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Keeping the Family Dog Off the Furniture

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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If you've plunked down several thousand dollars on a new Natuzzi sofa, though you love your dog madly, he's the last individual you want sitting on it.

He sits on it anyway, despite all the alpha-dog command presence you can muster. Why must he misbehave so? First of all, who says its misbehavior? Most of the so-called behavior problems that dogs exhibit are, in fact, normal behaviors. From the owner's perspective, though the behavior just happen to occur in an inappropriate situation. Couch-sitting is one such owner-perceived "misbehavior."

Behavior problems, like beauty, are often in the eye (sometimes ear) of the beholder. Jumping on furniture is a behavior problem that, along with barking, falls into the category of "a problem for some owners but not for others." One person may positively enjoy having his small dog resting on the furniture and may encourage his pet to sit next to him. However, owners of seborrheic [oily skinned] or dirt-impregnated outdoor hounds that shed like Alpacas may have a conniption if their pet decides to take a nap on the pride-and-joy white couch in the living room.

Some people wouldn't mind allowing their dog on furniture, except that he tends to growl at them from such a vantage point. For owners of such dogs, keeping their pet off furniture can be a matter of safety and survival – theirs.

The Technique

The new art of dog training centers around encouraging behaviors that you appreciate rather than punishing an unwanted behavior. For example, in the old days it may have been standard practice to yell "OFF" and jerk a dog's metal choke collar to enforce its compliance. Today, a gentler reward-based "positive" approach has evolved.

This approach is completely different from the old yin and yang of punishment and reward. It may take a small investment of time and know-how initially but the results are well worth the effort. Non-verbal communication is the name of the game, though occasional utterances – verbal "cues" or "signals" – may be incorporated after the fact. If verbal cues are not used, then visual ones, hand signals, can be employed instead.

  • Step one: Train your dog to understand that a job well done will be "marked" with a signal, a snap of the fingers, a click of the tongue, or a mechanical clicker. The successful accomplishment, or even partial accomplishment, of a job well done is marked in this way and subsequently rewarded using morsels of delicious food (hotdog, diced chicken, or diced ham). The dog will soon get the idea that it if it makes you click it will receive a delicious food reward - and it soon learns how to make this happen. The training is, well, empowering for the dog. Later in training a verbal cue is introduced to signal that a reward is forthcoming should the behavior be offered by the dog. Down the road, it is often possible to graduate to using plain kibble as the reward, part of the dog's daily rations, as the dog will enjoy the game of earning the reward more than the reward itself. Eventually, food rewards should be supplied on an intermittent basis to strengthen the response.

  • Step two: When you see your dog on the couch, produce the clicker and a delicious morsel of food. Tempt the dog off the couch by waving the food lure around in front of him. As he launches off the couch and his front feet hit the floor, snap or click immediately to reward the four-on-the-floor behavior. The lure technique is only used at the beginning of the process and is restricted to the first two or three times. You can then encourage the dog back on the couch by patting the couch and saying "up" so that you can repeat the procedure of getting him to jump off. This may sound odd when the goal is to keep him off the couch; but you can't teach "off" unless he is actually up on something.

  • Step three: Graduate to preempting the dog's descent with the word "off," whispered or spoken quietly, or introduce a hand signal (e.g. a sweeping motion of the forearm).

  • Step four: If the dog is to be trained to go to a mat or dog bed, each incremental step of the way can be clicked and rewarded. Whether this is done or not, it is important to provide the dog some alternative site for his repose (e.g. supply a comfortable dog bed or blanket as a substitute resting area). It's not fair to deprive the dog of a resting place without providing an alternative location.

    If all goes according to plan you will have a dog that doesn't get up on furniture very often because he has better places to rest (undisturbed, to boot) and will jump off furniture in a heartbeat if cued.

    Aversive Techniques and Avoidance

    While it is quite possible to train and retrain the majority of dogs using the method described above, under some circumstances it may be better to deny the dog access to the furniture in question or to "booby trap" it. For example, if the only problem is that the dog jumps up on the bed during the day, keeping the bedroom door shut is an obvious and easy solution.
    If you want to prevent a dog from getting on furniture when he is dripping wet following an outdoor excursion, teach him to go to a drip-drying area, such as the kitchen.
    If the problem is confined to a particular piece of furniture in the living area, it might be necessary to render the site unattractive in some way. Things that can be done include the following:

  • Turn the cushions on the furniture sideways to make the surface inaccessible.

  • Put upside-down plastic spiked stair runner sections on the furniture.

  • Use odoriferous repellants to make the furniture smell bad to the dog (e.g. lemon scented air freshener spray).

  • Hide around the corner of the room with an air horn or fog horn and blast it as the dog's feet hit the furniture (the dog should blame the couch for the unpleasant loud noise, not you).

  • Attach a piece of fine black thread across the front of the piece of furniture and tie one end to a pile of "shake cans" or precariously balanced pots and pans. When the dog trips the thread, the cans or pots and pans will come crashing down around (but not on) him.

    The list of potential avoidance and aversive strategies (booby traps) is only limited by your imagination. Keep in mind that it is better to teach the dog what to do than to use "warding off" or punishment techniques. However, as long as the method selected is humane and works, it's any port in a storm.

    Teaching a dog to stay off the furniture or, more relevantly, to stay on the floor is the preferred method of resolving the problem of unwelcome couch-sitters. If the dog responsive to mild punishers after two or three attempts, this may also be an acceptable strategy that will break the dog of the unwanted habit. If possible, accommodate dogs by providing dog-only furniture that they can enjoy undisturbed. If keeping a dog off high places is mandatory because of owner-directed dominance aggression, then it's all stops out to ensure this goal. A combination approach of training, provision of alternative low resting areas, avoidance, and deterrence might be the best approach.

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