How Do I Get My Dog to Behave When I’m Not Home? Chiller the Couch Boy, Part 1

Here’s a great question that came up in recent conversations I’ve had with Real Deal readers on my Facebook page.  Dog owner Tracy wrote: 

What I want to know is  “how to teach my dog to still obey the rules when I’m not in the house.”  He would never go up on our formal living room couch if we were home, and apparently (from the warm seat and askew pillows) knows that the garage door opener sound means we are about to come in.

When it Comes to Snuggling or Snoozing - Dogs Can't Resist a Soft Couch

The Myth: My dog knows better than to do something “against the rules” when I’m not home.

The Real Deal: He doesn’t.  Your dog simply does what he has learned works best for him in the present moment.

Let me explain how Tracy’s dog appears to “know” he is wrong for being on the couch when no one is home, and how in fact he does NOT know.  Then I’ll tell you how to get your dog to stop “breaking the rules” when you walk out the door!

Let’s give Tracy’s dog a name to make this explanation easier.  We’ll call him “Chiller,” since he loves to chill on the couch (once they leave).  Tracy says Chiller would NEVER go up on their living room couch when they are home.  This means that anytime Chiller has tried to go on the couch when a person is present, he has been stopped or reprimanded in some way that he finds unpleasant (this does not have to be mean, just clear).  One way or another, the people of the household have gotten the message across to Chiller that it’s not worth the effort or comfort to get on the couch when people are home.  It is LESS FUN for Chiller to get on the couch than it is to find some other spot for his chillin’.  He knows this.  He has learned it through experience.  What exactly has he learned you ask?  Here’s the simple RULE in Chiller’s mind: 

Me on the Couch + People in the Room = NOT Fun for Me (so pick another spot)

Now, there’s something else that I’m willing to bet Chiller has learned.  I’m willing to bet that Chiller has learned that chillin’ on the couch is a sublimely comfortable experience. And I’m willing to bet he discovered this more than once.  This happened in one or all of the following ways:

  1. Some people in the house have let Chiller up on the couch sometimes. Sometimes even when they are present in the room.
  2. Chiller has gone on the couch on his own when no one is in the room.  On at least a few of these occasions, he was then reprimanded upon discovery.  However, this was after the fact (once he had already experienced how comfortable the couch was).
  3. Chiller was NEVER, ever, allowed on the couch, not even for one second.  BUT, he could not resist his natural desire to rest on soft, elevated surfaces so he tried it for the very first time when no one was home (this is the least likely of the three scenarios, but possible).

We can safely assume that one or more of the above scenarios took place.  It would only take one or two occurrences to create Tracy’s problem.  That is because once Chiller learns that sometimes being on the couch is enjoyable, the only thing left for him to figure out is: WHEN is lying on the couch enjoyable and WHEN does it suck?

Well, that’s easy for him to sort.  He tries going up on the couch at different times, in different situations.  After a few trials, he can plainly see that the couch is perfectly enjoyable when no one is around and it sucks when people are present (because they immediately kick him off).  He’s now got two SIMPLE Rules he can trust:

  1. Me on the Couch + People in the Room = NOT Fun for Me (pick another spot)
  2. Me on the Couch + NO ONE in the Room = Joyful Peace and Comfort (relax on the couch)

So, Chiller has learned that the couch is bliss when no one is around – Rule #2.  When he hears a signal that someone will come into the room (garage door) he follows Rule # 1.

Tracy, your smart dog IS obeying rules.  They’re the rules he’s learned from his own experiences.

Did he deviously strategize any of this?  No!  Is he a bad boy?  No!  Does he have spite?  No!   He just knows the simple rules above. He does what works for his happiness in the present moment. Just like every animal. Just like you and me.


In the next post I’ll tell you how to solve Tracy’s couch problem and prevent your dog from following different rules when you’re present vs. when you’re not.  Hint: The problem above comes from the fact that Chiller was given an opportunity to experience the joy of the couch – sometimes – and when no one was there to teach him otherwise.

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7 Responses to “How Do I Get My Dog to Behave When I’m Not Home? Chiller the Couch Boy, Part 1”

  1. simona Says:

    i would like to know the followup to this situation. i am costantly struggling with this issue at home and need to know a fair way to get my dog to stop doing so!

    please help!


  2. Jorge Says:

    pfft! Chilling on the couch is nothing! My dog behaves perfectly fine when I’m around and decides to destroy things when I’m not.

  3. Rachel Says:

    I would like to know the answer to this problem as it drives me mad. When i leave the house i have to take my throws off my leather sofa otherwise my dog covers them in hair and it drives me mad. She is aware she is not allowed on the sofa and doesnt bother trying to get on. Im fed up of having to remove my throws everytime i leave the house and even before i go to bed!

    • realdealdave Says:

      Hi Rachel,
      Thanks for reading the Real Deal on Dogs. The easiest solution is for you to try the bumpy X Mats I posted about. Keep them behind or under the couch, then put them up before you leave and before you go to bed. Try keeping them there for about a month when you are absent, then gradually fade them out of the picture. In the meantime, give your dog an excellent place to rest as an alternative. A dog bed that will make her forget about the couch forever. You may find you won’t need to put anything on the couch ever again after this period of creating a new best option (couch no longer fun, new bed = awesome). Just like us, dogs fall into patterns. Change the pattern for a month and you could have the new pattern you want. The dog doesn’t even think about the couch anymore because she’s so accustomed to her special bed. Some people use other uncomfortable bumpy things to lay across the couch instead of X Mats – see what you have lying around – but X Mats do work very well.
      All the best, David

  4. Nina Says:

    Thanks for this!

  5. evey2692 Says:

    Hello thanks for awesome advice and I hope it works with my crazy dog.
    Also I have another question, my 2 dogs have the backyard designated to make their business and they know it because they even cry if the door to the backyard is closed when they have to go. But for some reason my newest dog LOVES to pee on my studio when we’re not home. What can I do to make her stop? please help she’s a big dog and makes reaaaaaally big pools of pee (sorry I know it’s gross but I want to express my distress :C).

  6. Anne benavides Says:

    Ok I too have a lab no two labs Bella is the spread puller.i come home she has pulled the spread pillows off the bed any reading material we might have there god forbid we left a cup of let’s talk beds they both have one each in the family room ,bedroom room a blanket in the living room THEY let us live more than the children. I put a chair on the bed now when we leave and we take bets who won when we walk in the door.yet Bella SMILES at the gate when she sees us .hey I’m not talkin puppy she’s 6ish we hired a dog walker,they flaked on us at 10.00 bucked a walk ( it was too hot) for the walker not the dogs lol so here we more Zoloft for us .they are perfect at the dog park play well, interact well,just don’t pick up there poop well.any suggestions I always lose the bet so I am the laugh of the house and broke but I WONT get rid of Bella EVER

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