Should I let my dog on the sofa? And other learning theory traps
"How do I get my dog off the sofa?" is one of my favourite questions to be asked. I beam back "wouldn’t it be easier to keep your dog on the floor, before it has got on the sofa?"
You see, this very simple logic goes deep into learning theory and it can be hugely fun and enlightening for dog owners to get their heads round it.
The problem with "getting your dog off the sofa", is that it has already got on the sofa! Any response from you will be associated with being on the sofa and will simultaneously be giving the dog attention, even negative attention is still attention. To sum it up rather amusingly, when your bouncy retriever launches itself on the sofa and flips it's butt round and grins at you saying "your move", you have already lost the game. If your house rule is no dogs on the sofa, then you are in a position where you must respond. Any response is attention and your dog has probably already learnt this.
Let’s rewind a second before we go deeper and clear up whether you actually need to make the decision to keep the dog off the sofa. What are valid reasons to keep your dog off the sofa? Your dog loves mud and your sofa is brand new and very expensive and not wipeable. Your dog has medical issues that mean it shouldn't jump. You have a new born baby and your dog is very bouncy. Even, you simply don't want your dog on the sofa, if that is your value system and you are sticking to it, that is actually perfectly fine. Whatever your reason, you better have a plan of how to keep your dog on the floor.
What are invalid reasons to not let your dog on the sofa? The silliest reason that keeps cropping up is "your dog will end up more dominant over you" or variations of this. Whilst this has no scientific backing and dominance theory was debunked years ago, if you are concerned about it increasing unruly behaviour, I would say that letting your dog on the sofa does not automatically make your dog unruly. For example, you can teach your dog to say please before getting on the sofa or wait to be invited. Or you could teach your dog to lay quietly and relax on a provided blanket on one part of the sofa.
What are valid reason to let your dog on the sofa? Comfort, to feel more part of the family, more choice of laying space reduces stress, reduced frustration at not being let on, better quality sleep, more strokes and cuddles, a happy dog!
Let’s go back to the actual training involved. The main trap mentioned in the title relates to behaviour chains. If your dog gets on the sofa and you coax it off and give them a treat, you have just rewarded a [jump on sofa+jump off sofa]. The dog has to jump on the sofa, to then jump off, to get the treat. You may as well have rewarded the dog for getting on the sofa.
This trap is present in all training. If the dog has done something you don't want, then you cannot respond for a while. This most notably goes for jumping then sitting. A [jump+sit] cannot be rewarded in any meaningful way for the same reason. In recall, if the dog comes to you after sniffing three other dogs, having a cup of tea and reading a newspaper, it cannot be rewarded in any meaningful way.
Back to the sofa. If you try and deal with it by grabbing the collar and dragging the dog off, either the dog loves the wrestling match and will see that as a reward or the dog will learn not to trust you around the sofa. Do it consistently enough and you could end up with a dog that bites hands when it is on the sofa and a world of worse problems.
So what should you do, if you have taken the decision to not let your dog on the sofa. Firstly, make the floor the best damn place ever. Have lots of beds out for your dog to choose from. Do lots of relax on the floor training, using lots of reinforcement for laying on the floor. Play lots of games on the floor. Scatter treats on the floor, even sit on the floor occasionally with your dog. As much as possible make the situation, that everything rewarding happens when the dog is on the floor. You may well need to manage all of this with a houseline or blocking access to the sofa for a while. This is because the sofa is also self-rewarding. It simply feels good either as a trampoline or a snuggle station.
It’s a lot of work isn't it. So much so, that I often ask clients "is this really a decision you want to take and reinforce forever more, you are going to have lots of other things to teach the dog throughout its life". That said, you can do this as part of other training anyway, all of the items mentioned above, you should be doing with your dog in some way for general manners and life skills. One way or another it always comes down to consistent training, rather than the human reduction of “how do I stop my dog doing x”. The question should be “how can I train my dog to do other things instead before they have done x”.