One day I found my year-old Doberman curled up on the couch, napping. She looked absolutely adorable. So what did I do? I cuddled up with her and told her how cute she was.
Naturally, she’s been sitting on the couch ever since. My couch is old, so I didn’t mind, but I am getting a new couch soon and I don’t want her sitting on it. Any suggestions for reversing this bad habit that I allowed?
— Jennifer Avrhami
Thank you for writing in with such a great question. I want to commend you on your ability to acknowledge that when an animal is rewarded for a behavior, it will happen more often. This is more proof of how well positive reinforcement works — even when it’s done inadvertently. As a certified professional dog trainer who sets her tent in the positive-reinforcement reward-based training camp, this makes my heart sing!
Your question asking for “suggestions for reversing this bad habit” is a bit ambiguous. Is the bad habit yours? Meaning, you have the habit of allowing your dog on the couch whenever she wants? Or are you implying your Dobie has a bad habit of hanging out on the furniture whenever she wants.
Either way, I’d also examine your definition of a “bad habit.” Smoking, meth cocaine and excessive gambling can be considered bad habits, but relaxing or sleeping on soft, comfy furniture is more of a nice way to live.
As a matter of fact, I enjoy hanging out and cuddling with Poncho so much that I’ve included a “cuddling” activity card in my Out of the Box Dog Training Game. You get pet therapy while enhancing your relationship with your dog through a pleasant bonding experience. Sounds like a win-win to me. Plus, I don’t believe there are any 12-step programs for “couch cuddling with your dog.” If there were, I’d predict the attendance would be low.
As for getting a new couch and wanting to ask your pooch to hang out elsewhere, that is certainly something I can provide dog training tips for, especially since this often comes up with my private dog training clients and in my group classes. Additionally, one of our other Inquisitive Canine readers had a similar couch issue, so you may want to read through that column as well.
Regarding your specific situation, here’s what I suggest.
First, determine the exact behavior you want your dog performing once the new couch shows up. Secondly, teach her what the rules are. Will she be allowed on the couch if there is a blanket in place for her to lie on, similar to the “couch cuddler”? Or will there be a “no dogs on the couch ever” household policy?
If it’s the former, I’d recommend the same sort of couch-allowed blanket plan as the “couch cuddler.” The blanket or towel on the couch becomes the cue for your dog that all is OK with the couch-lounging activity. If it’s the latter, you’ll want to make sure you create a comfy place for her, then train her to specifically hang out there using lots of positive reinforcement. Rewards used should include praise, treats and, of course, frequent generous helpings of cuddle time.
Lastly, manage your dog’s environment to ensure you set her up for success. Make sure you have trained her where she is allowed to hang out and that the specific place is available to her. It wouldn’t be fair to your dog if you left her access to the restricted comfort zone then reprimanded her for entering it. So please make sure you prevent her from gaining access to the couch area when you and/or any other family members aren’t around to patrol.
On a final note, I’d once again like to applaud you for being aware of what your dog is doing and when, and then taking the time to reward her for it. The “being cute” behavior is great! It’s one simple behavior for dogs to perform that can be used in a variety of settings. Your self-developed dog training plan is pure proof that rewarding what you like will, in turn, get you more of it.
— Dear Inquisitive Canine is written by Joan Mayer and her trusty sidekick, Poncho. Joan is a certified pet dog trainer and dog behavior counselor. Her column is known for its simple common-sense approach to dog training and behavior, as well as its entertaining insight into implementing proven techniques that reward both owner and dog. Joan is also the founder of The Inquisitive Canine, where her love-of-dog training approach highlights the importance of understanding canine behavior. If you or your dog have questions about behavior, training or life with each other, e-mail email@example.com.