Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Time outs - how to have a useful and effective consequence

Postby emmabeth » Mon Jan 30, 2012 6:58 pm - Originally published on

A correctly deployed and wisely used time-out is a very very effective consequence for unwanted behaviour. It is a bit of a grey area as to whether this is a positive punishment or a negative reward, I actually don't think it matters, what matters is how you use it, when you use it and why you use it.

What is it

A time out is when you remove the dog from the room, or yourself from the room, for between 5 and 15 seconds, to provide a clear cut consequence for unwanted behaviour. It needs to be done swiftly and without lots of chatter or recriminations or chasing the dog around, so that the dog can link the time out with his own behaviour.


Fido is barking in the face of Fluffy. Fluffy has a toy Fido would like and he is bullying Fluffy by yelling at her, to give it up. Using my body rather than my hands and voice, I push Fido out of the room, shut the door, count to ten and let him back in.
I repeat this every single time Fido attempts to start bullying Fluffy again for the toy.

What happens...

Done correctly, Fido learns that his behaviour, bullying Fluffy for the toy, results in the opposite of what he wanted. He doesn't get the toy, in fact he gets NO attention whatsoever and his behaviour is interrupted and prevented from working. After a few repetitions, Fido realises this tactic will not work.

Is it really that simple?

Yes - and No.

On the one hand, the basic bones of it is really that simple, however this is positive dog training here - if we just give Fido a time out and we do not ask "Why is Fido bullying Fluffy? we are not thinking dog owners, we will just be using a punishment to eradicate a symptom.

A time out is a useful consequence as one element of a behaviour modification program - used alone, without addressing the underlying issues, without demonstrating to Fido appropriate ways of communicating, without considering Fidos actual needs, it will lead, just as other forms of punishment will, to the behaviour or related behaviour popping up elsewhere.

So lets go back to Fido and Fluffy - we need to know more about them!

Fido is a 8 month old terrier pup - Fluffy is a 2 year old Deerhound b itch. This means neither of them are mature adult animals. Fido has a huge amount of testosterone swirling around his body and these hormones are pushing him to test his boundaries and try out behaviours to see where they get him. Fluffy hasn't the confidence or maturity to do anything about him bullying her, an older b itch might make a face at him or air-snap, or just get up and walk away but Fluffy isn't old enough for that sort of wise behaviour yet.

We can't stop Fido being a juvenile male dog, and we can't magically make Fluffy become a wise, sensible lady - they are who they are. So what can we do?


Dog's don't really do sharing all that well, it isn't natural, so ideally (not that any of us live in an ideal world), if we make sure that Fido and Fluffy are kept mentally as well as physically exercised, with lots of training, games, walks of suitable distances for their age. If we make sure there ARE plenty of toys to go around, and that we rotate these toys daily so a different selection is available each day, we occupy their minds by feeding from food dispensing toys and we manage their interactions so there is really no opportunity to compete or vie for the same resources, we can generally prevent such behaviour.

In other examples of unwanted behaviour there are other ways of preventing it - it is up to us to find those ways (and to deal with it when we make a mistake as we inevitably will), and to offer appropriate outlets for necessary behaviour. That means giving the dog who chews furniture and wallpaper access to lots of chewy toys and foods and limited access to furniture and wallpaper, giving the dog who is addicted to your smelly socks and underwear lots of opportunities to track scents on cue and no opportunities to get at our dirty laundry, etc etc!


We can identify when the behaviour is likely to occur - ie, when Fido is bored, when he is antsy, when he is full of energy, when he doesn't have his own toy, and when Fluffy has something that looks interesting. Because we can do that, we can and we should step in first. The time to react is before Fido gets into a full on tantrum, bullying Fluffy. If you can spot him eyeballing Fluffy's toy, getting himself in a tizz, you can offer him another toy and a game with you that should be more rewarding. You could take him to another room and play with him there, you could do some clicker training with him or some impulse control games. There are a multitude of ways you could distract Fido before he starts to bully Fluffy.

So when do I use a time out

When you are sure that you are meeting your dogs physical and mental needs, and you are doing your best to pre-empt unwanted behaviour and distract your dog or 'change the subject' with him before he goes down the route of unwanted behaviour, then when you mess up, when you miss that chance to pre-empt, when despite your endeavors to meet your dogs needs, he does the unwanted thing anyway** then you time out.

**Lots of us will have dogs who have developed unwanted behaviours already, either through our own errors or the errors made by previous owners - then we take steps to do all three at the same time and we need to use the time outs.

The point I am making here is, time outs have to be used thoughtfully and carefully and in conjunction with pre-empting behaviours and taking steps to prevent them occurring in the first place. To use them otherwise is little better than waiting for your dog to mess up then pointlessly shouting No at it.

Common errors in using time outs

Asides from the obvious, using time outs without attempting to think about why the dog is behaving that way, how we can pre-empt and prevent that and provide appropriate outlets for the behaviour where relevant, these are the common mistakes:

1/ Putting the dog out of the room for several minutes or even longer.
It is tempting to think that a time out of 5 minutes to 30 minutes or more will be more effective than just 5 to 15 seconds. It really isn't.

When you time a dog out for 5 seconds, you provide a short, sharp, clear consequence that is easily linked by the dog, to the action/behaviour/thing he was doing and thinking about at the time the consequence occurred.
If you leave that dog shut out of the room for much more than this, they forget - they wander off, they start focussing on how they are shut out and alone and sad, they start barking or shredding carpet or they fall asleep. Whatever happens, they forget what happened and why it happened and the message is lost.

2/ Human inconsistency.

This is a biggy - a time out has to happen as soon as the behaviour starts (ie as soon as the dog thinks of doing it!) and it has to happen every time as well.

Humans being what they are, ie, sloppy, inconsistent creatures - we ignore it, we think oh I will get up in a minute, we are watching tv we are eating our meal, we are talking on the phone or having a natter with our partner. Whatever, but the more inconsistent we are, the worse the behaviour will become because once you are inconsistent you are telling the dog sometimes this behaviour can happen. If there is a 'sometimes' then the dog will ALWAYS try it. Just think about the sometimes and the maybes in your life - sometimes you will win at bingo. Sometimes that horse will come in. Sometimes the girl will say yes...

We bet on sometimes, we repeat behaviours that work 'sometimes'.

How often do you repeat a behaviour that works never?

3/ The Extinction Burst

Linked to the 'sometimes' issue - this is where a dog is juuuuuuust about to get the idea that this behaviour works never - just before that happens, they try harder! And very very frequently the human sees this and interprets it wrongly as the method not working, and gives up.

What is actually happening is not freaky or unusual, in fact its something we humans do all the time. If a thing always worked before, well its worth trying a little harder when it stops working.
The tv starts to blip, but it always worked before so in frustration, you hit it - bingo, it works. Now you hit it every time it blips, and one day that doesn't work. Do you give up and buy a new tv immediately?

No - you hit it twice!

Your car always starts, until one day it doesn't - you turn the key a few more times, it starts, so now you have learned to try three times instead of once. When it doesn't work on the third try.. do you immediately head over to the car sales place and buy a new one? Nope. You turn the key four times, five times...

Even really OBVIOUS things, we will try harder.

You come into the house and you flick the lightswitch - it doesn't come on - you flick it again. Now - even when you walk into the house, and there is no electrical noise, all the street lights outside are off, none of your neighbours have their lights on, ie, your entire environment tells you there is a power cut, there is no juice in the whole street.... you STILL flick the light switch don't you.

So, when your dog tries something that has always worked, and now it doesn't - he would be a total dummy to NOT try it again at least once or twice!

4/ Three strikes and you're out

This generally won't work and just makes the whole process longer and less effective. You have to prevent the behaviour working every single time, and because dogs cannot reason quite the same way as kids (and heck, small children don't reason anywhere NEAR as well as adults think they do either!) this is not a helpful strategy.

5/ Chasing the dog around, grabbing the dog, shouting at the dog

This again muddies up the message you are giving to your dog. Don't argue, wheres the point arguing with a dog. Don't yell or grab or hit, that just sends the message that YOU are scarypants and need to be avoided and it takes the dogs focus from whatever he was doing, to YOU and your behaviour.

Set yourself up so that either you remove the dog, or you remove yourselves, depending on what the problem is, with the least amount of fuss possible. This may mean instructing a visitor to step outside the room adn close the door over and over again, this may mean putting a harness and trailing house line on the dog. Whatever it takes, you have a huge human brain and you can think of ways around this problem!

6/ Giving up too soon!

Some dogs, for some behaviours will take five, ten, twenty five repetitions of the time out - you must be prepared to jump up and time out the dog every time, over and over and over and over. For long standing, ingrained behaviours it is hard work and you must be on the ball and you must not quit. Also be ready to reward heavily the first signs that your dog is getting it and actively choosing NOT to repeat that behaviour, you may only get a split second opportunity with some dogs!

The first time you start doing this it can be very hard work and very frustrating. If you have a dog with a really irritating and long standing issue, for example, barking AT you for long periods, you may find it better to actively set up a day to get started, a day where your meals will be portable, stand up type food, where no visitors will come, where the phone is off the hook. Do be reassured that after the first session it is rarely ever as bad again!

The other trick to use if you think your dog REALLY isn't getting it, is to 'change the subject' - ie, if you have done a million repetitions of the time out, and Doggo is still persisting and you don't know why and you fear you might lose your rag - instead of letting Doggo back into the room, YOU go out and you take him for a walk or you go in the yard and play, anything other than what was happening before. Go and chill out doing something else, something easy, and think the problem through and see if you cannot employ pre-empting or prevention to better effect in future.

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