Using Time-Outs in Dog Training

Dog time-outs
Dog time-outs | Source

Understanding Dog Time-Outs

What are time-outs in dog training and how can they help you? If you have children, most likely you know what time-outs are. Back in time, when I was a school-age teacher, and later, taught classes to the terrible two's and three's, the word time-out was quite common. The term is commonly used in sports to signal a pause in the game so to allow the coaches to communicate with their teams, but it is also used profusely in parenting. When used for parenting purposes, the time-out is recommended by several pediatricians and developmental psychologists. The purpose is to remove the child from the environment when behaving inappropriately so to prevent rehearsal of unwanted behavior and diminish its frequency.

The concept of the time-out was first coined by Arthur Staats in 1958. He utilized this method with his 2-year old daughter in 1962. In his own words: " If we were in a public place [where her behavior was inappropriate], I would pick her up and go outside." This method is now utilized in schools, clinics, and hospitals. It was found to be a useful method that replaced yelling and frustration exhibited by many parents when dealing with disobedient children. Commonly used areas for time-outs are chairs, corners, bedrooms or any location where there are little distractions. The child then is released when he has calmed down after a certain amount of time.

Let's take a closer look at why time-outs work by taking a glimpse into learning theory. In this case, when applying a time-out, we are using negative punishment. The goal of punishment is to reduce the frequency of behavior that precedes it. The term "negative" in this case is meant to depict the removal of something perceived desirable so to reduce the occurrence and frequency of a particular behavior. So in the case of a child yelling in the store because he wants you to buy him candy, you would remove him from the store away from the candy-- a desirable place surrounded by tempting items. Indeed, when the first behavioral psychologists introduced the time-out concept, they referred to it as the “Time-out from positive reinforcement.”

The goal once again of a time-out is to reduce the incidence and frequency of undesirable behavior. Over time, therefore, the behavior of whining/crying should decrease (the purpose of punishment) because the child has started to associate his behavior with the consequence of being taken away from a desirable area. When it comes to dogs, the same principle can be applied. The dog may be removed from a desirable situation/area every time he starts misbehaving. This may sound quite easy, but with dogs you may need to follow some important guidelines so to make your time-outs effective. In the next paragraphs we will take a look at some important guidelines to follow.

For what behaviors are time-outs effective?

Time-outs work when the behaviors occur in places or in situations where the dog gets reinforcement. If your dog isn't getting reinforcement from that particular place, activity or situation, the time-out won't be effective. You can use time-outs effectively to curb the following behaviors.

  • Jumping on you
  • Barking at you for attention
  • Bullying behaviors with other dogs
  • Young dogs pestering older dogs
  • Young dogs who nip in play
  • Dog chasing the cat
  • Rowdy greetings of guests.
  • Begging at the table
  • Digging

Using Dog Time-outs for Unwanted Behaviors

When it comes to positive reinforcement trainers, there is a saying "Positive doesn't mean permissive!." This means that positive reinforcement trainers aren't "cookie trainers" doling out treats all day long. Rather, they set boundaries and consequences,and what sets them apart is the fact that the consequences chosen aren't based on coercive, intimidating methods. Time-outs are a great alternative to using shock collars to correct behaviors. Indeed, they are they are used for parenting as an alternative to yelling. While older children have the cognitive abilities to understand consequences for their behaviors even if not applied in a timely manner, with dogs though, timing, consistency and clear communication are needed to ensure the dog associates the time-out with the undesirable behavior. Because of these requirements, time-outs aren't that easy to implement. The following are important guidelines to use if you want to use time-outs effectively.


  • Determine the Underlying Cause

First and foremost, it's important to determine what exactly is triggering the problem behavior. It would be unjust to do several time-outs when dogs are misbehaving because their needs for exercise and mental stimulation are not met. Ask yourself, is the dog acting out because he has too much energy that needs drained, is he hungry, thirsty, or cranky because he is tired? Has the dog been socially isolated all day long and now is craving time with you? On top of that, consider that many problem behaviors may stem from a medical cause, so make sure to rule out pain, and other medical problems by having your dog see a vet.

  • Mark the Unwanted Behavior

So you have ruled out needs that haven't been met and possible medical causes, now you can take action and give time-outs. Compared to children, dogs need a slightly different approach. With a child, we can tell him "you have been yelling too much, time for a time-out", with dogs, we'll need to find another way to communicate to them that a time-out is coming. In this case, a verbal marker works fine. Some like to use "whoops!" others may prefer "too bad!" and some others rather use the verbal marker "eh-eh." The choice of the word "no" is counterproductive for many reasons, first and foremost, it's utilized too often in common language, and second, it's very easy to overdo it, and apply it to almost everything the dog does creating confusion. It's important to note that the verbal marker chosen is not meant to scold the dog, just to point out to him that his behavior is what is causing the "party" to end

  • Intervene in a Timely Manner

It's fundamental that the verbal marker takes place immediately after the undesirable behavior occurs and right before the dog is removed from the area. Seconds can really make the difference between success and failure. A second too late and your dog may not fully make the connection between the undesirable behavior and the time-out. If you mark the undesirable behavior correctly, but then take too much time in removing the dog from the area, he won't make the connection between the time-out and the undesirable behavior. A time-out to be effective should contain this chain of events: you mark the undesirable behavior, you remove the dog from the area, you put the dog in another area and finally you release the dog once he has calmed down.

  • Choose the right location.

You cannot use a time-out effectively if your dog misbehaves and is moved to an area where he gets other forms of reinforcement. So if Rover needs a time-out because he has been bullying other dogs, you better make sure that the time-out area is boring enough for it to be effective. If, for instance, you put your dog in a time-out in a room where he will get oodles of attention from other people or has the opportunity to steal a bag of treats from the table, it will be perceived as a reward, making the time-out totally ineffective. Also, interesting rooms where food is cooking or where crumbs are on the floor may not fit the purpose. Most dogs are highly social animals who love to be around other dogs and people. Being removed from social contact in an area with little stimulation will be perceived as non-rewarding for most dogs.

  • Reward Calm Behaviors

Because the time-out area is boring and the dog has temporarily lost social privileges, release from the time-out is very reinforcing. Make the best out of this. Release the dog from the time-out when he is calm. This will reinforce future calm behaviors. If applied consistently, your dog should soon learn that barking/jumping/bullying/acting pushy leads to the time-out and calm, quiet leads to the release from the time-out.

  • Rinse and Repeat

To make time-outs effective, you need to repeat several times as this allows the dog to make the association between his behavior and the time-out. Dogs learn through repetition and consistency. Dogs don't excel in math, but you want your dog to learn this equation: every time I do xyz, I get a time-out, so I better not engage in xyz anymore." Keep this in mind though: the more and longer the behavior has been rehearsed, the more it is ingrained, and thus, the more repetition you will need.

  • Set for Success

Time-outs should be brief, just enough time for your dog to calm down. If you have a very young dog, or a dog who easily goes into frustration, you will need to take advantage of the very first signs of calming down and then build from there. Set your dog for success by releasing him when there is that split second pause in his barking, or that split second when he stops jumping. Don't lose these precious split-second opportunities; it may take much longer then to wait for another good behavior to occur. Just as timing is important in marking bad behavior, timing is important in marking good behavior. You can use a positive verbal marker to mark his calm behavior and to signal that he's done with the time-out "done" or "OK" may work to release him.

  • Let your dog wear a tab.

Because timing is so important for time-outs, you can't give the verbal marker to signal that the dog is performing undesirable behavior and then spend several seconds looking for a leash, and then on top of that, trying to catch your dog so you can put it on. To prevent losing time when every split second counts, let your dog wear a tab. A tab looks like a short leash that has had most of its length removed, they are 4- to 6-inches in length . It therefore will not interfere with the dog's movement. It will just be there, ready so you can swiftly and safely remove the dog from the situation. Avoid grabbing your dog by the collar, several dogs develop collar sensitivity that way.

  • Reward what you like

We often punish dogs for engaging in behaviors we don't like, but what about rewarding them for wanted, highly-desirable behaviors? This is a crucial, absolutely important puzzle piece that will help your dog succeed. Watch your dog daily and be ready to mark and reward behaviors that you like. Say your dog nips on you in play all the time, but this time he just licks your hand, be ready to capture that lick and make a big deal out of it by praising lavishly. This is a fundamental step that many people miss. Your dog will learn much faster if he learns this equation "every time I bite my owner, he says "whoops!" and takes me in that boring room, then when I am calm, he releases me. Also, when I play and lick instead of biting, not only am I not taken into the room, but I actually get loads of praise and rewards! Lesson learned: biting yields nothing good, and licking yields a whole lot, that means I must lick more and bite less! And of course, at some point later on, you will raise criteria and stop rewarding licks, unless you don't mind living with a licking machine!


Benefits of time-outs for dogs

  • It helps dogs learn more self control.
  • It reinforces the relationship between behaviors and consequences.
  • It's a great substitute to yelling and coercive methods and tools such as shock collars
  • It's allows dog owners the opportunity to calm down and think rationally when emotions run high

Drawbacks of Time-outs for dogs

  • Time-outs need to be applied correctly for them to be effective.
  • Time-outs don't go to the underlying root of the behavior
  • It's best to prevent behavior from occurring in the first place than correcting with a time-out.
  • Time-outs have to happen every time the behavior occurs
  • Time-outs won't teach your dog what to do instead, you'll need to take care of teaching your dog an alternate, acceptable behavior to replace the unwanted one.

When Dog Time-outs are not Working

There are times where time-outs may not be working well. When this happens, it's important to do some troubleshooting. Let's take a look at some potential causes:

1) You are dealing with extinction bursts. You may think the time-out is not working, but in reality it is, it just takes time for you to see results, especially if the behavior you are trying to correct has been going on for many months or years. Also, keep in mind that right when you think your time-outs are not working, you may be instead dealing with what is called an extinction burst. For more on this read this article about extinction bursts.

2) The time-out is actually reinforcing to the dog. As we mentioned before, a time-out won't work if your dog finds crumbs on the floor, gets attention from other people or gets to chase birds when sent to the time-out area. The time-out area must be boring, a place where a dog cannot find any forms of rewarding stimuli. This defeats the main characteristic of the time-out, remember? "Time-outs are from positive reinforcement." not to positive reinforcement.

3) The time-out gives the dog relief. A time-out won't work if the dog perceives the time-out area as a place for relief. For instance, if the dog is scolded all day long or is around children that tease him non-stop or is stressed by the presence of guests, the time-out area may feel like a comfy place where to retreat from all the stress. In this case, the time-out won't work because instead of negative punishment, it works on negative reinforcement. This means that the behavior preceding the time-out will increase instead of decreasing! For more on this read the four quadrants of dog training.

4) Your timing is off. And of course, as mentioned, if your timing is bad, you won't get results as your dog isn't making the correct associations between his behavior and the time-outs.

5) You are not being consistent. You must apply time-outs every time you see the behavior occur. If you allow it to occur some times yes and sometimes no, you will have put the behavior on a variable schedule which makes it extra-challenging to eradicate!

  • Time-out Alternatives

You don't have to necessarily put your dog in another room for a time-out, there are actually alternatives to time-outs that are equally effective. Urban Dog Training suggests an alternative to using a room; that is, closing the dog's lead into the doorjamb allowing the dog enough room to sit and stand, but not enough room to do what he pleases. Alternatively, dog trainer Jolanta Benal suggests tethering the offender to an eye bolt on the wall. Dog trainer Pat Miller has a nice guide on tethering for time-outs to encourage calmer behaviors. And don't assume your dog must necessarily be the one leaving or being tied up; actually you can be the one doing the "time-out." If for instance, your dog jumps on you for attention, you may find that removing your attention from your dog may help. Every time your dog jumps on you, remove your self from giving attention by abruptly turning your back to him and ignoring him. If he keeps on jumping at your back, leave the room.

When should you use time-outs? First and foremost, you should use them once you have made sure you have allowed your dog to meet his mental stimulation and physical needs, once you have ruled out medical problem, and despite all this, your dog still engages in the unwanted behavior. Ideally, you should try other options before using a time-out. Many trainers say they can do without time-outs. Personally, I use them very sparingly. What do these trainers do? They intervene BEFORE the problem behavior occurs, that is, before it gets so intense it's more difficult to get Rover to listen. So if you see Rover getting aroused and is about to pester your other dog to steal his toy, interrupt him by engaging him in a game. Use a positive interrupter to signal him to stop what he is doing and engage with you.. There are many things you can do to distract him and prevent him from rehearsing unwanted behaviors. Good management is also one of them.

Alexadry© all rights reserved, do not copy.


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Comments 3 comments

billybuc profile image

billybuc 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

Between you and epooks on HP, all of my questions about dogs are answered. Thanks for the information, and our three dogs thank you as well.


DDE profile image

DDE 2 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

Great photos! I like dogs and have found my special way with them. I had a dog who behaved badly mainly the digging of the garden was a problem but gradually stopped with no choice especially after we fenced the area. Your ideas are very helpful to dog lovers.


alexadry profile image

alexadry 2 years ago from USA Author

Management is often the best option. Dog digs? Fence off areas. Dog surfs the counter? Limit exposure to the counter. Do chews shoes? Remove the shoes. Yes, we must train dogs, but at least when we are not around better off letting them not get in trouble rather than allowing them to rehearse behaviors we don't like.

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