[Dear Inquisitive readers: With Halloween approaching, we wanted to send a gentle reminder for keeping this festive and fun holiday a safe time for you and your pets. For training and management tips to help set everyone up for success, click here to check out a post my sidekick Poncho and I put together on dog training tips for making Halloween fun and safe. We wish you and your family a festive Halloween!]
My husband and I have a 5-year-old male Yorkshire terrier named Ace. He has been a great family dog, and we all adore him. The problem is that when we got him (as a puppy), my husband had high hopes that Ace would be “his” dog — that Ace would want to sit with him, be held by him, cuddle with him, etc.
Ace does like to cuddle, but on his terms — and almost always it’s with me, not my husband. Ace will come up unsolicited and lay down right next to us, or in our laps, but if we try to pick him up to hold him, all he wants is to get down. Is there a way to train your dog to want to be held and cuddled?
What a great question! I’m certainly in the “I love cuddling with my dog!” camp, so I totally understand wanting to “teach” your dog the love of snuggling and would be happy to help.
As a certified professional dog trainer, my immediate answer is: Yes! You can train any animal anything he or she is physically and mentally capable of doing.
The good news with your situation is that Ace already likes to cuddle. Although you say it’s on “his terms,” at least you have a head-start, in that it’s something he obviously enjoys — otherwise, he wouldn’t approach on his own. Now let’s see how we can get him to want more of this type of activity with both you and your husband especially.
When working with dogs and their guardians in my dog training classes, I like to remind my students that one thing all animals have in common — human and nonhuman — is that we perform behaviors that have some sort of beneficial outcome. We either find behaviors to be innately satisfying, needing no prior conditioning (such as eating, drinking water and even cuddling), or we learn to associate a certain situation with something that is reinforcing. An example for dogs is the sight of leashes, since these items usually predict walkies. It also can mean sitting in laps if it provides comfort and anything else an animal finds appealing. The outcome is what leads us to wanting to experience the same situation again and performing any behaviors that go along with that situation.
So, what does this mean in regards to your situation with Ace? Well, first off, you’ll want to “teach” (condition) Ace by shaping his behavior to enjoy being cuddled more, which in turn should motivate him to want to be cuddled more, not only on his terms but yours, too.
Motivating your dog by rewarding the behaviors you like — whether it’s cuddling or greeting trick-or-treaters politely at Halloween — is key to getting your dog to perform these behaviors more frequently and consistently. To read more about motivation and other key concepts, visit my Web site for expert tips for successful dog training.
» For example, every time Ace climbs onto your lap or lays down next to you, you’ll want to reward these unsolicited behaviors whenever you can. Start treating him with little pieces of his favorite treats, especially those that would be considered “high value” foods. Small, itty bitty pieces of chicken or fish will suffice, especially since he’s a smaller dog. If he hasn’t offered it, then you’ll want to lure him into your lap by offering him a treat, giving it to him only when he’s in your lap. Once he has reached his destination, give him a small treat. If it’s easier, start with everyone sitting on the floor, luring him into your lap as you would if you were sitting on the couch.
» Additional rewards: Remember to add in praise and belly rubs for Ace. Once he’s had enough practice and happy lap time, you’ll probably be able to use fewer treats (if you want) because he’s learned that just being in either of your laps is just plain fun.
» King of the high value: Since Ace seems to be more bonded to you, make it so all high-value foods and fun games come from your husband, at least initially. You can certainly continue to play the above games and reward with food, but I recommend the lower value (more boring) come from you and the ultimate yummies come from your hubby. This way, Ace will learn that dad equals the great stuff and mom equals the pretty good stuff. But you both equal lots of positively rewarding times together!
In addition to cuddling, I also encourage you to try some fun and rewarding activities together inside and outside of the house, including playing dog training games that can help enhance your relationship with your dog for life.
For more dog training tips that are simple to follow and fun for everyone, including Ace, check out my dog training advice on how to motivate more cuddling.
This type of learning by association (classical conditioning) can help your family and Ace achieve new levels in the art of snuggling and may even help teach Ace to want to be the king of the lap dogs!
— Dear Inquisitive Canine is written by Joan Mayer and her trusty sidekick, Poncho. Joan is a certified professional dog trainer and human-canine relationship coach. Poncho is a 10-pound mutt that knows a lot about canine and human behavior. Their 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.