How to use time outs, (c) 2010-2018 Frania Shelley-Grielen all rights reserved
How do you know when to use time outs for pets? And what exactly do time outs look
like for a dog or a cat? Are you doing it right? Your two dogs playing tug-of-war in the
corner of the living room are starting to square off, bodies are tensing and those noises
you are hearing are not sounding like play growls anymore. Your resident cat, despite
your gradual integration strategy, is not taking to the newcomer cat you have
introduced and that occasional hiss is now turning into low and guttural yowling.
Your attempts at redirection are not working, what to do next? These are definite
“time out” times.
Using time outs correctly in scenarios with high arousal and high physical
conflict potential can help to prevent dangerous situations from getting more
so. For instance, removing the aggressor cat from the room allows for the
safety of the victim cat, it also allows you to support the appropriate individual
performing the appropriate behavior and to remove the potential reward or intrinsic
satisfaction of intended outcome of the aggressor’s behavior. In other words, the cat who
is not behaving aggressively is reinforced by the removal of the aggressor cat while the
aggressor cat’s desire and intention movements to aggress the victim cat
are not rewarded when the cat is moved into another area absent the victim cat where it
can settle down comfortably. Offering another, equally attractive treat or toy to both
dogs which they can enjoy out of sight of the other dog can redirect the dog's behavior.
Time outs can also work in safe, neutral corners of the same room with the right design.
Again and again with working with behavior you will hear that timing is
integral to the process working. Timing in time outs refers not just to introducing
the time out in concert with the behavior you are seeking to discourage; it also refers
to an appropriate duration of time out. In order to be an effective tool or strategy the
length of the time out has to be short enough (yes short enough) to be associated with
the immediate antecedent behavior (what just happened that you want the cat or the
dog to have in the now of their short term memory).
As much as you would like to, you simply can never, ever say to a cat or a dog,
“Do you know why I put you in time out?” and get the answer you would from a
human. If you do ask this (and people do despite the incomprehension of the pet)
you will not get an answer and the appeasement behavior you do get from a dog
-looking away, lip licking, yawning, etc., is not an admission of guilt more a request for
you to stop the scolding. This type of “conversation” with a cat will most probably get
you whiskers back, a head pulled further back on the body and depending on your
delivery, flattened ears and create a fearful cat who would like the scolding to stop as
well. In none of the scenarios will you be able to articulate the why for your pet with
language nor will your pet ever be able to understand the lecture. We are limited to
associations here and in order for those associations to work the briefer the time period
in between, the better.
I know this flies in the face of conventional practice but this is most probably because
time outs are being used as if cats and dogs were children who do understand lectures
and can use the same words we do to let us know exactly that. Duration will differ for
individuals and for species; for example, a cat will typically take longer to settle from a
highly aroused state than a dog and can benefit from a thirty minute interval whereas
with dogs three minutes are more appropriate.
Be very careful not to increase the behavior you are seeking to discourage
with the use of time outs. This happens when our timing in response to the behavior
is off (we have less than 3 seconds to act) and we lose any meaningful association with
the behavior and the time out. Keeping a time out going for an excessive amount of time
(from the pet perspective, not ours) also adds negative associations to the experience
itself including environment, handlers etc. For dogs, you frequently see this when the
dog has been redirected and has responded, after the dog has done what has been asked.
If the dog is lunging, barking, mounting, etc, and has been asked to stop and has
complied is usually when they are basically punished for listening. Because, after the
dog has stopped whatever they were doing, is usually when they are scolded, grabbed
and rushed into a time out that is too long (remember, a time out works best for a dog if
it is less than three minutes). This also happens because frequently aversive or negative
corrections precede or follow the time out -doing things like scolding or shaking or
scruffing, all unnecessary rough handling that causes pain or discomfort and will work
against any positive benefit. Using timeouts incorrectly signal to a dog that just being
around other dogs or situations they find objectionable leads to punishment and creates
fear and displacement behaviors.
A much more effective way to change unwanted behavior is to reward the
dog's redirected behavior and move forward. If the dog has done what you have
asked let the dog know that this is what you want by reinforcing the behavior you have
requested. Remember, offering a treat to a dog that has stopped barking rewards the
quiet and not the barking, especially when the treat is preceded by a “quiet” or “shush”
or “good quiet” or “good shush”, etc. In every situation you need to address what is
creating the conflict and work towards eliminating that.
For the dog that is dog reactive extra attention paid before the dog has the opportunity
to react sets up a successfully positive association. This of course requires timing again
—if your dog reacts when a dog is ten feet away start engaging when you see a dog 20
feet away, etc. Engagements, whether they are you talking to your dog or playing tag
or treating or ball squeaking are going to be whatever positive interactions you can
have your dog respond to. Take the time to explore multiple high value options in
progressively distracting environments to find what works with your individual dog.
Your dog may adore a dog biscuit in your living room and totally ignore it on the street
with all its more immediate and attractive distractions. Try things like cooked chicken
which is way more tempting that a dry biscuit to see if that works, and if not chicken
how about freeze dried liver or salmon? Some dogs could care less for that dog treat but
love a squeaky toy, use the best squeaky toy to reward that dog (make sure to work on
your "off" and "take it" to get it back for re-use.) Do work with your low distraction
environment to build more focus with your dog. Use that biscuit or toy in your living
room and recruit someone to create small and minor distractions so you can reward
your puppy for not paying attention. Repeat several times over several days and
increase distractions. At some point you will need to up the treat value to maintain
This strategy is also way more effective at changing dog reactive or other unwanted
behaviors. For cats, preemptive work includes grabbing attention when both cats are in
sight of each other. Start with a fishing wand toy that your cats likes to play with, when
the scenario calls for more immediate focus use a laser pointer initially and switch to a
fishing wand toy (laser pointers are ultimately frustrating because the cat can never
“catch” them and frustration is not where you want to go here.) For more on cat play
and take a look here.
(c) 2010-2018 Frania Shelley-Grielen all rights reserved
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
"As much as you would like to, you
simply can never, ever say to a cat
or a dog, “Do you know why I put
you in time out?” and get the answer
you would from a human. If you do
ask this (and people do despite the
incomprehension of the pet)"
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
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