I often see sheepish looks and lowered eyes when I ask the question “is your dog allowed on the couch?” I would like to set the record straight that allowing shared couch time for most dogs does not mean your dog will assume ruler of your home. However, if your dog has ever growled or tensed as you approach, the couch or bed should be off limits. If that has occurred, no matter how infrequent, call a professional trainer immediately to prevent escalation and injury. For dogs who can happily share the couch or bed, it is important to set some ground rules so you do not inadvertently reinforce unwanted behaviors.
Set the expectation that couch or bed time are invitation only and continued lounging is earned for calm behavior. This teaches your dog that the cozy spot next to you is a reward. When using life rewards for responding to a cue like “sit”, you set clear expectations that good behavior earns good things. Additionally, if your home is filled with guests, your dog will wait for permission to join you on the sofa. However, you will create canine confusion if you only use this rule when friends or family are visiting. Dogs respond to consistency, so the couch should be earned 100% of the time, not just when it is inconvenient for you to share it.
If the couch has been a free ticket item for any length of time, you will need to set aside multiple times a day to train a “wait” cue before signaling “up” or “couch”. You may need to manage the environment to prevent free will jumping by keeping your dog in another space if not supervised or place something less comfortable on the couch such as a plastic bath mat. This will not hurt your dog but will make the couch less enticing.
To train this behavior, start with your dog in a “sit” or “down”. Once in position, cue a “wait” as you sit on the couch. If your dog is being good and calm, say “up” and the couch becomes the reward. If jumpy, say “uh uh” and stand up to prevent jumping. When your dog settles, try again. Once on the couch, cue your dog to lay by saying “down”, praise and treat if your dog remains in this position. All praise and treats stop when your dog moves or gets up. If your dog learns laying down nicely on the couch equals continued couch time and jumping makes couch time go away, you will soon share relaxing time together.
It is also helpful to place a blanket on the spot where your dog is permitted to lay. Repeating your “couch” and “down” cues on the blanket helps your dog understand boundaries and when the blanket is not on the couch, it is for humans only.
Be consistent though, if you allow free lounging just because you are tired, it confuses your dog when you do not allow it while eating or reading a book. When that jumpy behavior occurs, we train the cue “off” paired with a hand target to communicate the need for movement off furniture. It is more important to focus on “wait” for couch time than “off”. It is easier for dogs to understand what they are supposed to do rather than what they are not supposed to do. And, some dogs invent a fun game of “jump on the couch, jump off the couch”. Do not forget, the time to train is when you do not need it so your dog knows the meaning of the words when you do.