Dogs are very good at associating rewards with certain behaviours, this is the basis of all motivational training. In order to get the most out of your training sessions you must have good timing. When it comes to associations between things dogs do not have a long memory, they live in the moment. Effective training relies on good timing.
Understanding what a skill looks like and the behaviours that make up that skill will help develop good timing. While you are reward training it is important to watch your dog all the time for signs of behaviour that make up that skill.
All of the skills we teach our dogs are made up of a sequence of behaviours. If you can break down skills and build them back up again you will be able to teach your dog anything. Think about the skills it takes a dog to retrieve. ‘Go out’, ‘pick up’, ‘hold’ ‘run back’ and ‘give’. They are five behaviours that make up the most basic retrieve, even if your dog is only able to perform four of those five they will not be able to retrieve.
If you wait to reward the final skill you may have missed rewarding a dozen good attempts beforehand. Many people teach a recall by calling their dogs to ‘come’, then asking them to ‘sit’ and often also asking them to ‘stay’, then rewarding, and only if the dog has completed the ‘stay’. By the time the reward comes your dog can only associate it with ‘stay’. ‘Come’ and ‘sit’ become meaningless. Bad timing will slow your training down.
There is another way of improving your timing, it is called bridging. Bridging is the use of a word or a sound to bridge the time lag between the behaviour and the reward. Many people use something called a clicker for this but you can use a word like ‘yes’. Every time you reward your dog you say the word, the word then takes on a powerful meaning, as powerful as the reward itself. This gives you time to reach into your pocket, get a treat and reward. Your dog will associate the reward (even if it comes late) with the correct behaviour through the word, this is why it is called a bridge.
Bridging is great if you are a slow-moving person or even when you are working at a distance from your dog. It is much easier to time a word with the correct behaviour than time a treat correctly. However, you still must have a good understanding of the behaviour you want and use the bridging word at the absolute correct moment.
Your training with your dog will be most effective if you have good timing. Think about the skill you want to teach and concentrate on rewarding it as soon as you see it.