Timing of Consequence Matters

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I admire and respect trainer Suzanne Clothier and her holistic approach to the dog-human relationship. I have taken several workshops from her and read some of her books.

In her book, Bones Would Rain From The Sky, Suzanne talks about how, “One of the great pleasures of being with dogs is their spontaneous expression of what they are feeling.”

Dog Trainer Suzanne Clothier reminds us that dogs live in the moment

She later reminds us, “In terms of our relationships with them, dogs believe that however it is we are acting, whatever it is we are doing is directly connected to that moment and to their own behavior in that moment. “

What a great and very important reminder for us…actually not just for our relationship with our pets, but for our relationship with each other too.

Thinking about this from a behavior science perspective, I want to remind you of two behavior terms important to operant learning: contiguity and contingency. Contiguity refers to the closeness in time between the behavior and its consequence while Contingency refers to the degree of correlation between the behavior and its consequence (*if* I do this behavior, *the* this is the consequence that will follow). The less time there is between the behavior and its consequence, the quicker and easier the animal can build that relationship.

This is why using a ‘marker’ like a click is so powerful in animal training. You can click much more immediate than you can deliver a reinforcer (just one of the reasons, actually, for why clicker training is effective). In other words, you can give very precise feedback to your learner that THAT behavior your student did at THAT very instant is exactly what you are looking for. Note that this is also one of the reasons why, if your timing is off in clicking, that you may inadvertently be teaching a different behavior.

Likewise, if you use punishment (which is not my preferred choice for behavior medication due to the negative ramifications) to try to stop an unwanted behavior and you deliver your feedback after a delay then you may be actually inadvertently be teaching your learner a negative association an unintentially different behavior and the aversive consequence. As an example, if you come home to find a puddle on your kitchen floor and yell at your dog when you see it, you may actually be teaching your dog that it is his coming to you when you walk in the door that has caused you to yell – not the accident that occurred sometime earlier. (Please click here to read a past post called, Is Your Dog Really Guilty?)

The take home lesson here is that, if you want to effectively change behavior, your timing in delivering consequences or feedback is absolutely very important. (There are many other factors too but they are for other posts.)

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