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.
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:
- Some people in the house have let Chiller up on the couch sometimes. Sometimes even when they are present in the room.
- 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).
- 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:
- Me on the Couch + People in the Room = NOT Fun for Me (pick another spot)
- 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.
Tags: david muriello, does my dog know better, dog behaves differently when I go out, dog behaves differently when I leave, dog behaves differently when no one is home, dog behavior problems, dog getting on couch, dog has spite, dog knows better, dog listening when I'm not home, dog manners, dog obedience, dog obeying rules when I'm not home, dog sleeps on bed, dog won't obey rules, how dogs learn, how dogs think, keeping dog off the couch, keeping dog off the furniture, reader questions on dog behavior, rules for dogs, rules for the dog, the real deal on dogs