Animal Exuberance

Is it okay if our dog gets on the couch?

Well, why on earth not?

Well, why on earth not?

I'll occasionally cross-post here and at the Bridgetown Dog Training blog, where my focus tends to be more practical and my language somewhat less scatological...

This is one common version of a question I hear all the time: "Is it okay if... my dog walks on my right side instead of my left... sleeps in our bed... goes through doors in front of me... gives us kisses?" And while I know it can be annoying to answer questions with questions, my reply is almost always the same: "Is it okay with you?"

If I see behavior that looks potentially dangerous, I'll speak up. These are the only urgently not okay situations I encounter, and they jump immediately to the top of my management and training priorities. In just about every other case, however, it seems obvious that the people who decide what good behavior is should be the people who live with it on a daily basis.

Of course, this does create a bit of extra work for everyone. I think one reason that many trainers hold on to the dominance myth (the idea that dogs are perpetually scheming to take over our homes and the world) is that it supplies conveniently cut-and-dried answers to questions that are, in reality, wide open. The words "always" and "never" give us a false sense of strength and certainty. "You should always walk in front of your dog, you should never play tug…”

Science has exploded many of these myths, giving us the freedom to create highly personal visions of good behavior and the responsibility to see them through. Here are a few general tips to guide you in the process:

  1. Be specific. The more detailed your vision of what “good” looks like, the more easily you’ll get there. I’m currently working with a couple who do like sharing their couch with their pug but don’t like having her climb to the top of the cushions to demand their attention. Identifying that distinction enables them to communicate their desires clearly to their dog (by pointedly ignoring her when she’s perched on the back of the couch and lavishing her with rubs and praise when she moves down to the couch seat). It also lets them stop feeling guilty about letting her do what they like her to do. There are fewer “slippery slopes” when we train with clear expectations.

  2. Plan for the long term. Life is full of surprises, but the better we can anticipate what behaviors might become problematic, the better we can avoid trouble down the road. Well-established habits can be difficult to undo, and you’ll find it much easier to loosen the boundaries you’ve set than to tighten them later on. This foresight is especially important if you have a highly driven or large breed puppy - ask yourself whether the adorable thing she’s doing at ten weeks will still be adorable when she’s full grown.

  3. Be consistent. Once you decide on a boundary, hold to it. When you see those big pleading eyes (or hear that irritating bark) and you’re tempted to break your own rule, remember that your inner strength is a gift to your pup. You can’t ask him to show more self-discipline than you do.

Dogs will accept even the most arbitrary rules as long as you establish them as the “facts” of their world. Barley is the only one of our three dogs allowed to sit on the couch with us. That’s the way it has always been and always will be. (But you needn’t take pity on Kili, who lounges on her divan, or Pazzo, who favors the antique French chair passed down to us by my mother-in-law!)


Here's one version of "good" that may or may not overlap with your own: