The cookie your dog just gobbled up increases the likelihood she will repeat a behavior–the behavior she believes earned the cookie.  How do you know which behavior that is?  Ensure that you and she are on the same page by paying attention to the timing and placement of your rewards.

A reward strengthens the behavior that precedes it. So, if you want to be clear, you must deliver that cookie quickly. Your window of opportunity is about half a second.  Half a second is quick. If you count seconds by saying “one thousand one, one thousand two…” a half second is the time it takes to say “one thousand.”  You have from the moment you see the behavior until you finish saying “one thousand” to begin delivering the cookie.

Fast, fumble-free cookie delivery depends on good preparation.  Cut your cookies into easily handled, small pieces.  Place them in a container or pocket or pouch that is easy to reach and easy to reach in to.  Many folks belt a bait bag around their waist. Your goal is to reach the cookie and offer it to the dog without fumbling.

I prefer to put my cookies in a loose pocket instead of a bait bag.  That way, my dogs don’t develop an annoying “we only work when you have the treat bag” thing.  The downside to this technique is a few grease stains on my pockets (and the occasional cookie in the washing machine.)

If I can’t get the cookie into the dog’s mouth within that powerful half-second, I need some way to bridge the time between behavior and reward. There are a couple of tried and true techniques.  For example, verbal praise is fast and always available.

It’s easy to deliver verbal praise and a happy facial expression.  Dogs are very sensitive to our expressions; they love to make us smile.  So, offer a smile and delighted exclamations first–then enlarge on your reward by adding a cookie or a play session. Reward for behavior needs to begin within half a second, but it can continue for as long as you and your dog like.

In her Really Reliable Recall protocol, Leslie Nelson suggests thirty seconds of celebration when your dog comes when called.  When was the last time you partied for half a minute with your dog?  Run a stopwatch next time you reward your dog.  You’ll be amazed at how long thirty seconds is. Or perhaps you’ll be shocked to realize how little time you spend on rewards.

The problem with smiles and praise is that they aren’t very precise.  They happen in the air around the dog, so we can’t position them precisely, or use their delivery to position the dog’s body.

Another, more technical way to bridge the time between behavior and treat delivery is with a sonic signal: click. I see the behavior, click as the behavior occurs, and subsequently offer the reward.  (If I don’t have a clicker in my hand, I can vocalize a “neutral” sound such as the word “yes” or “X” as a way to mark the behavior.)  Clicker training is well-documented in many books and DVDs: for a list of some of my favorites click here.

Where the Cookie Happens

Where the cookie happens holds almost as much information for the dog as when it happens.  Many of us forget this, and as a result, we lose half the power of our perfectly timed reward.  Here’s an example I see frequently:

I want my dog to walk at my left side with his body parallel to me.  I mark or click for the dog’s perfect position then hand him the cookie from my right hand with the dog standing with his body perpendicular to me.   Sigh—another mixed message delivered: Walk next to me/walk across my path

Or this one:

I ask my dog to lie down.  He does, so I hold a cookie out over his nose and make him reach up and move to get his reward.  Sigh—another mixed message delivered: Hold still/wiggle around

Dogs remember where they receive a cookie. They figure it’s an important place, so they return to that place and position. Think how much clearer your dog will be about “walk on my left side” if the cookies are delivered from your left hand while the dog is facing in the direction of travel.  How much clearer “stay down” becomes when cookies are delivered to the floor between the dog’s front feet. Trainers who pay attention to where they offer the cookie get amazing results with very little frustration for them and for their dogs.

Clear Communication

Great timing is an art; it allows nuanced communication.  It’s the difference between Eliot’s The Wasteland and “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider;” between Bach’s Fugue in G minor and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”  Even though most of us will never be artists, the good news is that even good-enough timing will improve the communication between you and your dog. Remember, your goal is to begin rewarding the behavior almost as soon as you see it.

Precise positioning of the reward increases the potency of your well-timed cookies. By feeding them at the place where you want the behavior, your dog gets great information. Place your cookies where they aid your dog’s body to be in the position you wish to reinforce.

Our goal when training is to provide the dog with clear information about what behavior we want.  As we improve our timing and placement of rewards, we make it so much easier for our dogs to understand what they can do to earn the cookie.