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How Important is Timing Your Rewards in Dog Training?
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How Important is Timing Your Rewards in Dog Training?

Rewards in dog training may seem simple—you just ask your dog to model a behavior, then offer a treat. But rewarding your dog effectively is actually an art form! Timing your reward is key to making sure that your dog understands and can replicate the cue. Here are some tips to timing your rewards properly in dog training, so that you will be able to meet your training goals, whatever they are! 

Operant Conditioning and Positive Reinforcement

Dog training relies on a psychological concept called operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a type of learning where behavior is modified by positive or negative consequences. In lay terms, that means that dogs learn to associate certain behaviors with things they like (like treats and praise), and then do those behaviors more, or things they don’t (like a correction), and then do those things less. Maybe our dogs are learning to be good girls and boys, or maybe they’re just training us to feed them snacks. Either way, it works. 

As humans, we try to manipulate our dogs’ environment so that the right behaviors are rewarded rather than the ones we don’t want (for example, walking nicely on a leash vs. lunging at other animals or pulling). 

One way we can do that is through positive reinforcement—offering positive rewards for behavior we want to see, and teaching behaviors using rewards. We use treats to teach our dogs that doing the behaviors that we want—whether it’s tricks or just a nice heel—is rewarded with something yummy. But timing your rewards is critical to helping your dog understand what you are trying to teach him or her. 

Reward the Behavior You Want at the Right Time 

The tricky part of positive reinforcement (and any) training is making sure that you are rewarding the right behavior.  Rewards can be anything your dog likes—treats, verbal praise, or a game of tug. But whatever it is, you have to do it fast—really fast.  As you might have noticed if your pup gets distracted by noise, the mailman, another dog, a cat, a bird, or a tree where another dog might have peed once, many dogs have super short attention spans. Dogs also don’t have the capacity we do to associate things later in time with each other.  The only way that the behavior will become associated with the reward is if it is almost simultaneous—most trainers say you only have about 1.3 seconds to reward a dog effectively! Even in dog years, that’s not very long. 

If you take too long to reward, your dog might associate the reward with a different behavior entirely. A good example of this would be during house training. Many people reward dogs who are house training when they come inside after they pee or poop, but that actually rewards the dog for coming inside, not for peeing or pooping outside. You think you’re house training, but your puppy might still think the world is their toilet—as long as they come when they’re called! To actually reward your potty-training dog for peeing outside, you should go out with him or her and offer a treat immediately after they pee. Once your dog is consistently going outside and not having accidents, you can begin to phase out the treats. 

Timing Your Verbal and Physical Cues 

Dogs are visual learners. That means they have an easier time learning with physical cues than verbal cues, so it’s important to time our language and physical cues really carefully as well. When a dog is first learning a behavior, you will need to start by using treats to lure them into the position you want and using hand signals. But with cues that your dog already knows well, start with the verbal cue when you ask for the behavior before you offer any body language, such as a hand signal or reaching for a treat. Once they do the behavior, then you can offer the treat. 

The reason we want to offer the verbal cue first, before reaching for the treat, is because we don’t want the dog to associate the behavior (like sitting or heeling), with seeing a human reaching for the treat pouch, rather than the verbal cue. You want them to understand the verbal cue so it can be replicated if you don’t have treats available!

Keep in mind that offering a verbal cue without a hand signal is only possible with commands that your dog already knows. Set your foundation with physical cues, and then phase them out as needed. Always offer a verbal cue at every stage of training, since it’s the hardest part for your dog to learn. 

Timing is Everything 

If your dog isn’t demonstrating the behaviors you would like to see, even though you are trying to reward them—don’t worry, you don’t have a defective dog! No need to contact your doggy manufacturer, just practice your timing. 

The foundation of operant conditioning is the association of behaviors with certain results, but that depends on the results (like a tasty treat or a game of tug) coming immediately after the behavior. We also want to be mindful of the timing of our verbal cues to be sure that our dogs understand what we are trying to get them to do, and that we reward the right behaviors!  Timing in dog training can be tricky, but with practice, your dog will be able to learn whatever you want them to.

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