Let’s take a deep dive into why dogs jump up on people, how to prevent it, and how to retrain our dogs to not jump up. For many people a wildly friendly dog can be dangerous. Grandma cannot withstand the impact of Fido’s exciting greetings with his sharp nails and young children may also end up injured and then afraid of dogs. Neither of these scenarios are pleasant for the victim or the dog owner.
So, why do dogs jump up on people?
The simple answer to this question is for attention. They want your attention, good or bad, and the sure-fire way to get that attention is to jump on you. People will often pet and coo over the cute, adorable puppy that has come running up to greet a new person. When the puppy is small this behavior is absolutely adorable. Who can resist petting the cute little puppy, right?
What does the above scenario teach the puppy?
If your answer is, “jump up on people to get attention”, you are correct. Let’s break this down with the Learning Theory and Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Quadrant. This principle of learning theory is where the term Positive Reinforcement comes from. Contrary to popular belief positive, in this regard, does not mean pleasant, it means adding. “Reinforcement” means increase the likelihood of the behavior occurring again. In this scenario, we “add” attention to the jumping up puppy, which is what the puppy wants, which means the puppy is likely to do it again. The motivator (or reinforcement) here, is the attention.
How do we change this?
We can also look at the Learning Theory Quadrant to help remedy this problem too! We can use Negative Punishment to teach our puppies that jumping up is an unacceptable behavior. Negative in the learning theory quadrant does not mean “unpleasant, mean, or scary” it means subtracting. In this case, we take away attention when the puppy jumps up at us. “Punishment” also tends to have a misconception in this theory. In this regard punishment means to decrease behavior. This means when we take away what the puppy wants, which is attention, theoretically the behavior of jumping up will decrease.
This method of teaching a puppy not to jump on people works really well if you start the moment you bring your new puppy home. Never give your small puppy attention for jumping up, even if it is to say “no” or gently push the puppy of of you. Completely ignore the puppy!!! Pushing your puppy off you is fun for you puppy and if something is fun that means he is going to continue to do it. You also do not want to pull your puppy down by his leash.
…but it won’t change overnight!
This is especially true if you have an older puppy or dog. The reason it won’t change overnight is due to another learning theory term, called learning history. For months and months, let’s say until the puppy is 6-8 months old, the puppy has learned that jumping up will get attention. There has been a very strong learning history of jumping up, especially with new people. The stronger the learning history, the longer it will take to change the behavior.
Six to eight months is essentially the dog’s entire life for most puppies. Suddenly, when Fido is 6 months old, 50 pounds, and has long sharp nails, jumping up is not nearly as cute and has become dangerous. While ignoring the behavior you don’t want (jumping up) is going to be the best way to teach your puppy to stop this behavior, it will be difficult to accomplish. You will have to go through an extinction burst before you start seeing the behavior decrease.
An extinction burst is when the dog tries his VERY hardest to make a behavior that has been successful in the past successful now. The dog does not understand why jumping up is no longer getting the attention he has gotten in the past, so in his frustration he will try harder and harder. It is important to NOT give in at this point. You are almost at the point where you will see the behavior begin to decrease.
What if that doesn’t work?
Some dogs are so big and overly assertive in their excitement that negative punishment alone is not enough. Below are some additional tools for your arsenal. Depending on your dog, you may find success with one tool or a combination of all of them! It is up to you to decide what you feel works best for you, your dog, and your environment. If you have guests that cannot follow your direction, it is okay to remove your dog from the environment so he can have better long-term success.
A food scatter is exactly as it sounds. When someone first comes into your house or even when you come in from being away, take a small handful of food and scatter it on the ground and ignore your dog. I put this on cue as well, so when my dogs hear “scatter” they start looking on the floor for treats or kibble instead of interacting with people.
Set up a training session where you have a small portion of food. Give your cue (I use “scatter”) then reach into the bowl or treat pouch and toss 7-10 pieces of kibble on the ground. You want the food to scatter out from where you drop it. Do not drop it in one small little pile. Our goal is for your dog to be very excited about eating food off the ground.
It is important that your dog knows that a food scatter is coming, so I HIGHLY recommend putting this on cue. It does not take long for your dog to associate your cue with the action of forging for food. The reason we want our dogs to know food is coming is because we want their desire to forage for food to be more exciting than jumping on a person. When someone comes into the house give your cue, toss the food, and have your guests (or yourself) continue to ignore the dog.
DO NOT play this game if you have multiple dogs and there is threat of resource guarding or a fight breaking out.
Some dogs do better away from the initial excitement of new people. Putting your dog in his crate prior to guests’ arrivals will be very beneficial. If your dog is in his crate, he cannot jump on guests and practice the behavior you are trying to stop. I also recommend giving your dog a special chew, such as a stuffed Kong, beef tendon, or bully stick during this time. After the guest has been in the house for 10-15 minutes, and your dog is being calm, you might try letting your dog out of his crate. Instruct your guests to not interact with your dog at all. No touching the dog, no looking at the dog, and no talking to the dog.
If your dog gets too worked up and cannot control his impulses, ask him to go back to this crate. It is important for your dog to learn how to control his impulses and excitement. If he cannot do this on his own, you may need to help him by providing a calmer environment.
Leash ‘em up
I have also had success by leashing my wildly friendly dogs up when someone comes over. At my house, it can be tough to get my younger dog into her crate when people come over, so I have put a leash on her and kept her away from my guests. When she acted like she didn’t want to see the new person (calm behavior), I moved slightly closer to the guest. If she got too excited being closer to the guest, I then moved away from the guest. The only way she was allowed to move closer, was when she showed calmness.
When I do this, I politely ask my guest not to come closer to my dog because I’m working on teaching her not to jump up. I will then let my guest know that I will tell them when they can interact with my dog.
Sit to Say Please
In a previous blog post, I discuss this in a bit more detail, however, there are other ways you can help your dog to “sit to say please.” In this video, Dr. Sophia Yin is placing a treat in the dog’s face, just prior to him jumping up on her. Notice how she is acting when the dog is not interacting with her? Notice what Dr. Yin does when she misses and the dog does jump up? As the video progresses, Dr. Yin begins talking to the dog more. This increases the dog’s excitement levels, making it harder for the dog. She also tosses treats away, which allows the dog to release some of his tension (excitement, over arousal) and have more chances to learn.
I recommend working on this with just your immediate family members that live in the home at first. After your dog has an idea of this game, then add some guests into the mix, but it needs to be people who will follow your instruction to a tee!
A big part of teaching a dog not to jump up is also teaching your dog impulse control and now allowing them to practice unwanted behaviors. Once your dog learns how to act calmly around new people, you will be more successful in teaching your dog not to jump up on people. It is very easy to accidentally create this problem since puppies are adorable and we all get excited around them. It is important to help your puppy be successful from the start by not giving attention when your puppy is overly excited. By rewarding calm behavior, your dog will begin to offer calm behavior, which means less jumping up!