Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Misbehaving dog? A time-out might help

Liam the pug hangs his head while he is in time out
Liam hangs his head in shame.
Even the most well-behaved dog is apt to break out the bad behavior from time to time. In my opinion, dogs like to test the waters on occasion, just to see who is really in charge. If you enforce the rules, you're in charge. If you don't, the dog is in charge. Fun test, to be sure!

Yesterday, hopped up with his excitement from his new toy, Liam decided to test the boundaries. We had a walk full of pulling, followed by a prolonged episode of jumping up and then (the kicker) an episode of roughhousing with a screaming blind cat. We ended all of this fun with 3 minutes in time-out.

I am a big believer in the time-out system for this sort of augmented bad behavior. A time-out allows me to show Liam that his behavior is completely unacceptable, and it gives him a moment to collect his thoughts and calm down so he can rejoin polite society. I usually give him some sort of warning signal ("Enough!") and if the behavior continues, I say "Time out!" and put him in the bedroom or the bathroom and shut the door. I leave him there for 3 minutes (tops), and when I open the door, he is sitting nicely and is much better behaved.

Now, I use this system sparingly. In fact, I think I only resort to this punishment once or twice per year. In my opinion, it should be saved for big offenses (such as hurting the family cat). But there are many trainers out there, including this one, who suggest that it can be used for a wide variety of behaviors. I'm not sure about that, but then again, I don't have a dog who chronically misbehaves. If I did, I might feel a bit differently.

As an aside, I found this article while doing my research, and it has me a bit bemused. Firstly, the trainer suggests that once the dog understands what the warning command means, you can skip it altogether and progress to time out. I think that's a BIG mistake. The goal is not to put the dog in more time-out sessions. The goal is to get the dog to stop on the warning command. I have no idea why you would eliminate that cue. And secondly, this trainer suggests that a time-out should last 30 seconds to 2 minutes. In my opinion, a 30-second time-out is just too short to allow an excited dog to calm down. But you might disagree.