How to use
"time outs"
How to use time outs, (c) 2010-2019 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.
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
 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 focus.  

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.

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both cats and dogs can benefit from the right redirection at times
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)"

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Entire website copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
Timing and duration are the most important things to get right in a time out
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