It's no secret that many pet parents let their dogs share their bed with them or let them make the couch their favorite nap spot, but is this practice a good idea? I'll give you the dog trainer's favorite answer - it depends. There's no one set of rules, rather, there's many points for pet owners to consider when making the best decision for their dog and their household.
How does everyone in the family feel about letting the dogs spend time on the furniture?
This is one of the biggest considerations each family must think about. If you live alone then you have an easy decision to make, but if multiple people live in the home, everyone's feelings must be considered. Does your child have allergies, does Grandma dislike your 70 pound Boxer slobbering in her face, does Mom dislike vacuuming the Husky hair off the couch everyday? Consistency is key in having a happy household with a pet. If not, arguments can ensue between the human family members in the household and resentment towards the dog can occur. Furthermore, it's confusing for your dog who gets yelled at by some family members when he jumps on the couch and cuddled by others. This ultimately leads to the dog losing trust in his humans. If one person in the family doesn't want the dog on the furniture, then no one should allow the dog on the furniture. (Later we'll discuss a happy solution to this problem).
Does your dog have resource guarding issues?
If your dog has issues with guarding spaces such as beds, couches, or other furniture then he should not be allowed to spend time on the furniture. Even a snarl or snap when you get into bed after your dog should make you seriously consider whether he should be allowed on the furniture. The risk of a bite to the face is just too great in such a circumstance. If your dog has shared your bed for years without ever showing a problem then suddenly starts exhibiting aggressive behavior, first a trip to the vet is in order before banishing Buddy from the bed. Pain can cause animals to react aggressively to protect themselves so it's important to look into the cause of the problem first. You can work through a behavior problem of resource guarding with careful management and training but if your dog starts behaving aggressively on furniture, he mustn't be allowed to practice that behavior - which means not allowing him on the furniture. If your dog acts like a perfect angel when you get into bed, but growls and snaps when your husband gets into bed then again, we need to look at consistency and consideration. If your dog acts aggressively with any member of the family on furniture then he should not be allowed there until his behavior issue is resolved.
How old is your dog?
A very important point to consider is the age of your dog. If you just adopted a new puppy, it's best not to allow him on the bed quite yet. First of all, it's hard to potty train a pooch that's not confined to a specific area and this will set your potty training back a great deal. Second, your new puppy needs to learn that it's OK to spend time alone in his own crate or bed, otherwise, you risk the chance of creating a dog who's anxious when he's apart from you - which won't be fun for either of you. If you've decided as a family that you're going to let your new dog sleep in your bed when he's older you can have cuddle sessions with your puppy on the bed or sofa - but be sure to lift him on and off the furniture. A growing puppy has open growth plates which can cause injury and damage to your puppy's growing bones with too much repetitive jumping. To be on the safe side, lift him on and off furniture until you get the all clear from your vet that your puppy's growth plates have closed.
How big is your dog?
If you have a Great Dane puppy that is just so cute and cuddly you let him spend lots of time on the couch or bed cuddling with you but don't like the idea of a full grown Great Dane on the furniture, then perhaps it would be best not to let your dog get a taste of the joys of furniture at all. Once your dog develops a habit (such as jumping up on furniture) it is much harder to break than if you never allow him to do it in the first place. Likewise, if you have a tiny Chihuahua and you or your husband is a heavy sleeper and you think your dog might be in danger sleeping with you, then start your dog off right and get him used to sleeping in his own crate.
Now to dispel any myths
It's been circulated as fact that if dogs sleep with their humans they will see them as their equal and attempt to be "pack leader". The whole "pack leader" mentality is based on faulty research and the scientists who created this theory have even stated it is untrue. This will be addressed in a separate blog post in the future but rest assured your dog is not sitting by the fire conjuring up plans to overthrow you and take over your household. That means that you can comfortably let your dog sleep in your bed or lie on your sofa if you so choose. You may wonder, "why do some dogs growl when you get into bed after them if they don't see themselves as the pack leader?". The issue has nothing to do with hierarchy, but has everything to do with value. If your dog growls when you get near him when he's on the furniture it is because he values that resource and doesn't want it taken away. You may think "but I'm not going to take it away, it's a King sized bed and he's a chihuahua!" When a dog guards a resource, he doesn't take into account its size and whether or not he has enough to share. It's a valuable resource and he aims to keep it! Another reason your dog may act aggressively when you approach him near furniture is that he's learned that you often grab his collar to pull him off the bed. In other words, he associates your approach to him when he's on furniture with something unpleasant - being removed from his comfortable spot. Animals don't automatically resort to aggression, it takes too much energy and has too many risks, so your dog has likely given you many signals that showed he was uncomfortable when you approached him near furniture before he behaved aggressively. These signals may have consisted of widening eyes or whale eye (where the dog looks out the corner of their eye), tongue flicks or lip licks, averted gaze, ears back, or stiffened body to name a few. All of these signals tell the one approaching "I'm uncomfortable with this situation". If you continue approaching, he'll have to escalate his signals to growling, snarling, snapping, and eventually biting. Don't let it reach this point, and instead use a positive way to get your dog off the furniture where he makes the choice to to get off himself instead of being forced.
The most important cues to teach before letting your dog spend time on furniture - UP & OFF
Grab some of your dog's favorite treats, and take him to a sofa or bed. UP and OFF can be taught together in the same training session. In fact, it's easier since you need your dog to be on a raised surface to teach OFF and needs to be on the floor to teach UP.
UP - Lure him onto the furniture with a treat, and once he jumps up, mark (use a clicker or say "Yes" or "Yip") and give him a treat. Once he gets the hang of it, tap the furniture twice with an open palm just before he jumps up and then mark and reward with a treat when he jumps. Once he reliably jumps up when you tap the bed or sofa, you're ready to add a verbal cue. Say "Up!" right before you tap the furniture and mark and reward with a treat when your dog jumps up.
OFF - With your dog on the furniture, toss a treat to the ground and mark and reward when he jumps off. Once he gets the hang of it, snap and point to the ground right before you toss the treat. Once he's doing this reliably, snap and point to the ground, mark and click when he jumps off, then give him a treat. Once he's reliably jumping off with your snap and point hand cue, you're ready to add a verbal cue. Right before your snap and point hand cue, say the verbal cue "Off" then use your hand cue and mark and reward when he jumps off. ***If your dog is the slightest bit fearful or uncomfortable with the sound of a snap, just point to the ground without a snap***
*Important tip*-Once your dog jumps off the furniture, continue giving treats until you give the cue to jump back up on the furniture, otherwise you'll end up with a ping pong dog who gets off the furniture when you ask but then gets right back up again. You want him to learn that "Off" means to stay off the couch until you tell him to jump back up again. It's best to start him off right and make it more rewarding to be on the ground. If your dog enjoys a good game of tug or fetch, use that as a reward as well for getting off the furniture. Cue your dog to get off the furniture, mark and use a few food rewards, then play a game of tug or fetch, then cue your dog to get back on the furniture and reward with one piece of food, then start the sequence over again.
Troubleshooting- If you have a dog who is reluctant to get off the furniture during your training session, try making it more exciting. Run away from the furniture playfully to entice your dog to jump off the furniture, squat down to the ground and tap your legs or clap, then treat and cuddle your dog when he jumps off. In addition, increase motivation by increasing the value of your treats - use something really enticing like salmon sticks or freeze dried beef liver or some cheese. Be sure to cut your treats into small pieces!
The Great Compromise
If some of the family members want the dog on the furniture but others do not, all hope is not lost. You can teach your dog to lie on a specific mat or small blanket, and eventually use that on the couch or bed as well. He'll learn that when his mat or blanket is on the furniture he can lie there, if not off he goes! Stationing to a mat will be covered in another blog post, but for now you can use it on furniture and invite your dog to jump up on the furniture and lie on the mat. Reward him there with lots of treats, cuddles, and praise, and if he gets off the mat and lies elsewhere on the furniture ask him to get off the furniture. This will make it very clear - the mat is where good stuff happens but lying on the furniture alone gets the furniture privilege taken away. After a few moments of your dog being on the ground you can invite him back up on the mat which is on the furniture to try again. You can even give him a stuffed Kong or chew on his mat, but make sure he keeps it there!
Here's an exercise that will help your dog understand the mat on furniture concept:
- Start with your dog on the floor and continue feeding treats while he stays on the floor with no mat on the bed or sofa
- Next, place the mat on the furniture and invite him to jump up, mark and reward
- Cue your dog off the furniture, mark and reward when he does, then promptly cue him back up again and mark and reward when he does
- Cue your dog off the furniture, mark and reward when he does, then promptly remove the mat from the furniture and keep rewarding your dog for staying on the ground
- Next, place the mat back on the furniture and cue your dog to jump back up, mark and reward when he does
- Continue this exercise and be unpredictable, vary the time you have him stay on the couch, vary the time you have him stay on the ground, vary the time he waits between treats when on the ground (but make sure it's appropriate for his skill level)
*Important tip* - If you've decided to only let your dog spend time on furniture when his mat is there, then only teach him the UP and OFF cues with the mat on the furniture otherwise you will confuse him. If your dog jumps up when the mat is not on the furniture cue him to get off but withhold the treat, otherwise he'll jump up just so you can request him to get off and he can be treated. Wait a few minutes then place the mat on the furniture and cue your dog to jump up on the mat.
In sum, allowing your dog on the furniture is your decision to make. There's no hard and fast rules, rather there's points to consider for each individual dog and each individual household. If you allow your dog to spend time on the furniture he's sure to get lots of attention and cuddles, so if you choose not to allow him to do so be sure to get down to his level often to give him lots of belly rubs and cuddles!
I am a passionate animal lover, rescuer and trainer. Kindness is my goal. I never want an animal to feel intimidated or threatened. Training should be fun for both the dog and human, so the training methods I use reflect my goal of helping the animal to feel safe so they can learn and have fun. I desire the same for the human client as well. Life is too short to spend time training an animal in a fashion that is anything less than fun!