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.
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.
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?