The importance of timing

Developing a superior hunting retriever requires handler skills that extend well beyond the mechanics and application of training techniques, methods or exercises. Training and handling a great hunting pal takes the establishment of a relationship, a bond of communication and trust between the dog and the handler.

Communicating effectively with a retriever in training involves three basic components:

1. Timing
2. Tempo
3. Tone

Each of the Three T's, as I refer to them, is important to the trainer's effective communication with the dog. The Three T's are instrumental in reinforcing desirable behaviors in our dogs and eliminating the poor ones. While all Three T's are important to the dog/handler relationship, timing is the most crucial element distinguishing an effective hunting dog handler from one less skilled.

The time of corrections and rewards becomes a critical factor in behavioral modification with the training of all animals.

There are different elements in dog handling which involve timing such as whistle stops, casting, etc., but our discussion will focus on the timing of rewards and correction with regard to behavior modification in training.

It's imperative, for a correction or reward to be meaningful from a dog's standpoint, that the handler's response to the behavior be properly timed. An improperly timed reward or correction will have little or no effect in the dog's behavior and may even prove detrimental. In our handler's courses, instructors closely scrutinize timing as a key relationship component for effective communication with the dog and, in turn, modifying the dog's behavior. People are often surprised at the results.

Timing: The communication key

For a reward or correction (reinforcement) to be effective, the reinforcement must occur in very close relationship to the act one is attempting to encourage or discourage. A delayed handler's response to an action is meaningless to the animal, especially one young in age. For a reinforcement to be effective with behavior modification, the handler has less than two seconds to react with an appropriate reward or correction. Timing is crucial!

Positive reinforcement

For a positive, reward-based reinforcement to be effective, the reward must occur exactly at the time the desirable action occurs. Examples:

  • Pup comes promptly when called and receives an immediate treat or ear scratch. No time to search about for that treat.

  • A direct, hard water entry receives a loud, "Good dog!" as a verbal stimulus, exactly at the time of the entry, not when the dog returns to heel.

  • A stylish stop to the whistle by a pup in training receives a "Good boy!" and perhaps a quick run out for a bit of physical praise.

  • The young pup at heel sits promptly to the whistle and receives a pat.

    The list can continue but the point is always the same. The reward (positive stimulus) is timed exactly as the behavior occurs.

    A non-verbal stimulus can be a reward. Consider the pup learning to sit. The pup learns to turn off the uncomfortable pressure around his neck (created by a continuous pull on the lead) by sitting. The handler must time the release of the lead pressure exactly as the pup sits, resulting in a reward.

    On the other hand, an indiscriminately applied reward become meaningless:

  • Frivolous "good dog"

  • Indiscriminate petting

  • Treats freely given

    Each loses meaning for behavior modification.


    Similarly, an effective correction for a known command/behavior is only meaningful when applied within two seconds of the infraction. Improperly applied corrections are meaningless and often damaging to the dog as the punishment is not understood. For example:

    A dog does not stop to repeated whistles and runs amuck on an independent frolic, finds the bird and returns to the frustrated handler. It's simply too late for a correction. The dog relates the reinforcement (positive or negative) with the last action occurring. In this case, if the dog was to receive a thrashing and verbal reprimand upon return with the bird, to what act will he associate the punishment?

    An effective correction must be:

  • Timely — within seconds of the infraction

  • Justifiable — for a known command or behavior

  • In proximity — takes place where the infraction occurred

  • Reasonable — not overwhelming

    In short, the dog must associate the punishment with the infraction for behavior modification to occur and this fact is especially true for young dogs.


    A big mistake in timing is for the handler not to give the dog a chance to avoid the negative reinforcement or rewarding too frequently/too quickly. To just jerk on the pup's lead without warning is unfair and will actually desensitize the pup to the effect of lead corrections. I see it all the time as people heel their pup away on lead. They just say, "heel," walk away with a jerk of the lead without warning. There is no time for the pup to respond correctly.

    Similarly, people repeat, "Good dog," actually before the dog's action is completed such as the dog's response to sit. "Good dog," occurs before the dog's tail hits the ground. There is no time for the dog to comprehend the action or to associate the reward with that action. Give your dog a reasonable time to comply with a command before reinforcement is applied.

    The key to improving a dog's behavior involves the properly applied timing of rewards or corrections. A properly timed reinforcement gets results. A poorly timed one is meaningless and even detrimental to the training process. Timing is a crucial communication skill, which takes practice on the part of a handler, but it is a skill that must be mastered.