Beast Mode is Slate’s pet advice column. Have a question? Send it to email@example.com.
Dear Beast Mode,
When I adopted my American bulldog mix puppy as a single college senior seven years ago, there was no question he was going snuggle in bed with me every night. My husband has been in our lives for three years, and he loves it! The pup is very expressive and sweet, and frequent family snuggle sessions are really important to us.
We recently spent two weeks out of the country on our honeymoon. We went from just us stretching out in king-size hotel beds to sleeping with a 70-pound dog on a queen-size bed in our studio apartment. Now, I can’t sleep! The problem is not that he’s active in the night, but that he sleeps like a rock—a rock that slowly creeps into the middle of the bed.
Whenever we try to make him sleep on a dog bed or a blanket on the floor, he paces around nonstop, whining, sighing, and grunting the whole time. I don’t know what to do!
—Three’s a Crowd
Dear Three’s a Crowd,
I’d ask you to imagine yourself in your dog’s position, but I fear this would make you regret your honeymoon. I mean, all it took to disrupt seven years of nighttime harmony was a few weeks of turndown service and high thread count sheets? A luxurious honeymoon is meant to springboard a couple into their new life, not the dog onto the floor. Alas, the wedding industrial complex claims another victim.
As someone who shares a bed with both a human and a dog, I understand where you are coming from. However, you can’t expect your pup to be empathetic to this recent change of heart. He doesn’t care how nice that overwater bungalow was in Bali, he wants to sleep in the same spot he’s occupied nearly every night of his life.
“Dogs as a species are very selfish creatures,” Courtney Briggs, a professional dog trainer in the Bay Area, tells me. “We have to make them think that what we want is what they want.” You can teach your pooch to sleep on the dog bed, but this will be a slow process. “Think crockpot, not microwave,” Briggs says. The dog is set in his ways. Unlike yourself, a two-week vacation isn’t going to upend his most base notions regarding bedtime.
The first step in rewiring Fido’s brain will occur at daytime and away from the bed. Briggs suggests setting up an open-type crate or pen in another location in your house. Your only concern for a while will be to desensitize the dog to his enclosure. Set the crate up with a bed, toys, lots of tasty treats, and any other cherished goodies. “Make it like Disneyland,” Briggs says. Keep the door open and never make him enter the crate if he doesn’t want to. “That dog, being a selfish creature, is going to remember that it was forced to go in. He needs to believe he did it on his own terms.” That’s Management 101.
While you are going through your day training, allow the dog to still sleep on the bed with you. Give him his own blanket to lie on, and this will soak up all the smells he associates with nighttime. “When he stays in his crate for maybe an hour without fuss during the day, then you start sending him there at night,” Briggs says. “Once he starts to hop into those quarters at bedtime on his own, you heavily reward that. He has to think the new location is far more rewarding than sleeping in a warm cozy bed with you.” Put his blanky in there to help ease the transition, and remind him that this is a location meant for sleep.
If he keeps leaving his quarters to join you in the middle of the night, then it’s time to close the door. While the training could work with just a dog bed and not the crate, you’d have no way to stop him from reverting to his old behavior in the middle of the night. If that happens, then you’d have to start over from the beginning.
There will likely be some whining when he figures out he can’t leave the crate to join you. “There can be absolutely no reaction,” Briggs says. “No shushing, no ‘no’s.’ Get some earplugs and ride it out.” When he breaks this spell, you can get rid of the crate altogether and trust him to sleep on his own bed and all by himself.
It probably seems silly to spend a chunk of your dog’s retirement years re-training him like a puppy, but that’s what it will take if you and your husband want the bed to yourselves from now on. I wish I could give you an easy fix, but it’s going to take a total brainwashing. You probably should have spent your honeymoon camping.