Who’s Bed is it, Anyway?

Since I’m always cold, I love it when my animals want to sleep with me — especially as we keep the heat turned way down at night! My kitty is equally happy to oblige – and a fine, furry “electric” blanket she is, too!  But Kita (9-yr-old GSD mix) likes to sleep next to the bed or even go off to a doggie pillow in the corner on her own.  So, I’m always a bit jealous when folks “complain” about how much of the bed their dog(s) hog! Nothing’s warmer than having a big dog to cuddle up against when the Winter wind howls outside!

Most of the time, folks aren’t really complaining — they wouldn’t banish Rover from the bed no matter how much room he takes! However, it worries me sometimes when a certain note creeps into the mock-grumbling. Hearing stories that the dog won’t move over when requested, or pushes back if the human tries to reclaim some square footage, or “grumbles” at THEM when asked to get off, I find myself getting tense. In these cases, it sounds very much as if Rover thinks it’s HIS bed!

Dogs are territorial, even dogs that aren’t particularly “dominant.” What’s theirs is THEIRS, thank you very much!  So, I worry that about what message Rover gets when his owner grumbles, but lets herself be pushed out of bed, or relegated to the outer 6 inches, or gives up the pillow and covers.  Rover can be forgiven for thinking it’s HIS bed since he’s been allowed to claim it.  Possession is nine-tenths of the law with humans — with dogs, more like 100%!  I’ve seen a 9-month-old puppy after making submissive gestures to all the other dogs in the yard, literally chase them all away from a stick she was claiming.  If Rover thinks the bed is his territory, even if he knows the human is boss, he’s going to have something to say if the human tries to push him off!

But dogs also put a lot of status on who gets the “top” (as in highest) spot. We humans don’t have any problem with letting a teenager, for example, sit on the couch while we take the floor. We realize that, while additional height, in certain circumstances, can give one human a psychological advantage over another, it doesn’t always apply – or we don’t have to let it bother us!  If we’re in a competitive situation humans pay attention to height and make sure it’s in their own favor, but otherwise it’s mostly symbolic and easily ignored.

Rover probably doesn’t see it that way. If one dog is “over” another that isn’t just a symbol, but a statement of fact.  The “top” dog is saying he’s literally on top – has higher status! There are a few circumstances where one dog would tolerate another claiming the “high ground” if that wasn’t his right — in play situations and with young puppies!  Parent (and good-natured adult dogs) grant puppies a lot of leeway, often allowing pups to crawl on top of them, etc.  However, Dr. Patricia McConnell illustrates how seriously dogs regard “one-up-manship” with an incident, where a well-socialized, puppy-loving female Golden Retriever became “a furry chainsaw” when someone held a puppy up over her head.  Clearly, height matters to dogs!  So, Rover must think he’s (at least) of equal status with the folks who let him hog the bed!

If Rover thinks he owns the bed and is of equal status with the humans sharing it, odds are that there will come a show-down one day.  Rover may growl when jostled, or snap when pushed at.  He may snarl when a boyfriend tries to share the bed.  He may even bite you when you grab his collar and try to pull him off.  It’s not really his fault.  He’s acting on information that he’s been taught.

Kita used to sleep on the bed!  One of the probable reasons she doesn’t like to anymore, is that early on, I let a bed-hogging situation progress unchecked until she growled at me one night when I bumped her getting back into bed.  So, I had to take a few steps back and forbid her access for a time.  Then she was gradually allowed up after “working” for the privilege (SITTING upon command.)  However, I didn’t always allow her up when she “asked” by putting her head on the bed, to underscore that the bed belonged to me.

Somehow in all that process and re-training, Kita lost the confidence that she was welcome up there with me, as long as she remained respectful.  If I had it to do all over again, I would teach Kita two commands:  UP (get on the bed) and OFF (get off the bed.)  I would, as part of the bed-time ritual, ask for the SIT every night, and then cue her to get UP on the bed.  If she tried to hog too much room, she’d be told to get OFF.  This would be all very matter-of-fact and would prevent the irritation, betrayal, hurt and emotional misunderstandings when possession of the bed finally became an issue.  I have tried to encourage Kita to share the bed – and the couch, too!  But she is so ill-at-ease that I’ve stopped.  After the fact, I just don’t know how to let Kita know  I WANT her up there, and so I am now without my BIG, furry “electric” blanket.  But the cat is happy because there’s more for HER to hog!

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