Friday, May 2, 2014

My Dog Growls at Me When I Sit on the Couch

Way back when he was under a year old, Brisbane began to growl at people when they sat on the couch beside him. I was part of an online dog training community, and the consensus was that I needed to immediately revoke all of his furniture privileges and put him on a strict regiment of earning everything he found rewarding. No more casually hanging out with my dog, I needed to be ready to correct and guide him at every moment, and when he fully respected me as a leader he would no longer believe he owned the couch.

The thing was, Brisbane didn't feel very secure laying on the floor when we lived with my parents because there weren't a lot of places for him that were free from foot traffic. I could tell that Brisbane was very worried about being stepped on, and that he preferred sitting on the couch because it got him away from feet.

Around the same time the couch growling started, I had a behaviorist evaluate Brisbane. She told me that his behaviors were very respectful and that he always yielded space to people. He wasn't growling because he believed the couch was his to control. As we were discussing this, Brisbane was snoozing beside me on the couch. I leaned over to kiss the top of his head and he growled at me and then jumped off the couch and retreated to the floor without any move from either me or the behaviorist.

"He's hurting and he doesn't want to be touched." The behaviorist told me that Brisbane was being avoidant rather than possessive. This wasn't a dominance issue, it was a dog in pain with no appropriate way to communicate his fears. Growling isn't a sign of disrespect, it's a dog's way of communicating that he is not comfortable with the situation. We knew that Brisbane had some sort of back problem, though we hadn't yet identified it. When he was sore, people sitting on the couch often jostled him. He learned to be afraid of people sitting next to him, and he was growling to communicate that.

The solution for Brisbane's "couch guarding" was to teach him an alternate behavior. He needed to know that he could remove himself from the situation instead of growling. I taught him to hop onto the couch on cue, and to hop off on cue. "Sofa!" "Off!" "Sofa!" "Off!" In this case, 'off' was just another trick in his impressive repertoire. When someone sat next to him on the couch, they could order him off the couch without making it a negative experience. The cycle became (human sits on couch)->(human asks Briz to do his 'off' trick)->(Briz gets praised for doing his trick). At the end of the cycle, Brisbane is no longer in a situation so stressful he feels the need to growl, and nothing bad happened so he doesn't need to worry as much next time it happens. Had I addressed the issue by attempting to reclaim the couch by forcing him off, it would have gotten worse as he learned to anticipate a negative confrontation along with the stress of having someone sit next to him.

From practicing this routine over and over, Brisbane learned that he could remove himself from the situation when someone makes him feel stressed by sitting near him. He has not growled at people over furniture for years because he knows he can just get up and leave. He does tend to leave in a big huff sometimes, but he's confident because he has a way to de-escalate what he feels is a stressful situation.

I once saw Victoria Stillwell address this issue on "It's Me or the Dog" in a way that I also liked. In her case, the dog in question was a toy breed that would snarl and lunge at people sitting on the couch. Victoria Stillwell explained that approaching the dog head-on was threatening, and the dog was afraid. She had the dog owner's husband walk slowly backwards and sit on the couch, keeping his back to the dog at all times. Sure enough, the little yorkie found this much less confrontational and hopped off to avoid being sat on. This might not work for every dog, but it certainly worked in their case.

I had a somewhat similar experience getting a ride with a friend of a friend. She had just arrived in town and we were all going to ride to town in her car. The only problem was that her dachshund was buckled up in the backseat, and he was barking and lunging as soon as I opened the door. He felt trapped, with no way to escape, and here was a strange person invading his space. As we were in a hurry, I just kept my back to the dog while I climbed into the other side of the backseat. With no pressure to greet or interact with me, the dachshund quickly got comfortable with my proximity and decided I wasn't so bad after all.

Would any of these tactics work on a dog that truly felt possessive of the couch or car? I don't know. I've never met a dog with that issue. I do know that many times behaviors that are based in fear are labeled "dominance", with an entire lifestyle change prescribed in an attempt to alter the dog's attitude. To be honest, it doesn't even really matter why the dog is growling at people on the couch, to me the fix is still the same. Teach an alternate behavior, move the dog in a non-threatening manner, de-escalate the situation, and address the specific issue at hand rather than seeing it as a lifestyle or attitude problem.

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