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Time-Outs for Dogs: Down Time for Poor Behavior

We know that reinforcing dog behavior we like is key to seeing more of it. Unfortunately, simply ignoring behavior we don’t care for isn’t always enough to make it go away, particularly when the target behavior is self-reinforcing. A dog doesn’t need a cookie from us to keep humping other dogs if humping works to gain the attention of other dogs. Same with barking at other dogs to elicit play. And dogs with “tarzan” or bullying tendencies will happily go on interacting with fellow canines inappropriately regardless of whether we look the other way.

So what to do when a dog you walk engages in a behavior you don’t like? Make sure there’s a consequence, that whatever result the dog is seeking is removed. One sure-fire way to teach dogs to drop unwanted behaviors from their repertoire is employing a well-timed and executed time-out protocol.

Here’s a 4-step time-out protocol you can use in just about any situation, plus some tips to maximize the success of your training.

Step 1. Identify the unwanted behavior
Decide what is okay and what isn’t for a particular dog. We’ll call our example dog Spot and identify his project behavior as humping. Next, think about how the unwanted behavior usually begins. We don’t want to wait to give feedback when Spot has already been humping another dog for 30 seconds; that’s sloppy training and will lead to disappointing results. So we have to define what the beginning of the humping sequence looks like. What directly precedes the humping? Perhaps we’ve noticed that after a couple of moments of play Spot starts to get ramped up, at which point he begins to maneouver toward the back end of the dog he’s playing with. We want to interrupt about then, as play is ramping up. We want to short-circuit the sequence that leads to the target behavior.

Step 2. Praise Spot for getting it right
While play is going smoothly, praise Spot—let him know that he’s doing well. It’s important to give dogs lots of positive feedback when they’re getting things right and making good choices. As humans we’re often quick to focus on the negative, but a training plan that doesn’t actively seek to reward positive behavior isn’t nearly as effective as one that only focuses on timing out poor behavior choices.

Step 3. Give a warning cue
As soon as you see the tell-tail sign that the unwanted sequence is beginning—in Spots, case, the ramping up—give your warning cue. This could be “Ah-ah” or “Easy” or “Careful” or “Shazam.” Dogs don’t know English, so what you say doesn’t really matter. Just choose something and use it consistently. (A quick tip here: Choose something you’ll be able to easily say without anger in your voice. Remember that you’re simply providing the dog with a reminder that he has a choice to make. Your training will always be more successful if you maintain a cheerful, even countenance.)

If Spot responds to the warning, praise him cheerfully (“Good boy! Nice play!”) and allow play to continue.

Step 4. Give the time-out
If Spot does not heed your warning and instead continues the sequence and makes a move to go to the back of the dog to hump, give him your time-out cue (something like “Bummer!” or “Too bad!”) and execute a time-out by leashing him up and removing him from play.

“Bummer” (or whatever you choose to say) is the time-out cue. It tells Spot the moment he won himself the time-out, so that over time he begins to understand the behavior choice that’s ending his fun. Saying something silly like “Bummer” or “Oh well” also reminds us to stay calm; no need to be angry. Spot’s not trying to be naughty. He just doesn’t understand how to play properly and we’re working to help him learn.

The time-out itself is a consequence. What we’re essentially telling Spot is, “When you play that way play will end.” The time-out should be short—30 to 60 seconds—and then Spot should be released to try again. If you are employing the time-out procedure consistently (which is critical to its success) and not seeing any change over a week or so, you might up the ante by giving a longer time-out on the very first incident each day; perhaps even ending play altogether for that day and keeping Spot on leash.

Time-outs can also be done on leash walks. When dogs are running free, being put on leash is a bummer of a consequence. But what if they’re already on leash? Follow the same time-out procedure and then, for the time-out itself, try making the leash quite short, so that Spot can only walk right next to you instead of sniffing about. Or you can even simply stop and stand stock still in one place on a shortened leash for 30 seconds. Don’t talk to or look at Spot during this time or interact with him in any other way. In other words, the time-out is 30 seconds of boredom.

When the time-out procedure is followed consistently you’ll see Spot begin to self-regulate. He’ll begin to anticipate your warning cue and automatically take the play down a notch, or take a quick break (this could be in the form of shaking off, pausing, a head turn away from his playmate, etc.) before you even give the cue. Praise like crazy when this happens. And pat yourself on the back, too!