The Myth: Dogs know the same rules apply whether a human is present or not.
The Real Deal: Dogs can easily learn that a specific experience has a different outcome when you’re absent vs. when you’re present. They will then behave according to which outcomes work best for them in the moment, not according to “rules” you have set.
Let’s get back to this great question by Real Deal reader, Tracy. She 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.
In part 1 of this post we talked about why Tracy’s dog, Chiller, goes on the couch only when she’s not home. We also examined the simple rules dogs learn from their experiences and how these drive their behavior.
Now, using this example, let’s talk about how to prevent unwanted behavior when you’re not home and what Tracy can do about the fact that Chiller’s already learned: the couch is wonderful – as soon as everyone leaves.
First, the best time to establish rules such as “don’t go on the couch” is right at the beginning of your relationship. If you have a puppy or newly adopted adult dog, it is MUCH easier for him to learn a rule if you start from the beginning and then stick to the rule.
Sticking to the rule means that you don’t allow the rule to be broken when you’re not watching. This is probably the biggest mistake dog owners make. I suspect this is how Chiller learned that the couch is a delight as long as no one else is in the room. Remember this: Dogs repeat behaviors that are rewarding. MANY experiences can be rewarding WITHOUT you being there to provide a reward. Rewards come from everywhere – not just you!
Here are a few classic examples of rewarding experiences that dogs have when unsupervised, all of which can lead to unwanted behavior patterns:
- Peeing on the floor/carpet: dog feels, ahhhh, I’ve relieved myself, that was rewarding! I LOVE peeing on this surface, it’s always SO RELIEVING!
- Jumping on the counter and eating a sandwich found there: dog feels, YUM, that is the BEST thing I’ve EVER tasted! I love jumping on counters – I can’t believe I haven’t tried this until today. I’ll check this spot every day! Hell, I’ll check it THREE TIMES a day!!!
- Resting on forbidden couch or bed: dog feels, mmmmm, this is SO COZY! Whenever no one’s around to disrupt me, this is heaven!!!
Are you seeing how it works? It’s when we’re not paying attention that dogs learn these behaviors pay! Behaviors unwanted by owners end up being rewarding behaviors for our dogs. So what do we do? Let’s start with problem prevention (always the best way to raise great dogs). We’ll use our couch example. Here’ a recipe for getting your dog to permanently follow the rule of NO couch, whether you’re home or not:
- When you’re in the room you ALWAYS body block your dog’s access to coming up on the couch or immediately put him back on the floor when he tries to come up.
- When you’re not in the room, you put up a barrier to deny access to the room OR you make the couch otherwise inaccessible/unpleasant. You can use these bumpy X-Mat to do that. No dog wants to lie on THAT.
- Give your dog an alternative option that is always available, very comfortable and ALWAYS rewarding (a cozy dog bed or old blanket). Of course it is always rewarding if it’s comfortable, but you can enhance the experience even further by giving your dog positive attention when he is lying in his bed (belly rub!) or calmly bringing him a treat/chewie/stuffed Kong when he is relaxing on the bed. This will seal the deal that this dog bed is THE PLACE to BE.
If you follow this recipe and maintain consistency for several weeks then your dog will quickly eliminate the idea of couch chillin’ from his behavior repertoire. Your dog will essentially look at it this way: There’s a couch. That’s something people sit on. Dogs don’t go there. I never have. Any experience I’ve ever had trying to go on there has been unspectacular at best, a waste of time. That’s just another dull object in the room. Now here’s an idea, I’ll go lie on my comfy bed or my favorite spot in the sun by the window. That’s a great place to be.
This will work without fail for any new dog. A new dog is especially easy to set rules with. Ah, but what if it’s NOT a new dog? What if it’s a dog who already has the unwanted behavior pattern of going on the couch only when no one’s around? Like Chiller does. That’s a little trickier, and I’ll cover it in Part 3 of this series.
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