Trainer Annie Grossman of School for the Dogs, one of NYC’s most respected dog training centers, has plenty of wisdom to share with dog people. She covers common dog behavior questions and training tips in her weekly podcast. We’ll be sharing some of those responses right here in a regular feature!
Have a training question of your own? Check out Annie’s blog and click on “Ask Annie.”
Today, Annie offers up a solution for a dog who just won’t stay off the couch, despite her owner’s best attempts.
I just acquired a 5 year-old yellow Lab who knows many commands, including “off the couch” and “off the bed.” I don’t want her on the couch, but she is going on it when I’m not home. Once, while I was sleeping, she even got up from her bed and went to the other room to get on the couch.
I have placed aluminum foil paper on the couch, and this has been a lifesaver so far, but I do not want to keep it on the furniture all the time. What else can I do?
Sounds like you have a dog who has learned how to make herself comfortable, and knows that certain comfy places can only be accessed when you’re not looking. What a clever girl!
When I was a kid, my dad had a dog who liked to sleep on the bed. But my dad didn’t want her on the bed. The dog was no dummy: She learned that being on the bed was okay, as long as dad wasn’t around. We got used to hearing the “thump” of her jumping from the bed to the floor when we walked in the apartment door.
At the time, I imagined she knew she was getting away with something, just like I knew I could get away with passing notes in class if the teacher wasn’t looking. Now, however, I’m less sure that she was being purposefully cunning. That’s because, in the intervening years, I’ve learned that dogs are very sensitive to changes in the environment.
How Dogs Learn to Generalize
With my clients, I’m always talking about how dogs can sometimes undergeneralize. Your dog needs help to learn to “generalize” the fact that a behavior works (or doesn’t) in lots of different situations, because, to your dog, “sit” might be completely understandable when you ask when you’re standing, but not if you’re standing on just one leg. Or it might be clear when you ask, but not when your spouse asks.
Likewise, my dad’s dog just probably learned that beds were comfortable places to sleep when no one was in the house, but uncomfortable when people were around (because, if we were there, we’d probe and yell at her until she got off). She never “generalized” that being on the bed was always a no-no.
But here’s a funny thing about dogs: While they may undergeneralize in some areas, they often overgeneralize in other areas. My guess is that your dog has just figured out that all soft things feel good to sleep on. The fact that she knows to get off the couch when you tell her to doesn’t take away from the fact that it was soft and comfy before that point.
What’s more, if you don’t want her to be on the couch at all, it doesn’t matter much if she knows to get off it when told. Just like it isn’t useful if someone knows how to put out a cigarette when asked if they’re in a place where they shouldn’t have been smoking to begin with! If you don’t want her on the couch some of the time, I suggest not letting her up there any of the time. If you’re home and she tries to get onto it, discourage her gently; if you catch her on it, just nudge her off without a lot of fanfare.
A Special Dog “Couch”
But how are we going to deal with her couch behavior when you’re asleep or not home? I think we can approach this problem with two relatively easy fixes, one short term, one long term.
The long-term fix: Get your dog her own couch. Okay, you don’t have to get her an actual couch. It can be a dog bed. But I want you to get her the comfiest, biggest, snuggliest dog bed you can find, and it should live right near your couch. If you want to use the one that’s in the bedroom and just bring it from room to room, you can do that, but I think investing in a second one would probably be easier.
For a few weeks, I suggest you feed your dog her meals on or near this new bed, and, whenever you leave the house, make sure to sprinkle some treats on it and around it. If you happen to catch her lounging there, praise her wildly and give her a treat or something yummy to devour. Sometimes, take a minute to play with her and snuggle with her when she’s there since part of her interest in the human couch might be that she gets to be there, some of the time, with you.
Make the Human Couch Unappealing
The short-term fix: Make your couch unappealing. Whenever you’re trying to discourage a behavior by altering the environment, it’s smart to start by using only the mildest deterrent possible. I think you’re on the right track with the aluminum foil, but she will probably learn to avoid the couch only as long as she can see it there, and, like you said, a life with a foil-covered couch is not one worth living.
If you’re going to allow her to have access to the couch when you’re not around, I suggest putting something in the cushions that will make them less comfortable, but that will be out of sight. Tinfoil inside the cushions might be enough, or you could try a piece of cardboard. If those don’t work, you might experiment with plywood in the cushions, or some rocks, or even just make it really lumpy by putting some stuffed animals in them.
I promise you won’t have to live with your sofa like this forever. I’d just do it long enough so that she starts to feel sorry for you that your couch is so much less comfy. Let’s just hope she doesn’t try to keep you away from her couch… Hide that tinfoil!