: “But not all the time?”
Rick: “No, I get frustrated.”
Me: “Fair enough. But when you do, how do you do it?”
Rick: “I walk over and pull him off then say “bad dog.”
Me: “Do you say it before or after you pull him off?”
Rick: “… I’m not sure.”
Me: “Then neither is he. If you pull him off then say it, you could, in his eyes, potentially be punishing the act of getting OFF the couch.”

In our series of yes and no answers, the “no” needs to be followed up promptly with a “yes”. The yes is the elimination of said body language and/or tone. When he does the thing you are looking for, you’re happy. Period. Don’t hold a grudge; that’s confusing to him. If he got off the couch and THEN you punish him still, he has no idea what part of his recently previous actions caused the punishment. To him it certainly wasn’t the couch because even when not on the couch you’re unhappy. You say “bad dog”, he gets off, LET IT GO immediately after. If you say “bad dog”, and he just looks at you, you walk towards him, if he gets off, you stop pursuing. He WILL still test the boundaries, but not to irk you, it’s to narrow down what NOT to do.

But better than telling a dog what not to do, it’s much more effective (when done properly) to replace the action with a what to do. This will be covered in a different post as the purpose of this was to illustrate how timing and consistency are very very important if you happen to decide that punishment is the route you’d like to take. I’m not condoning positive punishment, but as some will to do it regardless, I’d rather inform the dangers and educate the proper ways in which to do it.

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