How to Give Your Dog a Time-out
Learn how to use time-outs to help your dog learn better behavior.
I imagine pretty much everyone’s familiar, in a general way, with the concept of a time-out. Time-outs can come in handy with dogs as well as with toddlers and hockey players. This week, how time-outs function, how to do them with your dog, and why any punishment, even one as mild as a time-out, gets a caution label.
Should You Use Time-outs with Your Dog?
In a time-out, your dog briefly loses the opportunity to interact with people or other animals in the household. Or he briefly loses the chance to be at large in the house. Or both. In technical terms of learning theory, a time-out is a punishment--that is, it’s a consequence you apply to a behavior that makes it less likely the behavior will happen again later.
How to Give Your Dog a Time-out
Time-outs can help with training a dog who has crummy social skills. For instance, I’m working with an adolescent dog now who’s basically friendly but knows only one way to interact with people: he chews on us. We’re giving him lots of outlets for the urge to chew. We’re also making sure to play with him and give him tons of attention as long as he doesn’t put his teeth on us. And we’re teaching him manners and tricks to improve his overall behavior and tire out his brain. But every single time his teeth touch skin, his people tell him “Too bad!” and lead him to his time-out spot. They tether him there and ignore him for a few moments before letting him be with them again.
You Can Use Time-outs for a Dog Who Pesters Other Dogs
Or suppose you have an older dog who’s not assertive, and you adopt a puppy or young dog who’s full of beans and a bit of a play pest. Your newbie dog invites the older dog to play with him, and she responds by looking away or even leaving the room. In short, she says “No thanks.” But Newbie Dog follows Older Dog and paws her, or jumps on her, or barks in her face. Too bad for Newbie Dog! He gets a time-out.
The Best Way to Give a Dog a Time-out
Distress gets in the way of learning, so if time-outs actually upset your dog, you will need to tweak your training strategy.
The mechanics of a time-out are simple. You use a word or short phrase to mark the moment your dog goes off the rails. I tend to say “Oops!” or “Too bad!” because it’s short and it comes naturally. Pick a word that you’ll say gently. A good time-out doesn’t involve reprimands. You’re just pointing out to your dog that a certain behavior ends the party for a little while.
Once you mark your dog’s mistake, you do one of two things. Either you turn away from her and ignore her briefly, maybe even leaving the room. Or you calmly and quietly lead her to her time-out spot and park her there. Ignoring often works for a puppy who nips in play. A time-out spot is a better choice for an excitable dog who chews people or jumps up on Granny, and also if you’re teaching a dog more polite behavior toward other dogs. You can tether the offender to an eyebolt in the wall or send her to her crate.
Can You Use a Dog’s Crate for Time-outs?
Although many trainers advise against using a dog’s crate for time-outs, it usually doesn’t pose a problem for me. Give time-outs quietly and pleasantly, since the point isn’t to upset your dog but just not to interact with him. Keep the time-outs brief. Also, when your dog’s being crated for a nap or because you’re going out or for other non-time-out reasons, you can help him distinguish that from a time-out by giving him a biscuit in his crate and telling him what a good dog he is.
Finally, sometimes wild-n-crazy puppies need to go in their crate or pen, not for a time-out but for the same reason you put a wound-up human toddler to bed. Puppy is running around completely out of control of himself, puppy goes in crate, puppy stands stock still for exactly 1.5 seconds and then collapses in a heap of sleep. Awwww.
How Long Should a Doggy Time-out Last?
As for how long to make time-outs for your dog--I don’t think there’s any hard-and-fast rule. Some trainers use super brief time-outs, 15 seconds or less, on the theory that if the dog immediately goes back to the problem behavior afterward you just … deliver another time-out, in short, another lesson. I get crabby if I have to deliver repeated time-outs, so I usually let a time-out run long enough that my learner dog will settle down. Play this by ear, depending on what’s most helpful to you and your dog.
If your dog barks or whines in time-out, you should usually wait for a quiet moment to release her. Make an exception if she seems distressed. I’ll say it again--a time-out shouldn’t be harsh and it shouldn’t include reprimands. Distress gets in the way of learning, so if time-outs actually upset your dog, you will need to tweak your training strategy.
Don’t time your dog out for a behavior one day, then let it go the next. If you’re inconsistent, you’ll keep the behavior going for ever, because it still works sometimes. Also, if the problem behavior’s been going on for a while or is especially satisfying to your dog, you may need to deliver a dozen or more time-outs before big improvement appears. Sooner or later, though, time-outs will work.
Always Combine Time-outs with Rewards for Behavior You Like
Since a time-out is a punishment, it’s important to think carefully about the circumstances when you use it. You might have noticed that my human-chewing adolescent client dog doesn’t just get time-outs. He also gets plenty of legit targets to chew, and we are busily teaching him other ways to interact with us.
As for my play pest example--well, he’s a young and energetic dog with a reasonable need to get his ya-yas out. He needs a solid daily dose of aerobic exercise, including playtime with partners whose energy and play style are a better match for his exuberance. He also gets calm, warm praise whenever he interacts gently with his older housemate dog.
Time-outs Can’t Teach Your Dog What You Want Her to Do
And here comes a crucial point. If your dog’s being socially inept in some way, sure, you can punish that social ineptness with time-outs. But you can give time-outs till the end of time and if that’s all you do, you leave your dog guessing about what will work for him socially. A lot of those guesses are going to be wrong--which means you’re stuck timing him out for them, too. It’s all too easy to get stuck in a cycle of punishment and frustration. So engrave this on your heart: if you’re going to use any punishment at all, even one as mild as a time-out, you must, must, must make it your first priority to teach your dog what you do want. Find ways to elicit the behavior you do like. Reward the living daylights out of it. The more you reward the behavior you like, the more it will crowd out the behavior you don’t care for so much. Instead of locking yourself into a cycle of punishment, you can lock yourself into a much more pleasant cycle of reward.
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