Why Is Timing So Important for Retriever Training?

Oct 13, 2022

The Importance of Timing

Whether giving a reward or issuing a correction, your timing is so important while training a retriever.  A reward given too late will not reinforce the desired behavior.  A reward given too soon will be a distraction or will reinforce the wrong behavior.  A correction given too late will most likely be misunderstood by the dog and could cause undesired issues with other aspects of retriever training.  Learning proper timing techniques, including how to reward and how to correct a dog, will help advance a novice trainer to a more advanced level of gun dog training.

Time and Reps In the Field Cannot Be Replaced

When it comes to gun dog training and timing, nothing replaces the hours spent and reps made in the field. It takes a lot of time and practices with your dog to get good at timing.  One option for faster improvement is to film yourself while you train, then go back and evaluate your timing.  Did you rush your casts?  Did you click and mark the desired behavior as soon as it happened?  We may think we are timing everything well, but a video could reveal some aspects of your training that are a bit rushed or a little late.  Learning to read your dog is a process that starts on your first night with a new puppy and continues to be developed all the way through the gun dog training process.

The Importance of Timing While Teaching Casting

Let’s take casting drills as an example.  Maybe you’re running your dog through the T drill or on simple cold blinds, and you give the dog a left-handed back.  Instead of turning in the correct direction, the dog takes a right back.  Sometimes we may be tempted to just let him keep going because he is going back, after all.  You can just stop him when he needs his next change of direction, right? The problem is that now you have taught your dog, by letting him continue toward the retrieve, that it is fine to turn the opposite way of your casting hand. In fact, you reinforced this behavior by allowing him to keep running toward the reward. Instead, you should have blown the whistle the very second he started to turn in the opposite direction of your casting hand.  Later on down the road, when his casting is more advanced, even subtle variances from the casts you give need to be corrected immediately. 

On the flip side of this, maybe you have a dog who struggles with popping (turning around to look for help before a whistle is blown) and lacks momentum on blind retrieves.  With this dog, you may want to let him carry a cast well beyond the direct “line to the blind.”  Letting him run thirty or forty yards to encourage momentum for giving you the correct cast is more important than rushing to whistle-stop and cast again. (I will have to write another blog on this issue soon!) You may feel like rushing the whistle-stop to get him back in line, but rushing this would do the opposite of building good momentum by rewarding the correct cast taken. Timing is everything.

 The Importance of Timing While Giving Verbal Rewards and Corrections

The same can be said of verbal reward timing.  Some trainers wait until their dog has returned to heel to give praise for anything that happened out in the field. In a dog’s mind, this praise is only for the delivery! Dogs do not think as children do. With children, we can sit them down and remind them of something that happened minutes, hours, or even days ago, and then tell them that they did a good job.  Dogs need the reward to correspond directly with the behavior. If you give a cast or blow the stop whistle and the dog responds properly, do not be afraid to immediately give verbal praise from the line.  This will reinforce the behavior and lead to further success with the skill you are developing.

The same is true of verbal corrections. The infamous threat "I am going to give you a spanking when we get home if you do not stop" might work with children, but it isn't going to work with a dog. A delayed correction is a missed opportunity when it comes to gun dog training. Knowing how to correct a dog requires knowing when to correct a dog. The verbal "no!" should correspond immediately with the undesired behavior, so long as you are certain the dog is not simply confused.

A great example of this would be correcting the dog for a behavior in the field once she returns to the line. If a dog makes it back to you with a dummy or bird, you are no longer able to correct for a non-desired behavior that happened prior to the delivery. The dog will interpret this as a correction for the delivery, which can cause all sorts of problems in the future.

The Importance of Timing Based on a Dog's Personality

Timing is also important when it comes to handling each dog according to his personality.  If you have a dog who moves quickly, is easily excitable, and is prone to breaking, slowing down is important. Whether you're working on basic heel work or advanced gun dog training, slowing down your movement and your commands can help calm down an excitable retriever. This requires great intentionality on your part, as the temptation may be to match your dog's excitement level with hurried responses.

If you have a dog who is prone to break, the timing of the release is very important. Often times when retriever trainers anticipate a dog breaking they may try to alleviate or prevent this by sending him very quickly.  The timing of the release anticipates the break, which actually reinforces the behavior! Instead, try to slow way down. Use a slip lead if necessary, but give a solid 5-10 seconds after a mark hits the ground before giving the release command.  Slowing down here will teach your dog to wait until sent, not to leave early, anticipating that the release command is coming.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you may have a dog who seems a bit lazy and lacks enthusiasm in the field. With this type of dog, it might be helpful to speed everything up and create some excitement. Adding a little faster pace to your session can be the difference maker in keeping a dog from getting bored.

Think about the dog you're currently training. Maybe it is a Golden Retriever whose attention is easily distracted by things that move. The timing of your movements can help keep him engaged. Maybe its a Boykin Spaniel who is interested only for a few minutes before he is off to the new thing or a Labrador retriever who is so excited by the sight of a tennis ball that he acts like he can't hear a word you say, they will both greatly benefit from a trainer who is intentional with his or her timing. You can find dogs across each end of this spectrum throughout all different retriever breeds.

 Are You Communicating Clearly with your Gun Dog?

All of these examples are aimed at one simple point.  Timing is of the utmost importance.  So many of the smaller issues I have seen with retrievers in the field come down to a handler’s timing.  Take a solid look at how you train your dog each session, and ask if your rewards and responses as well as your commands and corrections are coming at the proper time.  Are you doing your absolute best, whether it's slowing down or speeding up, to communicate clearly with your gundog so that he is on the best path toward making progress? 

This commitment to developing better timing starts in the very beginning, when you are first learning how to potty train a puppy, and carries on all the way through your retriever's last duck hunt. Paying close attention to timing will help you have a better relationship with your dog, as you will avoid confusing your dog, and your dog will develop more trust in you as a leader. 


The Team at CGA

P.S. If you’d like to learn more about how to train a duck dog more effectively and efficiently, check out our Polishing Your Skills as a Handler module. It has 14 lessons that will help you become better at getting the most from your relationship with your dog. This module is available as part of all of our courses. Click here to learn about our course options.