The Blame Game: Dog Training as Couples Therapy?

I thought I had seen it all until last month when I consulted with a sleep deprived couple and their 17-month old Flat Coated Retriever. They needed help in the bedroom. Yes, you read that correctly. In the bedroom and in their bed, no less.

As a friend of mine from Louisiana used to say, “You can’t make this stuff up, Brenda.”

It turned out that every night at bedtime there was a threesome of sorts going on. Badger, who was now 75lbs, had developed a nightly habit of climbing onto his Dog Dad’s side of the bed and refusing to budge, even an inch. It was so bad, that the couple had a new routine where Badger’s Dog Mom would get into bed first to stake out her husband’s spot. Then she would quickly turn out the light and her husband would make a mad dash for the bed.

Yeah. That didn’t work.

And that was only part of the problem. Regardless of who made it to the bed first, the rest of the night was the same. Badger relentlessly licked his Dog Dad’s face, hair, neck and hands. Eventually, Badger would edge his way up onto the pillows behind his Dad’s head and that certainly didn’t help anyone drift off into a peaceful slumber.

My solution was simple. Strengthen foundational behaviors like sit and down. Teach his owners games like “tug with rules” and “fetch with rules” to help Badger learn to find his “off-switch.” We also taught Badger hand targeting to teach him to focus. Then re-arrange Badger’s home environment – lifted all toys and chew sticks so they would become tools and rewards for positive behavior.

Finally, we taught Badger to “go to his bed” at bedtime where he was rewarded with his favorite chew that usually made him doze off. When I left the 90-minute training session, Badger was asleep on his back, all four legs up in the air.

Fast-forward to the positive report the next day. After two attempts to take it up on the bed and having it removed by his owners when he did, he decided his bed was more desirable.
Problem solved. Or so I thought.

A few weeks later, I saw Badger’s Mom and she was back to being sleep deprived.

“He’s onto us.”

“He’s figured it out.”

I know this isn’t how dogs think. What I knew was that the line of communication I had established between Badger and his owners had been clouded. In addition to stressing consistency and structure, a key component was restricting Badger’s access to his toys and chews. These would now be training tools and rewards for favorable bedtime behavior.

It turned out I was correct. Badger’s owners were no longer following the plan I had designed for him and had lifted the restriction on the chews.

I could also see that Badger’s Mom was doubtful about my approach. She had even returned to negative reinforcement and was squirting him with water when he jumped on the bed. Apparently, this didn’t do much to deter Bager because he was back to his old ways and nobody was getting any sleep.

Even though I knew I had identified the emotional rewards underlying Badger’s behavior and my solutions were sound, I couldn’t shake off the doubt Badger’s Dog Mom had expressed. Like so many other clients before her, she wanted the magical elixir, the silver bullet that would run her dog’s bad behavior off into extinction.

I hated to tell her, these “solutions” were just another bedroom fantasy.

In a way of checking my work, I presented Badger’s case as a formal study to my online training community. It is a wide network of professionals with very impressive credentials and vast experience. As their emails trickled in on the thread over a few days, I was relieved to see that my approach was correct.

There were no “new” interventions suggested for Badger’s behavior but one email from a trainer based in North Carolina gave me the chills. Somehow, she had intuited the “blame game” that was going on between Badger’s owners. I had intentionally omitted all “drama” when I wrote the case study.

The truth was that on the day of our consultation, the first thing Badger’s Mom did was point to her husband and say, “it’s all his fault.” In response, her husband raised his hand to silence his wife and just shook his head. During the intake, Badger’s Mom sat there bristling while Badger’s Dad impatiently shook his crossed leg.

As I read the trainer’s email all these weeks later, I realized what I had overlooked:

The emotional reward underlying the behavior of Badger’s owners. His bad behavior allowed them to stay engaged in their “blame game.”

I had no desire to play amateur marriage counselor but this insight gave me a different perspective and shifted my approach. I called Badger’s Mom and told her with conviction that she and her husband needed to work as a team. They needed to be consistent with Badger and work together to create a structure that would allow him to repeatedly perform the favorable behavior at bedtime.

And if they couldn’t work as a team, the bad behavior would continue.

This new united approach seems to have worked. Last word from Badger’s boudoir was that everyone was sleeping through the night without disturbance.