Should Dogs Be Allowed on Furniture?

When I do private behavior consults, the topic of dogs on the furniture comes up a lot. Clients will say, "I know I shouldn't let her on the sofa but we like to cuddle." Others try to keep the dog off the sofa without success. Sometimes one family member wants to allow it but others don't. Often, dogs are aggressive if moved. The list goes on and “expert” opinions vary greatly. Some say sharing the furniture builds a deeper bond, others say it creates dominance. What’s the truth? In my view, it depends on several factors. There are three considerations before allowing the dog on the furniture and five levels of restriction that go with that decision.

The 3 Considerations

First we need to decide if Rover should be allowed on the furniture or not. The answer is as simple as 1,2,3.

  1. Personal Choice: Some people love dogs on the furniture and some hate it. The first question is, do you want the dog on the furniture.
  2. Dog's Behavior: I often restrict furniture privileges for behavior modification. It's not that being on the sofa will necessarily make a dog dominant, it’s that the root of many behavior problems is a lack of leadership. Furniture can be a valuable resource and leadership involves controlling resources. Furniture restriction also reduces overindulgence and excess affection which tend to give the dog the wrong idea about their status. I tend to look at furniture like a corner office...reserved for higher ups, invitation required and you don't sit in the boss' chair.
  3. Visitations: Will the dog ever be a guest in someone else's home? Not everybody likes dogs on their furniture. If you bring Rover to a friend's and he runs all over their sofa he might not be invited back.

The 5 Restriction Levels

Whether Rover will be allowed on the furniture or not, we still need some rules. There are five levels of furniture restriction; only some will apply to your situation but number five applies to all.

  1. Free Access: The most lenient is to allow the dog on the furniture anytime. It’s hardly a restriction but must be agreed on by the whole family. It will be very unfair to the dog if one person is allowing them on the furniture and another is scolding them for it. The dog must be well behaved in order to have this leniency and must get off when told.
  2. Only When Invited: Another option is allowing the dog on the furniture by invitation only. This provides leadership without giving up cuddle time. It is, however, the hardest one to teach because sometimes-it’s-ok-and-other-times-it’s-not is a grey area which is difficult for both dogs and humans. For example: Let’s say you're really engrossed in a movie and your dog comes up and lays next to you. You probably won’t think much of it because you've shared the sofa many times, you may even start petting out of habit. Then at the commercial break you realize, “Wait, I didn’t invite you up here!” It would be unfair to correct the dog at this point and you've rewarded the wrong behavior.
  3. Only Certain Furniture: You may choose to only allow the dog on certain furniture, the sofa but not the bed, for example. This is fairly easy to teach because it’s somewhat black and white. The stuff that is allowed is always allowed and the stuff that is not allowed is never allowed. Most dogs will get this quickly if you are consistent. It's a crap shoot as far as what the dog will do if you get new furniture but you should be able to teach them the right choice fairly easily. One quick correction will likely be all it takes for them to get it because they are used to having some restrictions with regard to furniture. The trick is to set the rule with any new situation right from the start.
  4. Never Allowed: This is the strictest version of furniture rules but it is the easiest to teach, other than free access. It is difficult at first when dealing with a dog that has a history of being on the furniture. Otherwise, it is fairly easy because it is totally consistent, no grey area, but you must be absolutely consistent in enforcing this policy. This may mean keeping the dog out of reach of the furniture when unattended or making the furniture inaccessible or uncomfortable somehow. For example: covering furniture with cardboard boxes or plastic carpet runners.
  5. The "Off" Command: Regardless of which of the above restrictions you have chosen you must absolutely be able to tell your dog to get off the furniture at any time. (Notice that's tell, not ask.) You don't have to be mean about it but you are not asking for a favor either. Asking implies the dog's choice to say no which makes the whole thing pointless. If your dog does not get off when told then one of three things is likely happening.
    1. The dog doesn't understand what "off" means and simply needs to be trained in a fair and balanced way.
    2. The dog understands what "off" means but has been taught that it's optional. This is a classic negative side effect from positive-only training. The dog thinks, "Hmm, do I want to get off and get a cookie right now?" then politely says, "No thanks, I'm comfortable right here." Positive training is wonderful but it is only as positive as the results it brings. Dogs in this category are not defiant, they have simply been taught that they have a choice and would benefit greatly from balanced training.
    3. The dog is being defiant or aggressive. He knows exactly what you want but simply refuses to move. This could be stubbornness, resource guarding or a personal space issue. Stubbornness is an easy fix with some balanced training. Aggression is beyond the scope of this article but I believe aggressive dogs should lose all furniture privileges. If you see any sign of aggression please contact me or find a qualified trainer in your area.

Allowing dogs on the furniture is both a personal choice and a privilege that must be earned. Please be honest in evaluating your dog’s behavior and your status in the relationship. If all is well then go ahead and cuddle up.

Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer and Canine Behavior Consultant

© Thriving Canine 2014