In the dog training world, we often discuss the importance of timing, whether it is clicking precisely or delivering the reward promptly. Excellent timing can be difficult or even impossible for some owner-trainers. Many disabilities can impact a person’s ability to have good timing when training a dog. If a person has difficulty moving or controlling their movements, they are likely to also have difficulty with good timing. “Invisible” disabilities that impact thinking, emotions or concentration can affect a person’s timing as well. Also, sensory impairments like blindness and hearing loss can make good timing difficult or impossible.
There are a number of different strategies that can help when a person’s timing is affected by their disability:
- Explore different types of clickers, sizes of treats and styles of treat bags. Larger buttons, treat bags with wider openings and treats with different textures may allow the owner to mark the dog’s behavior and deliver treats with better timing.
- Consider whether a verbal marker would be easier for the client to time effectively than a clicker.
- The client may need to concentrate intently in order to have better timing. Work in quiet environments with minimal distractions. Also avoid interrupting the client’s training to give feedback. Instead give feedback immediately after the client has worked with the dog.
- Simplify training as much as possible, and give the owner just one thing to focus on at a time. For instance, if working on loose-leash walking, ask the client to focus on just walking one or two steps and then marking the behavior. Work slowly toward adding longer distances, and lastly add turns, stairs or other complicating elements.
- Consider appropriate accommodations for clients with sensory impairments; for instance, use a visual signal with your hand to show a hearing-impaired client when you are clicking to mark the dog’s behavior.
- Recruit a helper if needed. A client who is blind or using a manual wheelchair may need a helper to click.
- Give the client the opportunity to practice timing without the dog. Have the client mark when you clap your hands and then place a treat in a cup, for example. Extra practice of this nature allows clients who are struggling to improve their timing skills without risking confusing the dog.
Fortunately, many dogs will learn to adjust to the owner’s timing. While I usually mark behavior with the clicker effectively, I often fumble when reaching for a treat, and my dogs have learned to wait patiently. However, there are situations where poor timing can result in significantly slowed learning or confusion for the dog. This usually occurs with a complex, new behavior. In these cases it may be better for you to work with your client’s dog to introduce the behavior first, and then have your client practice after the behavior is in place.