I’m one of the few people in the world who never gave my child a “Time-Out.” But I can remember my niece and nephew often being sent to the stairs or a special chair for a few minutes to chill out. It’s not that I didn’t agree with them, my daughter just never did anything that warranted punishment … when she was little. But with my dogs, a very mellow Pit Bull and a very precocious Boston Terrier, things are a little different. A time-out is a very powerful tool when training. It’s not exactly the same as the time-out you put your child in, but it can certainly diffuse a situation and give the trouble maker time to rethink what she’s doing.
To dogs, a time-out is a punishment in that it briefly takes away the dog’s opportunity to engage in something she likes … being around the family, being around other dogs, being able to run around the house. For example, I worked with a very large Standard Poodle that liked to greet everyone by jumping up on them. Since he’s very tall, he could jump up and look you in the eye, and knock you right over. When he did this, we started using what’s called a “no reward marker,” which basically means we’d say “No” and turn our backs on him depriving him of our attention when he jumped to greet. I instructed the owners that they should never greet the dog until he had four on the floor–all four paws were on the floor. Until then, he got zero attention. The owners would keep going about what they were doing and turning away from the dog when he jumped. This is a form of a time-out in that you ignore the dog and give him a few seconds to rethink what he’s doing. We added a lot of exercise to his daily routine and taught him basic obedience commands so we could ask for other behaviors when he started to get revved up and jumping was looking like a possibility. But because of his size, we needed to take the time-out option one step further.
With smaller dogs, turning away from their jumping then rewarding them when they get four on the floor isn’t as difficult as it is with a dog who can knock you over. So when the owners came home and he started jumping without getting four on the floor pretty quickly, they said “No” and he was leashed and tethered to a spot away from the action. This was done calmly and quietly … no yelling or pulling. You’re just letting the dog know that what they’re doing isn’t acceptable so they don’t get the reward of your attention. The time-out only lasted a minute or so, but it gave the dog the chance to settle down and try the greeting again. Eventually, he realized that four on the floor got him praise and treats, which is pretty much all dogs want in life.
You can use a time-out in training for just about any situation, but can you use a dog’s crate for time-outs? A lot of trainers say no, but I don’t have a problem with it. As long as it’s done correctly. If your dog hates her crate or you have to drag her in by her collar and slam the door behind her, then absolutely do not use the crate for a time-out. Give time-outs quietly and calmly since the point isn’t to upset your dog but just not to interact with her. 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 her distinguish that from a time-out by giving her a toy or stuffed Kong in her crate and praise her.
With my two dogs, I’ve also used time-outs to help them settle when they get too rambunctious. If my daughter has her friends over and they start running around and the dogs get worked up and forget their manners, I’ve had to bring the dogs to their crates. Again, it’s not done with anger or force, its just done to let my dogs know that jumping up on the kids isn’t going to be rewarded with attention. They may spend a few minutes in their crates until they get settled, then we try again. It usually takes one time-out to let them know that if the want the attention and praise, they need to be good.
So if you decide to use a time-out with your dog, remember to stay calm and think of it as an opportunity for your dog to come back and make a better decision. It should last anywhere from 15 seconds to a minute or so and should remove the dog from the environment that she wants to be in. Even if it’s just you ignoring your dog until she gives a better behavior or putting her in her crate, it’s a time-out in that you’re depriving the dog of your attention. Keep it short, don’t feel guilty, and remember it’s a very powerful training tool.