Teaching your dog to go to a specific spot is not only incredibly useful, it’s also a really cool party trick. A dog that knows how to go to his place and hang out is a dog that can stay out from underfoot when guests arrive, won’t beg during dinner and doesn’t lick the plates as you load the dishwasher. Plus, having a specific “place” is a huge help when you’re on the road with your dog.
The initial stages of teaching “go to bed” are similar to playing the game “hot and cold,” where one person directs another’s actions by telling them they’re “getting warmer” or “getting colder” as they move toward a target. In this instance, the bed is the target and any of your dog’s movements that bring him closer to the bed, even if they seem accidental, count as “getting warmer.” The more feedback you give your dog as you begin the process the faster he’ll figure it out.
Grab a clicker and treats (the precision of the clicker will help streamline the process) and put your dog’s “place” in the center of the room, preferably on a hard floor so that it’s obvious to your dog when he’s on the spot or off it. You can use your dog’s bed, a small area rug or a folded over towel as the “place.” Watch your dog closely—the moment he does anything that involves the spot, click and treat. If your dog takes a baby step towards the “place,” or even glances at it, click and treat him to let him know that the game has begun.
Once your dog gets his first click and treat he might run through his other tricks, like sitting and going into a down, in order to earn another treat, but ignore anything other than interactions with the bed. Try not to bribe your dog by holding the treat over the bed. Instead, allow him to figure it out on his own. Making your dog use his brain this way will wear him out in no time.
Once your dog figures out that interacting with the bed earns him a reward, he might opt to perform the same behavior over and over because it’s working. In order to get to the next step in the process, you’ll need to withhold the click and wait for your dog to do something bigger. Your dog might touch the bed with his paw once more and, when he doesn’t earn a click for it, he might put both paws on it as if to say “Hey, don’t you see what I’m doing here?” Success—now you’re building the behavior!
As soon as your dog is getting at least half way on the bed, give him the treat so that he receives it while he’s on top of it. This is a little cheat that helps your dog understand that the bed is the best place to be and good things happen there. Keep raising the criteria for what you click, meaning always ask your dog to do a little bit more with each repetition.
So, at first your dog gets rewarded just for glancing at the bed, then for moving toward it, then for touching it with a single paw, then both paws, then actually getting on it. Work up to your dog going to his spot and settling into a down position.
Reinforcing the Behavior
You can start naming this behavior once your dog is getting all the way on the bed without pausing. It doesn’t matter what word you select—“bed,” “home,” or “place” —just be consistent with it. Say the word right as your dog crosses onto the bed, so that you’re anchoring the word to the action. It takes 20 to 30 repetitions before the word has meaning for your dog and will trigger the behavior. At that point, you should be able to say the word and your dog will go to his spot.
Try not to stand too close to the dog bed as you work on this exercise, as the ultimate goal is that you can be anywhere in your home and your dog will still go to his spot when you ask. Take baby steps away from the bed with each repetition until you can stand a few feet away from it and your dog will still reliably go to it.
Keep in mind that the finished product involves your dog getting on his spot and settling down for a spell, so add some duration to your training process. Instead of clicking and treating your dog immediately when he gets on his bed, praise him when he does it, then wait a few seconds before you reward him. Gradually vary the amount of time your dog hangs out on the bed before you click and treat so that he starts to understand that he needs to chill out on his place before he gets rewarded.
At this stage, you can bring the bed to your family room and work on “TV training,” where you watch a show while your dog practices hanging out on his bed. When it comes time to reward your dog, toss the treat across the room so he has to get off his spot to eat it; this essentially resets him for the next repetition.
“Go to bed” is a fun bonding exercise for you and your dog, and the results are impressive. Your dog will love learning to do it, and you’ll love the many ways you can use this versatile cue.
Victoria Schade is a dog trainer, author & speaker who has contributed to The Washington Post, Martha Stewart, and other publications.