One of the biggest questions I get as a behavior consultant is about how to curb dogs jumping on people. There are a myriad of reasons why people don’t like this behavior: safety for elderly relatives, difficulty getting in the house, scratching claws hurt, personally don’t enjoy it, or think that dogs aren’t supposed to do that. Whatever the reason I get asked about this on an almost daily basis.
Why do dogs jump on people?
The simple answer to this question is that they’re reinforced for doing so. All behaviors that are reinforced continue happening: period, end of story. While the internet and media would have us believe that working with behavior is based on personal philosophy and experience, the fact is that scientists have been studying behavior for a hundred years. There are laws for behavior just as there are laws for physics. And one of those is that behaviors that are reinforced continue happening.
So we know by definition that if a dog continues jumping on us that it’s reinforced. What could those potential reinforcers be?
- It’s fun and natural! If you watch dogs interact with each other they’re routinely jumping on one another during play. It’s normal and usually well-received by the other dog. We need to teach our pets that the doggy way to interact is not the human way to interact. We’re two different species, after all!
- We reward them. You may be thinking, “But I scold my dog and they’re still doing it!” Yep. If they’re still jumping that means you may be rewarding it. Only your dog gets to decide what’s reinforcing to him or her. Many dogs jump on us as an attention-seeking behavior (a way to get our attention). Pushing them away and telling them “no” IS giving them attention so it’s often rewarding! I often see cases where one family member routinely doesn’t reward an animal for jumping but another one does and that’s what perpetuates the behavior. We’ll talk more about that below.
- It can be comforting. I do see jumping on people as an anxiety-based behavior for some of my canine clients. That particular reason, though, is beyond the scope of this specific article as we’re talking primarily about attention-seeking behaviors.
How do I curb jumping?
There are two “places” that we can change a particular behavior: before it happens and after it happens. My preference is to work on something before an unwanted behavior happens! Here are some different options we have to curb jumping:
- Management: make it so your dog can’t reach the person to jump on them. You can do this by putting them in their crate before visitors arrive or keeping them on a leash or tether. It’s a simple solution and gets you want you want immediately.
- Teach (and reward!) an incompatible behavior. An incompatible behavior is something that your animal can’t do at the same time as an undesired behavior. For instance, a dog can’t lie down and jump on someone at the same time. Most dogs I meet know some sort of incompatible behavior to jumping but it hasn’t been proofed well enough to be used in this particular situation. Check out our post on Why You Should Care About the Stages of Learning for more info on that!
- Teach an appropriate way to jump. I see some dogs (usually young, high-energy dogs) who have been proofed pretty darn well with their incompatible behavior but need to get just one jump in and then can sit for the remainder of the interaction. Let’s give them an appropriate way to meet that need! I like to teach these dogs to jump up to a hand target (touch nose to hand) so that they get to jump but not on a person.
- Withdraw attention (ignore them). If your dog is jumping up to get your attention we can teach them it doesn’t work that way by withdrawing our attention or ignoring them. We should also couple this with teaching them what to do as well. There are a hundred options for “not jumping” but only a couple of behaviors that we actually want. Ignoring means no talking to, touching, or even eye contact for some dogs! I often hear that ignoring isn’t working; tune in next week for 5 reasons why that might be.
- Teach consistent rules for when it’s okay to jump and not jump. This is a beautiful solution for households where one family member likes when the dog jumps and another doesn’t like it. We can teach the dog both “up” and “off” cues so they know when it’s allowed. This is what we use for Oso in our household. Check out our video on jumping and how to teach this method:
As you can see, we have a lot of options without having to use pain, fear, force, or intimidation and we don’t have to choose just one of these options! You can mix and match or use all of the above if you like! Just be sure to be consistent and to stick with something long enough to see progress (more on that next week).
- Think about what you want your dog to do instead of jumping. “Not jumping” is not a behavior and there are a million ways to meet a “not jumping” criterion, including: biting someone’s ankle, barking, running in circles around the person, and peeing on them. All of those meet the “not jumping” criterion but I doubt are what you actually want your dog to do. Think about the ideal picture in your head: what is your dog actually doing? Sitting quietly on their bed? Greeting the person?
- Discuss your dog’s jumping behavior with everyone involved in his or her care. Consistency is necessary for improvement and that means everyone needs to be on the same page and happy with the decisions being made.
- Start training! Decide what options you’d like to work on and have at it!