How to use time outs

By 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 new- comer 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 “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, 2-3 minutes) 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 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 please take a look here.

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