Lessons from Dog Trainers: 1.5 seconds

1.5 seconds. If you remember anything from this article, remember that number: 1.5 seconds. I shall explain it momentarily.
But first, this article is about two dog trainers, and how they got to where they are, and the key lessons they would like to pass on to the rest of us dog-partnering mortals.
The first trainer is Cole Bodelson, who is just starting a career as a dog trainer.
The second trainer is Emily Burlingame who is the Senior Training and Behavior Specialist at the Santa Fe Humane Society and Animal Shelter.
Although Cole is just starting his career and Emily is a veteran, they both have something in common; a passion for working with animals.
In high school, Cole was already worrying that he would get stuck with a career he hated. Then he discovered his love of dogs. After high school, he searched for and found the Tom Rose School for Professional Dog Trainers in High Ridge, Missouri. He enrolled, and it was, according to Cole, the best decision of his life.
Emily grew up obsessed with the original “Dr. Doolittle” (with Rex Harrison). Her goal as a kid was to learn, like Doolittle, how to talk to animals. Training them was the closest she could get to communicating with them. She started training animals when she was twelve (dogs, cats, chickens, and horses) and ended up going to the University of California at Davis and majoring in Animal Behavior and Psychology. She’s been a professional trainer for over fourteen years.
Although I share Cole’s and Emily’s passion about dogs, in contrast to them I somehow missed the training part. Instead of having well trained and obedient dogs, our home is often dog bedlam as our friends and neighbors will confirm. So anytime I can get two talented trainers on the phone and glean some knowledge, I am all ears.
I asked Cole and Emily what are the key lessons they’ve learned about training dogs.
Here they are:
1. Dogs are dogs, they are not “little people.” Their brains are distinctive. They sense the world differently than us. They’re red and green color blind. They sense the world principally through smell. They don’t experience “guilt.” That expression that you see when you arrive home and the dog has torn wallpaper off the wall (a personal experience) isn’t guilt, it’s cowering because you’re mad. (but they have no clue as to why you’re mad. . .)
2. As every dog owner knows, dogs are individuals. There is serious agreement about that in our household. Our dog Tank will do anything for food. Nellie is more “meh” and tends to do whatever she wants no matter the treats being offered. Maisie, our rescue dog, cowers if you approach her too quickly. They are each unique. And they each need to be trained differently.
3. Okay. Now about the 1.5 seconds. (1.3 seconds if we want to be precise). Admittedly, I now obsess about this. Cole told me that when you are training a dog, or reinforcing any kind of behavior, the time between the behavior and the consequence needs to be within 1.5 seconds. Example: when I call Tank and he actually comes to me, I can’t then go to the counter and get a treat and then come back and give it to him. The moment (the 1.5 seconds) has been lost. Tank probably just thinks . . . I have no idea what he thinks . . . but he doesn’t connect the command to the consequence. If you wonder why trainers always carry a fanny pack full of treats this is why: they know that reinforcement has to be immediate for learning to take place.
The reason for this is that the frontal cortex in a dog’s brain is approximately seven percent of the brain volume. An adult human’s frontal cortex is around thirty percent. This part of the brain is used for planning (the future) and memory (the past). Think about it this way; dogs, like teenagers, live solely in the present. (and the 1.5 second rule might be a good practice for managing kids!) So be quick with those treats!
Finally, Emily noted that dogs have a way of humbling even the best trainers. In her words, “dogs haven’t read the trainer’s guide.” They do things for their reasons and they are not always predictable. They remain intelligent and responsive but just like you and I, a little quirky. Maybe it’s ultimately that individualism that makes us love them.



Writer. Retired Firefighter. Dog Lover. Buddhist Beginner.

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