Dr. Nichol’s Blog – Time-Out: Everybody Gets a Break

dog on leash

Dogs need Good Manners

Some dogs follow their person’s lead and happily go along with just about anything. Others struggle to do the right thing, needing a bit more hands-on management. A lot of them are anxious or afraid but many are just not clear on the concept. They don’t get it. A reliable structure, along with generous doses of kindness, is in order for confused canine rule breakers.

Something that all dogs understand, right out of the box, is communication. They watch us often and miss little of our body signaling. But if they get really excited, agitated, or out-of-control they can lose their focus and stop paying attention. That’s when a person can get frustrated and lose patience as they try to salvage a pending disaster. Human histrionics seldom make a positive difference. This can be difficult. People who struggle with unmanageable dogs need kindness too.

Jumping, barking, and snapping are just not acceptable behaviors. A common default human reaction is to come down hard. But dogs who lose their impulse control don’t need our intensity. Instead, we want them to abandon their unhealthy emotions. So if we yell, jerk the leash, or trigger the electric shock collar (yes, that really happens) we would ratchet their agitation even higher, accelerating the problem in the wrong direction. That’s because dogs don’t believe that they are entitled to any response from their leader. They assume that everything they get from us, whether it’s pleasant or not, is an earned reinforcer.

A bad situation is made even worse by the intensity of the human reaction. Our dogs follow our emotional lead. A history of reprimands, pulling, pushing, or water spraying leads to even greater agitation the next time the dog sees or hears that arousal trigger. The only way to not mistakenly reinforce bad behavior is to completely ignore. But acting as though nothing is happening is easier said than done.

Elena, one of my readers, faced a common canine conundrum. She’d watched my video on ignoring bad behavior. She sent me an important question.
“Hi! It’s recommended to ignore unwanted behavior. How do I deal with my dog’s “out of the blue” occasional aggression toward another dog?”

I told Elena that dogs not only keep an eye on their person, they’re also watching for intruders, other dogs, and opportunities for scavenging or hunting. That’s because, well, because they’re dogs, doing their best to engage in species-typical behaviors. Spontaneous, “out-of-the-blue” aggression is extremely rare. They almost always need an arousal trigger, a perceived threat or provocation. Her dog saw or heard something from that other dog that caused him to react.

It’s important to be proactive. A dog who is known to lunge or bark at visitors should be put in another room prior to the arrival of guests. Elena’s dog needed to avoid his arousal trigger of seeing other dogs on leash walks.

That sounds good on paper but the unavoidable still happens. Knowing that any response from Elena would risk a worsening of her dog’s aggression she needed to fully ignore and still maintain control – somehow. So I told her to always ignore bad behavior and then to set her dog up for success by grabbing his leash and then creating distance by marching in a different direction.

Elena continued. “I have one dog who occasionally goes off on another dog at the dog park. If I understand what you are saying: At the first sign of anxiety or discomfort I will attach the leash and pull him to keep walking?”

Well, sort of but not exactly. I told Elena that if she were to approach her dog with the leash while he was getting agitated he would believe that his barbaric nonsense had just earned his leader’s attention. Remember, a dog regards any response as a validation of its behavior and its emotional state of-the-moment. Not only that, if Elena’s dog was already behaving aggressively toward another dog when she reached for his collar, he might react to her movement. This could result in redirected aggression. By injecting herself into the fray she would put herself at risk of a serious bite wound. I made it clear that she needs to stay out of dog fights.

I told Elena to leave a leash – a “drag line” (longer would be better) – attached to her dog’s collar before entering the park. Her dog will drag this around as he interacts with the others, whether he needs it or not. Now Elena will be prepared to easily and safely ignore, grab the drag line to derail a problem, and march in a different direction if she becomes concerned. I reminded her to always ignore in order to avoid unintentionally reinforcing the shenanigans.

More than just requiring an agitated dog to abandon its focus on an unhealthy arousal trigger you can turn events like this into teaching moments. After moving a significant distance away from the “scary monster” a calmer dog will be able look to his great leader for an opportunity to earn resources. We want this. It’s normal canine behavior.

So, after marching with purpose until the other dog, visitor, whoever, is a distant memory, you can pivot so that your dog’s rear end is oriented toward the abandoned dog/person/skateboard/bicycle/garbage truck. That’s when you acknowledge your dog by giving a simple command that she knows well. When she complies she will earn quiet praise (you set the example), a pet on the head, and a tasty tid bit from your treat bag. Then move on.

Unhealthy reactions can occur anywhere. If you’re inside your house when pandemonium happens, and you’ve done your best, world-class ignoring performance and the chaos has still not ramped-down, you can step on the drag line, pick it up, and march to a predesignated time-out room. We call this banishment.

This is a great consequence because dogs’ minds are pre-wired to understand it. In groups of free-living dogs the high ranking individuals may send their badly behaved subordinates away for a while. When the contrite offender returns she is motivated to behave better because she doesn’t want to lose her connection with her compadres.

To be effective, banishment must be done without emotion. Because our dogs “read” our feelings so well (they are watching each other and us almost continually) they know when there is the slightest response on the part of their person. Thus if you feel even a little upset as you lead your dog to time-out she will interpret your response as a reward. Any affect, on your part, would increase the likelihood that the bad behavior would reoccur later.

A word about truly ignoring: For your dog to genuinely understand that all interaction has been suspended you must clear your mind of any acknowledgement that you even have a dog. As soon as you make the decision to ignore your job will be to immediately believe and act as though there is no dog in your home. The drag line you pick up and walk away with has “no one” on the other end.

The 6 foot (or longer) drag line your dog wears is essential to effective banishment. At the earliest indicator of bad behavior, pick up the drag line and walk with it to the time out room. Remember-there is no one on the other end. Drop the drag line on the floor of the time out room and close the door. Do not look at your nonexistent dog. You can open the door after several minutes but only if there is no crying/whining. Continue to believe that you don’t even have a dog for a few more minutes so there is no perceived reward that can be associated with the time out event.

Dogs understand body language extremely well. Your thoughts and emotions are expressed in sometimes subtle ways. Manage the time-out as mechanically as you can. For your dog to understand this consequence it must be repeated hundreds of times. It will do no good if she thinks of it as a “reward” because you responded in some way.

Most dogs respond well to ignoring and/or banishment. I see the best success in cases where people don’t hesitate to banish their dogs repeatedly, sometimes for little reason. This is important. Cutting off social contact with her will send a strong message. She will “get it.”

How often can you or should you banish? You can banish hundreds of times a day. Instead of patiently ignoring and waiting you can implement the kind, canine-specific nuclear option – banishment – every time if you want.

Ignoring and banishment (time-out) work because dogs really hate it when they lose their relationship with us. It doesn’t last long because you are the benevolent dictator who loves your dog enough to bend your own brain and learn canine leadership. You will always follow ignoring and banishment by giving your aspiring good dog an opportunity to once again earn an interaction with you. All she has to do to achieve this great privilege is calm down a little. You will reinforce quietly so she knows that she finally did the right thing. Repeat hundreds of times.

Pet dogs generally adapt pretty well to life with us, considering they’re members of a different species. None of them was gifted with a brain that came genetically pre-wired to understand human-speak. It’s our job to set them up for success.

I hope you have found this information valuable. You’re welcome to share this blog with any of your pet-loving friends. Each week I share a short video or a blog to help bring out the best in pets and their people. You can sign up at no charge on my website www.drjeffnichol.com. And when you do, I’ll send you my free at-home pet first aid and CPR guide.

Thanks for your dedication to your pets. I’m Dr. Jeff Nichol.