It’s commercial time during the game. You get up to stretch your legs and get a refill on your drink and some chips, which let’s be honest, your dog is eating most of them. You come back to your spot, the one with the indented mark of where you’ve sat since you bought the couch five years ago, but Tiny, who is about 50 pounds, is sitting there.
Why is Tiny stealing your spot when he has the rest of the couch, floor, his bed, and the reading chair to choose from? You’ve been sharing your snacks and he knows you’re good to him. Why is he stealing your seat? What gives, Tiny?
The Root of the Behavior
Tiny might have a few motives for stealing your seat. He might be enjoying your warmed and squishy spot for a moment or he is demonstrating dominant behavior.
If Tiny was just looking for a moment of glory on a warm cushion and not making a power play, he’ll move out of your way as soon as you come back to sit down. This is a sign of respect and one indicating you are in charge. When he relocates, he might wag his tail, have his ears back, or even give you kisses when you sit back down. Maybe he’s trying to be cute to get more chips, but more likely it’s respect and love.
Taking your spot can also be a dominant behavior due to an unclear power structure in the house. If your dog refuses to give your spot back or you have to yell, you might have a demonstration of dominant behavior.
Before domestication, dogs were wild pack animals and the pack has a hierarchy. The Alpha dog is in charge and the rest of the pack follows suit. The Alpha gets the best of everything-sleeping places, food, and they make decisions for a pack. Dogs want to get as close to the top of the hierarchy as possible.
Now that dogs are domesticated, their new pack is your household and you should be the Alpha dog. You should have trained your dog to listen to your basic commands and trained him in acceptable house behaviors, like not begging at the dinner table or not pulling on walks. If you haven’t or your dog is still young and testing his boundaries, he might demonstrate dominant behaviors. This power struggle will result in the problem of who gets the prime real estate on the couch for the rest of the game. If you give in and relocate your seat, your dog is now the Alpha and is in control. And he knows it.
Encouraging the Behavior
If you think your dog is demonstrating dominance, you want to establish yourself as the Alpha in the household. Dominant does not always mean aggressive, but for some dogs, it can progress to that. Dominant behaviors may not seem terribly threatening, and you might even think of them as “just my dog.” Some subtle dominant behaviors include leading or pulling while on walks, refusing to listen to commands that he knows, standing on your lap, carrying themselves with confidence or pride, and begging. If your dog demonstrates several of these behaviors, you might need to have an honest conversation with yourself to find out if you really are in charge. How you and Tiny interact in these situations will determine who is the Alpha in the house.
If you realize that Tiny does run the household, you'll want to take him to a trainer. While these behaviors can seem more stubborn than aggressive, allowing them to continue can lead to your dog becoming aggressive. By allowing an unwanted behavior to continue, you’re giving Tiny the go-ahead for other undesirable behaviors.
However, if Tiny gives up your spot immediately upon your return, there is no cause for concern. You can reward him with a belly rub for his good behavior.
Other Solutions and Considerations
If you can’t get Tiny to the trainer right away, there are a few things you can try to establish your dominance. Make sure he has a spot in the room that is just his. Place his bed near your feet or a blanket on the part of the couch you want him to sit on to indicate that spot as his. Teach him simple commands like “No” or “Off.”
If you notice other dominant behavior, like begging or nudging, don’t give in. The more you change your behavior to suit your dog’s needs, the less dominant you become. So if your dog is pulling on the leash as you go for a walk, keep the leash very short and do not let him walk in front of you. Make sure you have an appropriate leash and harness for your sized dog. When you let Tiny drag you all over town, he’s definitely in charge.
You’re lucky if your dog is respectful and submissive, but you have some work to do if he’s demonstrating dominance. Take him to the trainer so you two can watch the game together without a power struggle. But maybe switch from chips to carrots and share those instead. It’ll be healthier for you and him.