Should Timeouts Be Used As Punishment In Dog Training?

Using “timeouts” as a form of punishment for unwanted behavior has become popular in many dog training circles, particularly with “Positive” dog trainers, because they believe it's gentle or non-aversive. Whether a timeout is “aversive” or not is questionable but the real reason “Positive” trainers opt for timeouts is because they have ethical beliefs that prohibit the use of threats, reprimands, force or physical punishments. This is not to say they don’t use punishment, they absolutely do, but their goal is to only use what in behavioral science is called negative punishment.

 

Science Geek Alert: Although it may sound like negative punishment would mean bad punishment, in operant conditioning terms, negative means subtraction or removal. 

 

So, negative punishment is a means of reducing a behavior by withholding or removing rewards. A timeout (removing the dog from social interactions) is considered negative punishment, therefore it is an “approved” form of punishment in “Positive” or “Force-Free” dog training communities.   

 

Aside from being non-physical, if a timeout is being used as a punishment for unwanted behavior, we need to analyze a few things, such as: 

 

Is it actually effective at stopping the unwanted behavior?

Is it actually aversive to the dog?

Is it a good idea to use social isolation as punishment? 

 

Let’s take a deeper look:  

 

Management vs Punishment

 

If a timeout is truly non-aversive, meaning the dog doesn’t mind it, then how in the world can it be used as a punishment? Regardless of how you feel about punishment, the science of basic learning theory tells us that punishment must be aversive, otherwise it is not punishment and will therefore not stop the unwanted behavior. So, if the selling point for timeouts is that they are non-aversive, which means they shouldn’t work as a punishment, then why do so many trainers claim that they work? Hmm, that’s a beard stroker. Something doesn’t add up here, so let’s analyze a few things that might be happening when timeouts are used in dog training. 

 

  1. The Dog Doesn’t Mind Social Isolation: One thing that all professional dog trainers and behaviorists can agree on is that good dog training involves conditioning a dog to be comfortable being alone. (This may, in fact, be the ONLY thing that all trainers agree on.) Often this means teaching a dog to love going in a crate but it can also include being in the backyard, garage or even loose alone in the house. The point is that we need to foster an overall sense of calmness and wellbeing for these places and conditions so the dog can be alone without experiencing negative emotions. This means that a well-trained dog will indeed experience a timeout as non-aversive, which is the selling point for positive dog training, but this also means it is simply a form of “management” and not a punishment at all. The benefit of using a timeout as management is that it prevents the dog from rehearsing the unwanted behavior, which is certainly helpful, but it is highly unlikely that the dog has any concept of wrongdoing. This is super important, are you getting this? In other words, the dog isn’t in timeout “thinking about what he did wrong'' like a child would do, he’s just chilling out in his crate like he has a million times. (Assuming we are following the good dog training practice of making social isolation a positive experience for the dog.) One possible benefit of the above management scenario is that the dog may be calmer when released from isolation, which is great, but this can also give us a false sense that the dog “learned a lesson.” There may be exceptions but, generally speaking, the dog didn’t learn anything at all about a particular behavior being unwanted. In most cases, the dog is only temporarily in a different mood or his mind is on something else or the triggering stimulus simply isn’t there anymore. End result…the unwanted behavior will show itself again at the next opportunity. After a million timeouts of this nature, the dog will still be totally clueless to the fact that you don’t like a certain behavior. 
  2. The Dog Dislikes Social Isolation: This means that the dog has probably not been conditioned to being comfortable with being alone. In this scenario, while being non-physical, the selling point of being non-aversive is 100% inaccurate because the timeout is mentally and emotionally aversive to the dog. In other words, the timeout is perceived by the dog as a punishment and now we need to take assessment of whether or not mental/emotional discomfort is actually the least aversive method available. Perhaps we also need to revisit the basic principles of good isolation conditioning mentioned earlier and ask ourselves, “Is it a good idea to use social isolation as punishment?” Do you see what I did there? The answer is no, by the way. Feel free to read #1 again if I lost you somewhere along the line.  
  3. The Dog Develops An Aversion To Social Isolation: This means that a dog, originally conditioned to being comfortable in isolation, may begin to view isolation as a bad thing due to it being used in a reprimanding way via repeated timeouts. Again, this would begin to undermine the basic principle of isolation conditioning already discussed above. 

In my 2007 article, To Crate or Not To Crate, I mentioned multiple times that a crate should never be used as punishment but I believe that theory also applies to any form of social isolation. I guess what I’m saying is that I am not a fan of using timeouts as a punishment. That said, I am totally fine with using a crate or other form of isolation as a management tool to keep the dog out of the way and out of trouble. So, let’s first get clear about whether a timeout is actually just management and then we can discuss a little bit more about why timeouts as punishment are not a good idea. 

 

Timeouts and Poor Timing

 

In my article, The Top 8 Punishment Mistakes In Dog Training, number two was poor timing. When a timeout is used as a punishment is qualifies as poor timing in two ways: 

 

  1. Delayed Punishment: Any delay in delivering a consequence is considered poor timing and the chances of learning will degrade by the second…even by the microsecond in some cases. The delay problem can be remedied through the use of verbal markers or “bridges” but the dog must understand the verbal cues very well and the consequence still needs to be delivered as quickly as possible. The initial removal from a situation may be seen by the dog as negative punishment but, in many cases, it only causes frustration which is very similar to restraining a dog on a tight leash. Regardless, by the time the dog is put into his crate, or isolation area, the delay is far too much for any connection to the bad behavior to be made. The only way around this is to use a verbal reprimand (negative marker) at the moment of the unwanted behavior and make the initial removal firm enough to feel like a punishment and maintain this sense of reprimand all the way to the timeout area. This would be something like saying “No!” and firmly grabbing the dog by the collar then dragging them quickly and firmly to the timeout. To be clear, I am not recommending this, I don’t even believe in timeouts as punishment at all, I am simply pointing out what it takes for a timeout to make sense to the dog as a punishment for a particular behavior. I repeat, I am not recommending it. Anyhow, what I just described is a problem for at least two reasons; One, because it doesn’t fit the “Positive” or “Force-Free” model, which is what brought timeouts into popularity in the first place. Two, because a quick, firm removal is punishment enough, making the prolonged process of a timeout unfair and unnecessary.  
  2. Prolonged Punishment: Even if the punishment was initially applied with good timing, it is still considered poorly timed if it continues long after the unwanted behavior has stopped. The prolonged punishment of social isolation involved in a timeout may not be painful, from a physical standpoint, but it is potentially very painful from a mental/emotional standpoint and it definitely qualifies as poor timing. As mentioned earlier, it can also create a negative association with isolation which would be a massive setback to the dog's training and damaging to his character. 

The Calming Effect Of Timeouts 

As mentioned previously, sometimes timeouts “work” when the unwanted behavior was driven by hyperactivity because sometimes the dog is calmer when released from confinement. The timeout stops the dog from practicing the unwanted behavior and, if the dog is calmer when he comes out of isolation, he will behave more appropriately which is fantastic! This might just as well have been accomplished by making sure the dog gets proper exercise but that’s probably getting off topic. 

If we analyze this, however, we will find that the dog is learning through classical conditioning rather than operant conditioning. In other words, he is not learning to avoid punishment. He is not learning that the unwanted behavior is actually bad, wrong or unwanted. He is not learning to behave appropriately when he is once again stimulated to display the unwanted behavior. He is not learning to have impulse control when in an excited state. What is happening is that he is being desensitized and counterconditioned to have a calmer mental state in association with said stimulus. This may be enough to stop the unwanted behavior, as long as the dog remains calm. It is important to understand that, in this case, the dog isn’t choosing to be calm in order to avoid the punishment of a timeout. Counterconditioning is a form of classical conditioning which produces an involuntary response or what behaviorists call a conditioned emotional response. Anyhow, this is great and qualifies as “positive” as long as it is done without degrading the dog’s positive association with isolation. 

On the other hand, there is also the chance that the dog will not be calmer when released from timeout. He may get frustrated by the confinement, or may just be charging his battery, and come out of there like a hurricane. In that case, he will continue to act just as, if not more, inappropriately around whatever stimulus caused the timeout in the first place.

Conclusion

Social isolation should not be a punishing experience to a dog. If it is, you probably have a case of separation anxiety brewing, which should be remedied rather than exploited as a punishment. Aside from that, is it worth trying timeouts as a management or calming strategy? Sure, as long as you are using it as management and not punishment, go ahead and give it a try. How many repetitions should you try before turning the page? I honestly can’t say because it's a matter of your level of patience and your knowledge and skills with more effective balanced dog training alternatives such as The Long Down or simply correcting the dog instantly for misbehavior and teaching negative commands such as No, Leave It or Quiet. 

There’s also the question of whether or not you have a strong commitment to using strictly "positive" methods, which many people using timeouts do. If that’s the case, prepare yourself to have the patience of a saint because trying to train a dog in a manner qualified as “purely-positive” is virtually impossible, takes forever and, even after months or years, rarely gets the results that people are looking for. All of that being said, sometimes giving your dog a casual timeout to settle down is just what the doctor ordered.  

Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer, Canine Behavior Consultant and Owner of Thriving Canine. 

© Thriving Canine 2022

Related Topics:

Triggers and Underlying Causes of Dog Aggression: Part 1: Tight Leashes

 

Triggers and Underlying Causes of Dog Aggression: Part 2: Hyperactivity and Anxiety 

 

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