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Training Dogs to Discriminate – When it’s OK to be on the couch, and when it’s not

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Dear Inquisitive Canine:

I really want to be able to “invite” our dog onto the sofa, but we don’t want him jumping around on our furniture or other people’s furniture whenever he wants. My husband says, “You can’t give him mixed signals, like sometimes up and sometimes not.”

My friend has a Vizsla who is so cuddly, and I also yearn for the same connection and some snuggle time with my dog. However, I’m afraid my husband may be right — even though I don’t want him to be. Please help.

— The Cuddler

Dear Cuddler:

Good news! Although your husband is correct in that giving mixed signals to a dog is not the best idea, you certainly can teach a dog to discriminate. For one example of how dogs can learn to discriminate, check out my dog training blog.

A human example I like to use is the traffic signal: The green light means go, the red light means stop and the yellow light means slow down (or, for some people, “speed up” depending on whether a cop is around).

In your case, you can teach your pup when it’s OK to be on the couch, and when it’s not. Of course, just like with all dog training plans, consistency and timing are of the utmost importance. When you’re not training, management is key.

First off, management: If you don’t want your pup running willy nilly around your house or a friend’s house, keep your dog confined to specific “legal” areas. Or, keep him on a leash, tethered to you. That way he is set up for success, and not at risk of making undesired choices.

As for educating your dog on making the better choice, I recommend the training exercise I teach in my own dog training classes called: “Go to Your Place.” It teaches the dog to target a blanket, bed or mat — the designated area to sit or lie down. That way you can take whatever object they’re lying on to other areas to perform the same behavior. It’s pretty much the canine equivalent to a portable chair.

For your request, you can use a specific, “couch allowed” blanket for your dog to lie on. If the blanket is on the couch, the dog is allowed up. No blanket, not allowed. If the blanket isn’t on the couch, you can then place it on the floor nearby or elsewhere. If he jumps up on the couch uninvited, you can remove him from the room for a brief timeout (15 seconds).

The choices your dog will have are:

  • Blanket on couch, I get to be on the couch and some cuddle time.
  • Blanket on floor, I get petting, praise, chew bone and food treats.
  • Jump on the couch uninvited, and I don’t get anything, plus I get thrown out of the room.

With consistency and precise timing, your dog most likely will make the better choice by learning to discriminate, and you’ll get your cuddle time. I agree that there is nothing like the healing power of cuddling with your dog. It’s not called “animal-assisted therapy” for nothing!

— Dear Inquisitive Canine is written by Joan Mayer and her trusty sidekick, Poncho. Joan is a certified professional dog trainer and dog behavior coach. Poncho is a 10-pound mutt that knows a lot about human and canine 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 contact them directly with your questions.

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