Why Is My Dog Protective of the Couch?
So your dog is protective of the couch. The fact is unmistakable because Rover turns into a snarling, scary beast anytime someone comes close to his "throne." Yet, in any other circumstance, your dog is the sweetest animal on earth, which makes yourself wonder whether he's bipolar. So what causes a dog to resource guard something as mundane as a couch, chair, or bed? Let's take a look at some "pawsibilities."
A Survival Instinct
In the canine world, guarding resources is quite a natural behavior, whether it's guarding a mate, food, bones, or resting areas. The guarding behavior is linked to survival as dogs have a natural need to eat, sleep, and reproduce. Domestication has added guarding the owner's attention to the list. Sharing is not on the top list of Rover's social etiquette. Humans, on the other hand, don't even excel in sharing, if we think about it. While you may be willing to share a piece of cake with a friend, it's unlikely that you will want to share your bank account with her or with anybody else for that matter. Safes, vaults, fences, bolted doors, bank accounts are all items that allow us to "resource guard' our belongings preventing others from having access to them. Now dogs aren't all alike, it's true that some are more willing to share a sleeping spot, while others will do what it takes to defend it. The dog's genes and upbringing (or combination of both) are ultimately what shape the dog's personality.
A Comfortable Place
Why did Rover choose your couch? Most likely, for the simple fact that it's comfortable. It likely felt very good the first time he slept there. The arm rest is a perfect spot to place his head, the pillows are soft and once curled up there he feels nice and warm. It's quite obvious that a couch is much more comfy than a floor! As a general rule of thumb, behaviors that are rewarded tend to repeat. So if Rover jumped on the couch and it felt good, you'll probably see him up there more and more. So what happens when Rover likes something very much? Chances are, if he's predisposed to resource guard high-value items, he'll want to defend it.
A Safe Haven
Old dominance theory wants us to believe that dogs guard the couch because it allows them to feel superior and from the height of their mighty couch they could "admire their domain." Yet, the more and more I observe dogs guarding the couch, the more I think they are just trying to defend their space and their right to rest undisturbed. A blanket on the floor doesn't cut it and rude dogs will continue to pester a dog lying down on the floor, so the couch offers "higher" chances for being left undisturbed. It's as if once on the couch the dog displays a "do not disturb" sign by emitting a growl or showing his pearly whites to any dog who tries to approach. There's a reason why people who own cats and dogs are recommended to install cat trees and high areas. These high areas allow kitty a safe haven out of Rover's reach, and perhaps the same seems to go on with dogs.
Dogs are constantly communicating with us and other dogs through their body language. Many problems are aggravated when their language is ignored. For instance, before the dog goes on to guard the couch with a visible snarl or apparent growl, most likely he tried communicating his warning to back off but it's unfortunate that his request went ignored. The dog may have stiffened his body, licked his lips or turned his head the other way with a whale eye to tell the person or other dog that he wanted to be left alone. If the person or other dog continues to come close ignoring his request (either because of being rude, naïve in reading body language or just not knowing any better), when push comes to shove, the dog will escalate his behavior and that's when we get the "wake-up call" that the dog is resource guarding the couch.
So now that we have a few possible explanations for why a dog may feel compelled to guard a couch, we will look at ways to curb this behavior.
How to Deal with a Dog Guarding the Couch
Some professionals treat guarding the couch as guarding other items, but I think it takes a slightly different approach. I also think it must be approached differently if the dog is guarding the couch against people or other dogs. The following are some tips to deal with dogs guarding the couch.
For Dogs Guarding the Couch Against People
In this case, the dog is manifesting signs of resource guarding towards people. The dog may be climbing on a couch or bed and may snarl, growl or even bite anybody who tries to approach the couch, climb on the couch or move him off the couch. Here are few tips:
- Forfeit access to the couch. In other words, manage the dog's environment for safety (you don't want to get bitten!) and to prevent the dog from rehearsing the guarding behavior.
- Make the couch area inaccessible. Place a pile of books, upside down chairs or boxes on it.
- For the time being, hire a dog behavior professional to help you out. He/she will guide you through some behavior modification techniques to reduce this guarding behavior. A great method is counterconditioning, which focuses on on changing the dog's emotional response to having you near the couch.
- Train the dog to target your hand when you need him to get off the couch. Click and treat him for obliging.
- At the same time, make another sleeping area (made just for the dog) very appealing. Get the most comfy dog bed you can find and feed your dog many tasty treats when he goes there. By doing this, not only are you making the new sleeping area appealing because it's now an area where great things happen, but you are also teaching the dog that great things happen WHEN you approach his new sleeping area.
- Let sleeping dogs lie. In some cases, Rover's behavior may be somewhat justified. Children may have pestered him in the past when he was tired and wanted to sleep or the owner may have pet him repeatedly on the couch when all he was doing was sending distance-increasing signals because he wanted to do is sleep. Dogs can get grumpy too when they are tired and if they are repeatedly pestered, a time may finally come when they must resort to plan B to make the message clear that they wish to sleep. Contrary to what we may think, dogs aren't always willing to be given attention and pet 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Some may tolerate it, some may not.
- Remove as many stressors as you can from your dog's life. Dog trainer Pat Miller claims: "Aggression is caused by cumulative stress that pushes a dog over his aggression threshold. We’re all grumpier when we’re stressed."
- Never use force or intimidation as these outdated methods make problems worse.
For Dogs Guarding the Couch Against Other Dogs
In this case, the dog is fine sharing the couch with people, but hates having other dogs near. This is not unusual behavior in multi-dog households. Many dogs are able to live together peacefully by finding an arrangement. The resource guarder may signal a request to be left in peace and the other dog defers and grants it. End of the story. Problems start when the other dog is slow to defer or doesn't defer at all and the resource guarder escalates his behavior to get the message across. Following are some tips for dogs guarding the couch against other dogs
- If the couch is the main source of problems, make the couch area inaccessible. Place a pile of books, upside down chairs or boxes on it.
- If the couch is the only place that triggers guarding, it may be a good idea to no longer allow any dogs on the couch for the time being. Yet, there are chances that the resource guarder will even feel compelled to guard a dog bed.
- Learn to recognize signs of tension. While when guarding food, dogs tend to hunker down towards the object, in the case of guarding a couch, the dog will likely stiffen, lower his head and growl, and eventually bite if these signs go unnoticed.
- Avoid punishing the dog's growl or other warning signs, as the dog may then decide to bite without warning. This applies to both resource guarding against humans or dogs.
- While management can help prevent problems, it's also important to work out how to teach the dogs to behave appropriately around resources. Employ a behavior professional to help you.
- Use counterconditioning . In this method you'll be working along with a professional on changing the dog's emotional response to having another dog approach the couch.
- Ask a professional about teaching the victim dog to defer to the resource guarder on cue as a second line of defense to avoid a fight.
- Have your dogs wear tabs so they can be removed before a situation escalates without grabbing their collars or putting your hands on the dogs which can be risky.
Disclaimer: Despite seeing success through behavior modification, it's always a good idea to never let your guard down. Always keep your eyes open for tense situations that may cause the aggressive behavior to return. If your dog is resource guarding play it safe and always seek the help of a force-free professional.