One hot afternoon, I headed for the couch with my magazine, but the dog I’d adopted a few months back was already settled in the good spot next to the cushions. I reached for his collar to pull him off so I could sit where I wanted. Bozeman, possibly wary of my abrupt reach and my magazine, responded with a hard stare and a low growl. Uh-oh.
This was the first time Bozeman had growled at me and I needed it to be the last. I did not want Bozeman to learn that he could control humans with growls, nor did I want the growls to escalate to snarling, snapping, or biting.
What to do? Doing nothing was tantamount to teaching Bozeman that aggression works. I had to defuse the situation right away. I lured him off the couch with a treat, installed myself in the good spot, and pondered my options.
What I had just done, luring him off the couch, amounted to bribery and wouldn’t work in the long run. What if Bozeman decided he preferred resting on the couch to eating a treat? Score Bozeman 1, UU Clicker 0.
I could sit on the floor but it is my couch. Again: Bozeman 1, UU Clicker 0. Keeping Bozeman off the couch when I wasn’t around meant I’d have to remember to lay the dining room chairs on the couch every time I left – too inconvenient. Score: Bozeman 0, UU Clicker 0. So far, UU Clicker wasn’t getting any points.
Doing what some traditional trainers advise, punishing him for insubordination, would put the score at Bozeman 0, UU Clicker 1. But if I flattened Bozeman with the magazine, a collar jerk, or yelling, he might flatten me with a bite. I’d have to keep escalating his punishment.
Also, the next time I reached for his collar, Bozeman would be afraid of another correction, defend himself, and maybe bite me. Ever after, I’d have to keep a leash on him to protect myself and be ready to give him a good corrective collar jerk for growling at me. Score diminishes: Bozeman 0, UU Clicker 1/2. Even worse, what if punishment taught Bozeman to skip growling and go directly to biting? I couldn’t harbor an incipient junkyard dog in my living room. I’d lose my pet and Bozeman, after a one way trip to the shelter, would lose his life. Final score: Bozeman 0, UU Clicker 0. Lose/lose. There had to be a better way.
That evening, pouring kibble into Bozeman’s bowl, I realized what I really wanted was for him to get off the couch when asked. Yes!
Once I reframed the problem away from what I didn’t want, defending the couch, to what I did want, getting off the couch on request, the solution popped into my head. All I had to do was teach Bozeman to get off the couch by training him to alternate between jumping up onto the couch and jumping off it. If we could do this simple exercise, we’d both win.
The next day when Bozeman and I were both calm, I got out my clicker and treats. At the sight of the clicker, Bozeman perked up, ready to learn. I patted the couch. When he jumped up onto it, I clicked my clicker then fed him a pea-sized bit of hot dog. Then I pointed to the floor with a bit of hot dog in my hand, and clicked and treated when he jumped off. Boze relished this new game. His tail wagged and his eyes shone with anticipation. We did the on-couch, off-couch routine a few more times. Soon I only needed to use my empty hand to point where I wanted him to go. Then I added the verbal commands “Up!” and “Off!” Bozeman learned to get on and off the couch on command in just five minutes.
Now when I want to sit on my couch, I tell Bozeman “Off”. He hops off with no objections. I nestle in by the pillows, then I invite him “Up” to cuddle. Final score: Bozeman 1, UU Clicker 1. We both win.