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Who’s Sleeping in Your Bed Tonight?

My bed in 2012. Four on the bed, one in a crate.

My bed in 2012. Four on the bed, one in a crate.

One of my Vermont clients asked me about my thoughts on dogs on beds:

Have you written a blog article about dogs on beds vs crate training vs sleeping some place else in the house? Would love to hear your thoughts and reasons on any of the above”.

So, let’s talk about where the dog sleeps.

Sleeping on the bed is like many of the other “rules” that’s gotten caught up with the mythical and faulty logic of dominance theory. Your dog sleeping on the bed won’t make him think he’s boss. No specific behavior – going out the door first, walking in front of you, eating before you eat – sends your dog the message that he’s in charge. It is your dog doing things and you allowing those things to happen, which enforces the message that he’s in charge.

Here’s an example. I had an elderly client who owned a Shih Tzu. The woman called me because the dog was not allowing her on the bed at night. At night, the dog would run into the bedroom and hop on the bed. When the woman tried to get into bed, the dog would snap, growl and bite until the woman retreated. She had been sleeping on her couch for over a month when she called me. Was this dog in charge? Absolutely. Was it because he was sleeping on the bed? No way. It was because he was controlling his owner’s behavior through aggression. Was he trying to control her? No. He is a dog. He was not conniving and conspiring ways to control things. He was in a pattern of practicing a behavior (guarding the bed from the owner), getting a result (owner retreated) which strengthened the behavior, thus the behavior got stronger. Both the dog and the owner were stressed out and unhappy [I’m happy to report the owner has been back in her bed for some years now].

A boarding dog and a resident dog napping in 2009

A boarding dog and a resident dog napping in 2009

When I talk to clients about what they should allow their dogs to do, I encourage them to think about what is respectful and what nurtures a healthy relationship between dog and owner. You don’t need arbitrary guidelines, you need things that are practically useful. Eating is a great example. It’s very common that my puppy owners tell me that their dog is barking and being obnoxious during dinner. I advise them to give the dog his dinner in a feeder toy like a Kong (frozen is even better) so the dog is happily occupied during dinner. The family is happy to not be barked at for the duration of the meal, dog is happy and, best of all, dog is practicing calm, appropriate behavior. These people love their dog and the relationship is positive. No where in this scenario do we need to think about who’s doing what first just because they heard from their uncle’s brother’s friend that you always have to eat before your dog.

So, when you are looking at any given behavior with your dog and wondering if it’s ok, ask yourself these questions:

  1. If the dog does this for the duration of his life, would it bother you?
  2. Does the behavior (or related behaviors) stress you out?
  3. Does the behavior (or related behaviors) stress out your dog?

If you answer NO to all three questions, then that behavior is probably ok. If you’re answering YES, then you need to do something to change the behavior (management, training, or both). It’s that simple. If you don’t know the answer to one of the questions, hire a professional to help you sort it out. Let’s run through a few examples.

A boarding dog and my heart dog, Kai, napping in 2009

A boarding dog and my heart dog, Kai, napping in 2009

My dog hogs the bed and I’m not getting sleep because of it.

  1. If the dog does this for the duration of his life, would it bother you? YES
  2. Does the behavior (or related behaviors) stress you out? YES
  3. Does the behavior (or related behaviors) stress out your dog? NO

Answer: Dog should not be sleeping on the bed. Crate-train, train to use a dog bed or shut the dog out of the room at night.

My dog growls at my other dogs when he’s on the bed.

  1. If the dog does this for the duration of his life, would it bother you? YES
  2. Does the behavior (or related behaviors) stress you out? YES
  3. Does the behavior (or related behaviors) stress out your dog? YES

Answer: Aggression is not okay. This dog can’t handle being on the bed and should be sleeping elsewhere. Training or conditioning could also be applied so that the dog is more tolerant of other dogs being in his space.

My dog snores in the bed.

  1. If the dog does this for the duration of his life, would it bother you? NO
  2. Does the behavior (or related behaviors) stress you out? NO
  3. Does the behavior (or related behaviors) stress out your dog? NO

Answer: Fine for the dog to sleep in the bed.

My dog keeps getting up during the night.

  1. If the dog does this for the duration of his life, would it bother you? NO
  2. Does the behavior (or related behaviors) stress you out? NO
  3. Does the behavior (or related behaviors) stress out your dog? YES
Couple Of Dogs And Owner

Under the cover dogs…the best!

Answer: This dog needs a better sense of containment. A lot of dogs that are immature, easily aroused or over-stimulated need some extra help with boundaries. So, although not directly related to sleeping on the bed, I’d recommend that this dog sleep in a crate. This is an example I wouldn’t expect a new dog owner to know, this is where having a trainer comes in helpful.

I’m focusing on bed questions, but you can apply this to almost any behavior – pulling on leash, jumping on visitors, barking out the window, snapping at people – whatever! Every family unit has norms about what is acceptable. My dogs sleep in the bed and I love it. They are also totally comfortable sleeping on the floor or in crates.

The point is that you need to look at your family system, your dog’s individual temperament and needs, and make thoughtful decisions about what is and is not permitted. From there, choose training plans that are easy to implement and maintain (or choose a trainer who can help you with this) and be consistent. You also want to be fair and kind to your dog. He is at the mercy of whatever you decide the rules are. So, just because you love wrestling and hugging your dog for hours on end doesn’t mean it’s not totally stressing him out. This is where that third question comes in handy. And, again, utilizing a trainer to help understand your dog can enhance your relationship like you wouldn’t believe.

To end, I’ll mention a video I got earlier today from a friend who’s pretty serious about dog training. A couple of months ago, he implemented a lot of changes (read: LOTS of rules) in his multi-dog house. Today, the baby gates came down and everyone was together for the first time. The video almost made me cry – everyone was so relaxed and happy together. Amazing!

So, where will your dog be sleeping tonight?