House rules and time-outs

Last week on our Facebook page, we mentioned that we were about to start the time-outs regimen with Mr. Doodlebug for house rule infractions — in that specific instance, it was barking through the window at people walking by our house. We got a few cries of “tell us more!” and we promised . . . so now we deliver.

Although we use positive reinforcement for most of our training, we also think there’s a place for negative consequence for bad behavior. Not old-school punishment or intimidation (yelling, jerking, squirting with water, hitting), but just consequence — removal of the positive. Time-outs for house rules do just that. We learned about this from our trainer Lee Mannix years ago, and have been reminded of it lately by his successor — and my boss — Shari at the Canine Center in Austin.

In our home, the dog rules that have needed teaching — Chick a few years ago and Dude now — are (1) no jumping on the furniture without permission (Chick and Dude); (2) no jumping up on company when they come over (Chick); (3) no barking out the windows at everyday things (Dude); and (4) no stealing human food off tables or counters (Chick and Dude).

Here’s how we do it. We clip a long, thin line (this can be nylon cord or rope or a very thin leash — NOT the regular walking leash) on to the Dude’s collar, and let him drag it around the house whenever we’re home. When he breaks a rule, we grab the tail end of the cord and start walking toward a designated “time out” spot — in our case, the bathroom. As soon as there is tension on the line, we say our “time-out” words in a cheerful voice — never angry. This can be whatever word you choose to designate to mean “you just broke a rule, too bad for you.” We walk the dog in to time out (never talking to the dog or touching him, just walking him in), shut the door, and leave him in there for 20 minutes (though if a dog barks or whines — neither of ours does this — the 20 min starts from when silence begins). At the end of 20 min, the dog is released and ignored for a few minutes, then normal life resumes. If he goes right back to the naughty activity, another time out.

The Dude and his time-out line

We’ve heard and read that dogs learn in repetitions of 4 or 6, and we’ve found this to be true. If we are consistent and catch a dog in the act 4-6 times in a row, he will stop breaking that rule. However, dogs don’t generalize well, so you may teach your dog not to bark out the living room window, but then he thinks it’s still ok to bark out the kitchen window or the screen door. A lot of dogs need the full 4-6 reps at each spot before they understand the rule applies to that specific circumstance too.

For this to work, the house rules have to be clear and agreed-upon by all members of the household, and everybody must participate. You also have to be able to interrupt the behavior every time it happens — so if you want to teach your dog not to bark at the window, you have to keep your dog away from the window when you’re not in the house to supervise. A crate, a bedroom in the back of the house, or even some physical barriers (sticky paper or window shades) can help. Same with counter-surfing — if you want to teach your dog not to steal things off the counter, don’t leave things on the counter when you’re not there to catch her in the act. Sending an inconsistent message –sometimes stealing will land you in jail, and sometimes nothing will happen and you’ll get to eat a box of donuts — will only confuse your dog and teach her to be quicker and stealthier in her pursuits.

Naturally, this method isn’t a substitute for good old-fashioned obedience training and relationship-building, which should be the foundation of any dog’s good behavior program. If you have a dog who’s just unruly and wild, doesn’t know any rules and doesn’t seem to listen — or a dog who doesn’t much care whether he’s where you are or not, it’s best to do some good training before or during this process. If you’ve tried obedience training — and done all your homework — and you haven’t made the progress you’d like, it may be time to find a different trainer or training center.

Timeout can be anywhere that the fun is not.

And finally — this is really important — time-outs should be used only for bad habits, and NOT for behavioral issues related to fear or anxiety. Fear and anxiety are deep-rooted issues that should be resolved slowly and delicately with an experienced trainer’s help. Putting a dog in time-out for panic-induced chewing or fear-induced growling can only exacerbate the problem by teaching the dog that there really IS a good reason to be scared or anxious.

We first learned about the use of time-outs when we were training Chick years ago at the training center where I now am an intern/apprentice. They worked like a charm. Within a few days, he was a changed dog, and to this day he remembers the meaning of our time-out word. We haven’t used them for most of our fosters, but now that we have a window-and-doorbell-barker, we’re back at it again. Has anybody implemented a time-out system for house rules? How has it worked for you?

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50 responses

  1. I am glad to read this. We have a window barker that we have been trying to break of the barking, with no success. Now I know where to start on this annoying habit. Thanks so much for your blog.

  2. My puppy Kobi is a window and doorbell barker as well and also jumps on people when they come in the door. I’ve never heard of the time out method but it makes sense, I’ll be giving it a try.

  3. Aleksandra, that doesn’t work for our Best Friend. He barks at the doorbell something fierce, and it drives us crazy. But if I put him in room behind a closed door, the barking is even worse because it triggers his anxiety. He’ll damage the door (it’s actually happened). We’ve tried putting him in his bed; he goes, but he still barks his head off. Any suggestions?

    • One thing we’ve done is taught Greta “speak” and “quiet”. Once they were both really solid and I felt that she had a decent grasp on the difference, we stopped rewarding speak and heavily rewarded quiet. We still get one alarm “ZOMG The kids on scooters are back and going to kill us all!” bark but quiet calls her back and wards off the follow-up baying. She also tends to lunge from the living room to the front door to bark and quiet is starting to be enough to call her back mid lunge and head off a reaction at all.

    • Hmm. Our rottie growls quietly and barks a little when someone comes to the door because he thinks he’s warning us. It’s good for him to have a “job” (guard dog) so we let him make noise until we answer the door, then we tell him “Enough, thank you” and he stops because he has done his job. Rewarding him with a treat when he quieted down was a good way to start him on this, but now just the words are enough to let him know it’s ok, we’ve got it, you can go back to your bed. Good luck!

      • Yeah, I wouldn’t time-out for growling — EVER — because it’s often a fear response and a warning. If you teach your dog that it’s not ok to growl, then they may just skip it next time they’re afraid, and go straight for a snap or bite! Sounds like you’ve figured out something that works for you on this one– way to go!

      • My family and I are in no way experts or even knowledgable on proper ways to train dogs (that’s why I started following this blog!), so whenever my Aussie growled/barked at people at the door we just yelled at him or took him to some back part of the house. I’m seeing now that this was not a good idea, and explains why he never quit the habit. I will definitely try the time-out technique that Aleksandra suggested and yours as well, about rewarding him after he has done his “job”. I’m excited to see how it goes! Thanks!

    • Yeah, this is an instance where I’d try to work on the anxiety first — teach him to be apart from you for a few seconds, then a few minutes, etc. Also for anxious dogs, I bet you could make “time-out” be another spot in the room on a tie-down where he can watch you but will be ignored.

      Does he bark for attention, or something else? If he is an attention barker, you can only phase it out by ignoring it completely — as soon as he stops barking for a few seconds, you can praise and give him the attention he craves. When he starts barking again, turn off all of your attention and emotion. It’s hard, but it can work. This wouldn’t just be when the doorbell rings, but all the time — if he barks for his dinner, ignore until he quiets. If he barks when you come home to get petted, ignore him completely until he calms down and acts quiet. It could be a lot of barking at first — 20 minutes — but he should chill out eventually, and the time period will get shorter and shorter as he starts to understand.

      You can also desensitize him to the doorbell noise itself by ringing it randomly and having nothing happen. If he starts to learn that the doorbell rarely actually precedes excitement, he may learn to be less excited about it. Not sure though.

      Good luck!

  4. This is great info! When we took Turk to training, we learned about “do better conferences,” which is kind of the same idea, but we haven’t actually utilized them in awhile. I might just have to try these techniques!

  5. Actually, that is probably consider Negative Punishment: (P-) in training terms and it mean the removal of a pleasant or reinforcing stimulus in order to decrease a behavior. So you are just adding or removing something positive to get the behavior you want. You are removing the Dude from getting to see those exciting people. Postive reminforment and negative punishment are the backbone of positive training!! Negative reinforcment and positive punishment both use adversive methods.

    Definition: The removal of a pleasant or reinforcing stimulus in order to decrease a behavior.

    Negative Punishment (P-) (Operant)

    Definition: The removal of a pleasant or reinforcing stimulus in order to decrease a behavior.

    Example: A dog that seeks attention jumps on visitors and the owners when they arrive home, to decrease the behavior the owners don’t give the dog any attention.

    Example: A dog that seeks attention jumps on visitors and the owners when they arrive home, to decrease the behavior the owners don’t give the dog any attention.

  6. I love all the tips and tricks you show us!! Any tips on how to keep your greybull pup from clearing the fence (its a temporary setup, we are hoping in the next 2 weeks we are going to be able to finish our 6 foot privacy fence)? This morning, I stood on the porch while he did his business, then started clapping and in a happy voice called him and he galloped over. Do I have to stay outside every time, or do you know of anything we can do to get him to stay in the yard? The strangest thing is that he will just jump the fence, and then run to our neighbors front porch (the fenced in part is our back yard, with a wooden porch and slider, and the neighbors and our front is cement porch and regular door) and sit there to come in??

    • Not sure about this one. Can you anticipate under what circumstances he jumps the fence, and does he only jump in the same spot? You could try teaching him not to approach that area of the yard at all, but this would take some work and total supervision. Until you finish your privacy fence, you should probably stay out there the whole time — if he practices jumping your current fence, he is more likely to try jumping your 6ft fence. Our first foster Lollie Wonderdog can get over an 8 ft fence, so I know it’s possible . . .

  7. When I first got my second pup, Rose, she was young and hadn’t spent much time with her littermates and as a result was a nipper. I started with time-out the night I brought her home. It was really frustrating for me and I wish I had been more patient with her; however, she quickly grew out of nipping. I didn’t leave her for 20 minutes though, just 1 full minute after the whining stopped.

    • Fantastic! The 20 minutes is used at first because it takes 20 minutes for a dog’s brain to go through the full excitement cycle. After 4-6 reps on one “rule” with 20 min, we usually go down to 1-2 minutes, and that works just fine. But if the short time period worked for you to begin with, awesome!

      • I didn’t know that. She was only 12 weeks old so while I wanted to let her know immediately, I also had a lot of guilt. Luckily, she picked up pretty quickly.

  8. Hmm… My last comment seems to have gotten lost after I hit “send”. (If it pops up, feel free to delete this one.)

    We have been very successful in using time-outs to make Badger and Mushroom pay attention to us when they’re playing with each other. If they ignored us and kept playing, they’d get a short time-out. If they listened to us, we’d give them a couple of commands (and treats) and then let them play again. Now they are quite good at paying attention to us – if they’re getting a little rowdy, I can even just shout “Hey, break it up!” from across the room, and they’ll settle down.

  9. We use timeouts in our house with our little “special” dog Dexter. He gets super wacky sometimes and just won’t leave our female Izzy alone – following her around, biting her face/neck, chewing on her back legs, and being an overall pesky little brother. We tried correcting it the old fashioned way with distraction and providing something he could bite at… but eventually we found timeouts work best. When he starts to bite at her the timeout is immediate. We just tell him “time out in your house”. He actually walks himself to the timeout spot now!! He’s in there for as long as it takes for him to calm down, usually 30 minutes. When he comes out he usually is on better behavior, but if not… back in the house he goes.

    With spring being here we’ve opened all the windows, and of course now he’s doing like the Dude and barking at EVERYTHING. So we’re also using timeouts for this… it hasn’t worked yet, but we’re making progress.

    Love timeouts…. so does Izzy. :)

  10. I give all my classes a handout on using time-outs. It is such a useful tool when used consistently, though I only put them in time-out for 5 minutes.

      • 20 minutes is the time it takes for a dog’s brain to reset, so if your time-outs are for a rule infraction during which the dog is in a state of arousal, it can take the full 18-20 for the dog to chill out and get over it, so to speak. For many dogs fewer than 20 minutes will work too, but in some cases progress can be slower.

  11. One question: would a crate work? Our foster dog couldn’t really be trusted in a bathroom or bedroom for time-outs that long as she gets herself into trouble very easy, haha. Her biggest issue is not giving us space when we’re eating.

      • Yes, you are right. but you can use a crate for time out too, since timeout is not interpreted as a negative, but rather the removal of a positive. It should not affect the dog’s relationship w the crate.

  12. I used the “time-out” with Buddy when he was younger and my only dog. I lived in a small condo so his kennel was his time-out. It really did work well. Now that we have the three the biggest issue we have is that damn doorbell. It started with just 1 (Devo) barking at the door bell, then Bella joined in, and now Buddy does it too. I hate when that damn doorbell rights. I only have 2 hands, so how do you break 3 dogs of that bad habit?? Any advice?? :)

    We’ve been able to focus on each individual dogs behaviors so far because they’re all so different and happen at different times. This is the only thing I literally cringe at the thought of fixing.

    • You know the answer — train each of them separately until they are all totally solid, and then start training them together. Set up doorbell rings (use a friend), and have two dogs put up (in a crate / their room / the yard), and work one dog only. Then switch dogs. Then switch again. Once all three are consistently able to NOT bark at the doorbell, try combos of two dogs, then all three. It’s tough!

  13. Can I say how much I love you and your dogs again? I look forward to your posts and especially your pics every day!

    Here’s a question for you: my sister has a sheltie that barks barks barks. When she runs outside, she chases the birds and “barks” them away. She barks to go outside all the time. My sister’s husband is disabled with Parkinson’s and the dog drives him crazy and the dog gets yelled and screamed at all the time. “Amber shut up! Amber get in the house! Amber come!” Obviously the dog won’t come, and the dog won’t stop barking.

    I have tried to teach them to use a word other than her name like “Quiet!” and bringing her in the house, but they give up too soon and the dog doesn’t listen anyway. I feel sorry for the dog because she is constantly yelled at and is just trying to do a “job”, she is a sheltie, she is herding birds.

    She is a sweet, beautiful, shy dog who hides under the bed when she isn’t barking. If you try to get her to come out, she hides more. Probably because she gets no positive reinforcement.

    What can I do to make her life better? That is easy for my sister’s family to be consistent with, without too much effort, because that’s not gonna work with them.

    Thank you for any advice you can give me.

    • They should probably invest in some training — have a positive methods trainer / behavioral specialist work with them on building a better relationship with the dog. The barking to chase away birds sounds like it’s not a real problem, but the barking to go outside is not ok and merits time-outs. Yelling won’t work, since she doesn’t understand what is expected of her. At this point, there is no consequence for the barking, so she has no reason not to do it. And if it occasionally gets her a free pass outside, then every time that door opens as a result of barking, the behavior is just reinforced over and over again.

      Where do they live?

      • they live in Antioch, IL. They don’t have the money to hire a trainer. They bought the dog because it was “pretty”. they had my mom’s old one when she died, and she didn’t bark. This one is totally different, and it breaks my heart to see her treated llike she is. Sometimes I think about stealing her, but the baby who is almost 3 loves her. But even she tells Amber to shut up! They have tried barking collars and sonic things to no avail. I keep hoping with time she will get better.

  14. Can you explain what’s so negative about a squirt of water or a spank on the behind? When I was growing up, these were methods trainers taught us and they worked pretty well for our dogs. I read about one dog owner who turned the sprinkler system on every time his dog barked needlessly/incessantly in the yard, and it curbed the bad habit in a couple of days. These seem like reasonable and harmless methods to me. Thanks.

    • Yes, absolutely. But what you’re talking about are two different things. The sprinkler is actually a smart idea — it’s what we call an “environmental correction.” That dog essentially learns that HE makes the sprinkler turn on by barking, and if he doesn’t bark, the sprinkler doesn’t turn on. He doesn’t realize that the owner is involved. Environmental corrections can work great, but *only if the dog does not see the owner do it.*

      Spanking is a whole different ballgame — it is an intimidation tactic. Behavior science has evolved a lot in the last 20 years, and more recent science has proven that encouraging the dog to do the right thing (by showing/telling the dog what to do and then rewarding him/her for it) is a far more effective and efficient way to get predictable results. Spanking, yelling, screaming, and threatening can get a dog to stop a behavior sometimes, but it doesn’t help the dog understand what it’s supposed to do instead.

      Plus, when you yell at / threaten / hit your dog, you’re not doing much for your relationship. If you build your relationship with your dog based on trust, fun, and learning, your dog is much more likely to do what you ask

  15. Izzy doesn’t do great in timeouts either. She will come through a door I’m sure, we do crate her sometimes but she is typically not a happy camper in there and we can hear her bedding ripping to shreds. I do think it is anxiety rooted though. Good thing we have a doorbell session with our behaviorist tonight!! Excited to have something to work on.

    PS…your floors are so clean. Are Dude and Chick not big shedders? I guarantee my hardwoods would show a few furs if I took a shot like that!

  16. What an awesome idea! Our 2 are both TERRIBLE when people come over. The jumping/general craziness only lasts about a minute, but its the longest minute on earth. Time out is a great idea, we will have to give it a try, thanks!

  17. We usually put Molly in her kennel when company comes over for the first 10 minutes or so due to some barking, and the overall stress of a new person in the house. She used to take a very very long time to get used to visitors or would voluntarily stay in her kennel the whole time they were there, now she is much more receptive and is able to settle down and enjoy new friends within a couple minutes. We are now working on Brodie relaxing around guests whom he assumes are there to see him, pet him and hang out with him :). We also do utilize the squirt bottle in a few cases. The first is when the dogs are rough housing and will not respond to their verbal cue of Enough, one squirt will break their concentration and then we do a settle to relax for a bit. We also implement the squirt bottle when we have a barking, whining, fit throwing dog in the crate, the behavior is ignored, ignored, ignored, but when it has persisted for an hour or more we walk in during the fit throwing give a squirt and walk out and ignore again. We implement the squirt bottle as a concentration breaker. With our usage of the squirt bottle we have had positive results, and are confident that our dogs well being has not been compromised in the slightest. I realize there are many methods for training, and 100 ways to get a desired result. Our training approach is based upon our dogs having a strong relationship with us, not being fearful of us or ever being harmed mentally or physically, and we feel we are accomplishing all of those things with our methods :).

    • I use the squirt bottle with my cat. You can’t train a cat like a dog. But a squirt bottle works to dissuade him from the counters etc. When I’m around anyway, lol

  18. Thank you for posting this!
    Just a week or so ago I posted on Life by Pets about our barking problem. THe biggest issue is that the dogs feed off each other- Larry barks at the car driving by and June barks at Larry, and we just go in a big circle.
    We do use time outs with June, and have since she was a puppy (sometimes she’ll “ask” for a timeout and dives into her crate the second she can get to it) but have never really thought of it in this organized a fashion. We will have to try it with Larry- either get him a crate of his own or put him in the bathroom.
    Thanks again for this great idea.

  19. This advice is great, I’ll have to forward it to my husband. Our dogs are great when I get home, sometimes I’m ignored completely but usually I am greeted at the gate, sniffed and then they wait until I unlock the door and go inside before they enter, they then find their spots and wait for me to come and say hello. My husband is the opposite and they go nuts when he comes home, but he tends to get them excited so perhaps the time-out is meant for him ;-)

  20. I just discovered your blog, and it is tremendously helpful, and so well written! And your dogs are so adorable!! Can you suggest another way to motivate a dog’s behavior than treats/food? I adopted my dog from a shelter when she was 3, she had no socialization, but several behavioral issues. She doesn’t respond to food unless she’s hungry, so treats are not enticing to her. This makes it hard to reward her for positive behavior.

  21. great advice. I get the full complement of barking both when someone is at the door and when it’s on TV… it gets old.

    One further question, Jake has struggled with telling me he needs to go outside. He’s finally GOT IT! but now he’s going the other way…any time he’s bored or just wants to go out cause nothing’s happening inside he’ll bark to go out. and he can get incessant. I don’t want to discourage him telling me when he really has to go..but I do want to minimize the other? Ideas? He also doesn’t want to come in when I need him to go to bed and will just stand at the door or want me to chase him (which I don’t do) if I reach for his collar.

    He gets LOTS of outdoor time, park time, and daycare time so it’s not that he’s without fun… ;)

    • Hmm, I’ve never taught a dog to tell me when he has to go out, so I haven’t had that problem . . . I’m wondering if there’s some way to train him to ring a bell to go out and phase out the barking once he gets it — through ignoring and/or timeouts. It sounds like Jake has figured out how to bark for attention / as a threat, and it will be helpful to figure out how to get that to end — I just don’t think I have a solution for you myself!

      As for getting him to come back in the house, you have to train it. He currently thinks that being outside is generally more fun than being inside. This means that you have to (a) practice, practice, practice your recall from various points in the yard to inside the back door, and (b) make it more fun to be inside. You may want to play a quick game every time he does come back in, as well as multiple times throughout the day. Doesn’t have to be long, a 2-5 minute game will go a long way. Anything interactive is fine — running through his tricks, tug, fetch, whatever. Just make sure YOU are SUPER FUN!

  22. I’m not really sure I taught him to bark to go out or he found out that worked for me. I can be pretty focused at times on what I’m doing and politely standing by the door doesn’t really work when I’m in another room. It’s actually kinda funny..a very polite arf I have to go out. Not the same one as when he is in guard dog mode or excited about something.

    The problem is not barking for attention so much as it is that he wants to go out and in all the time not just when he needs to go outside. I don’t want to go back to when he was having accidents and not letting me know but I know he doesn’t need to go 4 or 5 times a night… The problem is I can’t always tell the difference and the intermittent reinforcement of sometimes letting him out is only ingraining this pattern.

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  25. Hi there! I came across your blog looking for some answers on the time-out structure. We have a 9mos old Shepherd/Border Collie mix named Piper. She was getting aggressive with us when we would tell her “too bad” and put her in time-out. Once I cam upon this post and read some of the comments, I realized the problem we were creating was putting her in timeout for growling when she was afraid. Woopsy!

    We have been training at the Canine Center here in Austin, and after reading some of your posts I realized you looked familiar, and that you also were referring to the Canine Center in Austin and it dawned on me, you were there when we took Piper in for her evaluation! She was the really cute black/white mix with aggressive issues. No wonder I was drawn to your blog, we have been learning the same wonderful things from the same people! :-)

    Anyway, I know this post is older, but what can we do instead of a time out when there is growling? For now we are just ignoring her. She will still listen when upset, so we can put her in a sit and lay down until she is calm. I will be emailing the Center about this, but though that others here might have the same question so I wanted your opinion.

    Thanks so much!

    Maggie

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