Training fundamentals: What is good timing?

Clicker training seems easy. You just click when the desired behavior occurs. 

However, it’s important that you click at precisely the right time. 

Experienced animal trainers understand the importance of good timing. If your clicks are often too early (or too late), you may accidentally reinforce the wrong behavior. 

If your timing is inconsistent, you may inadvertently reinforce a variety of behaviors, and your learner may have trouble figuring out what you’re trying to teach. 

However, good timing applies to more than just the timing of the clicker. For example, trainers also need to have good timing when delivering reinforcers, when giving cues, and when presenting target sticks or other props. 

Poor timing leads to slower learning and can create frustration and other negative emotions. 

Timing: More than just reaction time

Many people think of timing in terms of reaction time. 

They think that if they can focus harder and respond a split second faster, they will have better timing. As a result, many exercises for practicing timing focus on concentration and reaction time. 

However, good timing involves a lot more than just reaction time. 

Animal trainers who have good timing understand the behaviors they are teaching and can anticipate when certain behaviors are about to happen.

This anticipation is not because they have some sort of magical sixth sense. 

Instead, they know what precursor behaviors come before other behaviors. As a result, they can tell if a desired behavior is going to happen quite some time before it actually happens!

For example, a trainer may know whether an animal is going to pick up her right paw or left paw because of a head tilt and weight shift that occur a second or so before the paw lift. 

Improve your timing by videoing your training sessions

If you’re newer to training, you may not be able to see all of the small behaviors that are happening during a training session. You may be reading this post and thinking that good timing still seems rather mysterious and unachievable. 

However, don’t despair!

One great way to assess and improve your timing is to video your training sessions. (If you don’t normally video your sessions, check out the tips in this post.)

You can watch the video in slow motion to see if your clicks were early or late. As you watch in slow motion, you’ll also get a better sense of what precursor behaviors happen before your goal behavior. In addition, you can turn the sound off, watch the video again, and practice clicking as you watch. 

If you give this exercise a try, let me know what happens!

In several upcoming posts, I’ll share more suggestions for how you can improve your timing during your training sessions.

Read the next post in this series: Improve your timing by clarifying your criteria for reinforcement

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