“Feel” and “Timing”
Trainers who have feel and timing are often apparently successful with no visible hard effort at training. Trainers who don’t have those elements experience frustrations no matter how much they follow directions. So can you develop feel and timing? Or are those virtues that you either have or have not?
First, what are they?
Timing is easier to define, but still not exactly black and white. If you have good timing it means that you are ready and able to deliver information or take action immediately so your intentions are clear and are correctly associated with the relevant behavior by the dog. It’s not quite the same as athletic timing like you’d need to run hurdles or do gymnastics without hurting yourself, although physical coordination can enhance timing of physical actions in the course of your efforts. But you don’t have to be an Olympian to develop good timing for dog training. Just as an example of good and bad timing, consider teaching the dog a sit. If the dog sits on command, and you say “Yes!” at the instant the bottom firmly hits the ground, the marker has been given with good timing. If you say it before the bottom hits, the timing is early. If your dog bounces up out of the sit when you say the marker and you give him the treat anyway when he’s standing or moving because he did the sit earlier, your reward delivery is badly timed for the sit because it rewards the action of standing up. Yes, even if your marker was correctly timed, the delivery of the real reward will eventually outweigh the value of the marker. Yes it will. Dogs don’t read theory. We need to read it, but we need to observe our dogs more.
That leads us to “feel”. Feel is about being able to observe your dog and appreciate his emotional state and information processing habits from an objective point of view so you will be able to predict and prevent problems, or predict and be ready to react effectively to those that are not preventable. It’s not magic. It’s knowledge based on past experience. The more dogs in your history, the fewer surprises each new one is likely to hand you in the course of basic training; but even if you’re dealing with your very first dog, you should not be surprised by the same issue more than…well, I’d like to say once, but I’ll be gentle and say twice. If you have a dog with a history of going ballistic when the doorbell rings, you don’t need to be clairvoyant to know it’s going to happen again. If you have a feel for the limitations of your dog’s self control skills, then you should be able to decide how to set up for success in the future. In this example, your feel for your dog would determine whether simply having a few cookies near the door is enough to work on your sit stay or cookie toss away from the door, or whether you will need to have a slip leash and a squirt bottle or a rattle can near the door as well as the cookies to deal with both the best and the worst case scenarios.
Part of feel is accepting a dog for all of his actual dogginess, and not allowing yourself to be hampered by your hopes. Dogs are predators, opportunists, and jealous possessive little beasts. They can be taught more pleasant behaviors on command, but they are what they are, and your efforts will be more effective if you work with that awareness rather than try to ignore it and hope for magic to happen. It’s actually normal for any dog to at least alarm bark when he sees a single dog or person suddenly come into view, even if it turns out that the “invader” is one of your dog’s best friends in the world. But are you ready to redirect, correct if needed, and then also praise and eventually reward your dog for ceasing the barking and showing better self control? If you’re not ready, why are you out there where the bad stuff could happen?
Then we come back to timing and how it combines with feel. Your experience and feel for your particular dog should tell you when you get to a park that there is potential for squirrels, people, and other dogs to appear at any time. Again, your feel should help you plan to have the right tools to deal with those distractions. If you know those are undeniable temptations or challenges, you should have the leash on the dog and in your hand to avoid the dog getting away from you and having a ton of fun being really bad. It also allows you, if needed, to correct and guide him into a Leave it or a recall response with good timing rather than having the frustration and danger of having to chase him down; but you should not proactively attempt to restrain the dog from making a choice, as uncomfortable restraint can actually escalate excitement. It’s tricky to be ready, but not restrictive unless and until the dog actually makes an error. On the other hand, you want the leash short enough and your awareness and reaction time honed enough that you get the correction in at the very instant that you see the dog act on a bad choice before it moves from a choice to an offense. And you should be able to instantly decide when you need to shift from practicing an exercise to training your dog to reign himself in and improve his efforts at…dare I say it? …being obedient!
Feel also relates to what you know about how your dog solves problems and learns new skills. Some dogs actively reach for new answers; others resist new information or changes in expectations in general, and are slow to experiment with new patterns. This must be differentiated from blatant disobedience. Slow or cautious learners need guidance, environmental management to minimize failure sometimes, and might need some physical guidance to help them along; but some times they also need some support in the form of repeated commands, or where you decide to stand or look to enhance the information you’re giving the dogs; and they need some time and patience while they take the information in and process it, and gather the courage to try slow careful responses. If you have to change something in your information presentation, keep the changes as small as possible, and only change one thing at a time so that it’s clear that you’re still working on the same conversation. You might have to gradually increase pressure or physical guidance, but do it with patience and subtlety so that you can actually help the dog find his way out of the mental paper bag rather than just ripping the bag away metaphorically and distracting the dog from learning what he needs to learn. Some dogs are really almost painful to watch learn new things; but distracting those dogs with games when they are struggling just prolongs the learning process…or teaches them to display confusion whenever they are pressured at all because that always makes the pressure go away and be turned into a game that has nothing to do with learning the skill and everything to do with making the trainer feel “nicer”. On the flip side, using extreme physical force to propel a dog somewhere often only teaches the dog that you can move him, without teaching him to make the decision and move himself, and can lead to a dog bracing himself for being propelled, but being judged as disobedient and getting corrected even more harshly. That is never a good cycle.
Good feel for your dog helps you with better timing. Over time and experience, your reactions to problems can become an almost automatic process because you can feel that it’s either an honest error or a moment of actual disobedience and react appropriately and quickly so that the moment is an effective teaching moment either way. Timing without feel is problematic because sometimes you time the wrong kind of information. Feel without timing will cause some errors, but perhaps less damage. If you have the right feel but have to think too much about your actions when a problem comes up, you might miss the timing at the moment, but you can then correct that or isolate whatever you need to clear up. So spend some time thinking about your dog, and the kinds of mistakes you have seen most recently. Decide if there is a hole in the information you’ve given the dog, and think about how to fill that hole. Plan what that should look like. Think about Plan A and Plan B for any exercise you work on, and consider what your options are in either case so that you already have a plan when an error happens, and can execute without delay. If nothing else, it’s a great way to pass the time during your commute home from work!