Is it OK to Put a Puppy in a Timeout For Biting?

Adrienne Farricelli

Putting a puppy in a timeout for biting may seem like a good approach, but there may be better ways.

Dog owners may wonder whether it's OK to put a puppy in a timeout following an undesirable behavior such as nipping or chewing something they shouldn't. Time-outs basically consist of time spent in a separated area such as a crate or play pen. In general though dogs learn better if we focus on teaching them alternate ways to interact with us rather than trying to suppress their instinctive behaviors. And play biting is a puppy's favorite activity. So alternate activities and exercises can help.  I therefore have mixed feelings about using time-outs. The reasons for this are several and vary based on how it's used. 

When Timeouts May Be Helpful

I think a time-out area works great in the case of a puppy who is starting to nip because he is cranky and is in dire need of a nap. Puppies need to sleep quite a lot as they have a lot of developing to do. Sometimes, they have a hard settling for a nap because they are just overstimulated. So in this case, we are providing a place to relax and doze off. Having chew toys can encourage the pup to gnaw before falling asleep since chewing helps release endorphins and encourages relaxation.

Risks With the Use of Timeouts

In the case of a puppy biting because hyper and in need to drain exercise, putting him in a play pen as a consequence in hopes of diminishing the behavior falls under negative punishment (removing something or access to something the dog likes contingent on the problematic behavior).

In other words, we are basically depriving the puppy from our company/attention and freedom to spend time around the house/room, contingent upon his biting behavior. This is not a major deal, but it can have some unwanted "side-effects."

For example, the puppy may associate the play pen (or other timeout area) with social isolation, so next time, the puppy may play hard to catch or he may nip if we are dragging him by the collar. Or perhaps, the puppy feels our anger/frustration and this triggers him to bite more.

On top of this, after being released from the area, he may act super excited again and nip again, meaning that he may end up being closed repeatedly, but never learn alternate ways to interact with us. Not to mention, this method requires perfect timing, if we don't take the puppy quickly enough to his time-out area, he may not associate this consequence with the undesired behavior. 

Improving Timeouts

While timeouts may come with side effects, we can make some compromises to ameliorate things. For instance, we can make the timeout area extra appealing, we can place blankets and chew toys there so the dog doesn't perceive it as punishment.

To ensure the correct associations form, we can verbally mark the undesirable behavior with a "too bad! or "whoops" (so he knows in a timely manner what behavior granted the time-out) and we can escort him there calmly without showing any anger or frustration.

We can gently guide the pup with his collar as we use a treat as a lure and then give the treat once he is inside this area (always remove collars when in a crate or left unsupervised). We can then start fading the sight of the treat by holding the treat in a pocket and giving it only once he's inside. 

So if we think the puppy is cranky, we can certainly use this strategy. If the puppy instead is hyper, we can try to catch him before he nips (or just quickly as possible) so to prevent too much rehearsal and try our best to redirect to other activities (hand targeting, play with a flirt pole, sitting for a tossed kibble, sits for tossing a ball etc.)

Puppies thrive on training and mental stimulation in the form of appropriate play and enrichment (brain games). Balancing this out correctly  is important to reduce the incidences of nipping.