Two weeks ago I heard from a client I hadn’t seen in months. Elise* had an English Bulldog, Humphrey*. When Humphrey was a puppy, Elise had hired me to work on some basic obedience skills, but a lot had happened since then. Mom and dad had moved to a new apartment, had a baby, and their adorable, roly-poly pup had grown into an active, excitable 11 month-old adolescent.
When I showed up at the door of their new home the following week, Elise smiled wide and said, “We are so excited you’re here!”
She knew it wasn’t Humphrey’s fault for being so excited by the new baby and all the guests at the house, but she also knew they couldn’t go on for long with him constantly demanding attention, stealing the baby’s pacifier from the coffee table, and running to nuzzle the tiny human each time it cried.
Putting him into a confinement space had done the opposite of relieving some of the challenges: The sequestered Humphrey barked non-stop, driving the adults crazy and waking the sleeping newborn.
What Elise needed was a way for Humphrey to hang out with the family without being so high-maintenance. Lucky for them, there’s a cue for that!
Whether you have a new dog or a young dog, a shy dog in need of confidence or an overly excited dog, “go to bed” is one of the most important cues you can teach. Think of it as an elegant combination of three cues: leave it, lay down, and stay. You simply ask your pup to “go to bed” and they’ll go to their comfortable bed and lay down and stay down.
“That sounds great,” some of you are thinking, “but that would never work for my dog. He’s too crazy/busy/attached to me/active.” Elise had her doubts, too. But four days after our training session, she sent me a photo. In it, Humphrey laid on his bed in the living room while she ate breakfast on the coffee table next to the baby.
“We’ve never been able to do this,” she wrote.
How to Teach “Go to Bed”
Not every dog catches on to the importance of a bed as quickly as Humphrey did, but any dog can learn that relaxing in a super special space that’s all their own is valuable.
What you will need in order to teach “go to bed”:
- A soft, comfortable “bed” (this can be as simple as a pile of old towels)
- A dog that has a basic understanding of the cue “lay down.” Put the bed in a communal space where your dog can feel like a part of the family even when they’re not right on top of the family members.
Step one: Teach your dog that laying down on their bed pays.
At this stage, you are emphasizing the value of the bed by making it the magical place where good things happen. Several times a day, ask your dog to lay down on the bed briefly and pay them handsomely with high-value treats. Feeding your dog meals or giving them puzzle toys on the bed will also help your dog to associate positive emotions with the area. If they take the puzzle toy or another treat to a different location, calmly help them to bring it back to the bed.
Step two: Build your “go to bed” cue
Once your dog is familiar with their bed as a place where good things happen, you can begin to build your “go to bed” cue.
1. Standing next to the bed, call your dog and point them to the bed with your finger. When they arrive, cue them to lay down. It’s best to do this with a hand signal instead of asking them to “down” verbally. When they lay down, reward with a high-value treat. “Free” your dog from the bed and repeat.
2. When your dog can do the first step consistently, begin to build how long they remain on the bed before you free them. Point your dog to lay down on the bed. When they do, silently count to five then reward and free them. Repeat.
3. Add your verbal cue. Say “go to bed” then point your dog to the bed. Wait for ten seconds after they’ve laid down then reward and free them. Repeat.
4. Step a foot away from the bed. Remain there while you ask your dog to “go to bed” and point. Wait for 10 seconds after they lay down then reward. Repeat.
When your dog is able to go to bed and lay there for ten seconds while you stand a foot away, the hardest part is done. Now, all you need to do is continue to build your distance from the bed and your dog’s duration on it.
Tip: Only make one change at a time
It’s essential not to change more than one parameter at once. If you want to your dog to go to bed while you are standing two feet away, don’t also ask them to lay down for 10 more seconds than they were previously capable of until they are consistently responding. Try repeating the exercise at least five times.
To the same end, if you want your dog to increase their duration on the bed from 10 to 20 seconds, don’t also ask them to lay down when you are standing two feet away instead of one until they can consistently complete the 20 seconds.
The three “Ds” of dog training
Distance and duration are important, but in dog training, there are actually three “Ds” to worry about: distance, duration, and distraction. In the context of “go to bed,” distraction can be everything from your body position (e.g., standing vs. sitting on the couch) to the activity in the room. Just like with duration and distance, if the level of distraction changes—for example, you ask your dog to go to bed while you walk around—you shouldn’t try to increase the difficulty level in other ways at the same time.
How to Use “Go to Bed”
Go to bed is not a punishment, it’s a privilege. How do you communicate to your dog that it’s a privilege? Reward, reward, reward. In the beginning stages, sending your dog to bed should always be accompanied by praise and a reward, preferably one that takes time to consume like a bully stick or puzzle toy.
Remember that the more a dog is rewarded for an action, the more frequently they will repeat that action. Over time, as your praise and rewards become more intermittent, your dog will continue to go to bed because, well, it’s a cozy alternative to being sent out of the room.
And it’s not just at home that the cue will work. If you use a blanket or towel on the bed that can be easily taken with you, its magical power to keep your dog calm and out of the way will come along, too. It works everywhere from a friend’s house to a busy outdoor cafe.
Though it will inevitably take some dogs some time for this cue to become super effective, you’ll know you’re on the right track when you see your dog going to their bed without you even asking.
This was Humphrey’s MO when I returned to his house a week after introducing “go to bed.” Elise had been working with him frequently over the last seven days and it showed: every chance he got, Humphrey flung himself down on his bed with gusto. The cue even worked when the baby began fussing. When Humphrey got a little too curious about the baby in her bassinet, Elise calmly said “Humphrey, go to bed” and off he went, across the room to a cozy nest all his own.
* Client names have been changed to protect their privacy