Dogs who jump on people: why ignoring won’t work! (and what will)

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You know what they say about an ounce of prevention so let’s start with WHY dogs jump on people and how we might prevent it in the first place.

The biggest reason is simply that it was a rewarding experience from the start. Face/muzzle licking between dogs is normal and most often seen in puppies to signal deference or as an invitation to play. So it’s natural that a young puppy would want to lick our ‘muzzles’ as well. And what could be more delicious than having a puppy give you a million ‘kisses’? We even get down to them or pick them up to make it easier. And what does puppy learn? I need to get to people’s faces to get love and attention.

Another typical scenario that leads to problems is the puppy greeting. Whether it’s from guilt at having had to leave them alone (whether for 2 minutes or two hours) or the sincere joy at seeing them, human greetings often include squeaky, excited tones and general gushing and enthusiasm. Hardly surprising when our young pup only needs to hear the key in the door to start jumping up and down with excited anticipation (worth noting that this type of greeting tends also to result in more anxiety when pup is left alone, for more on on this topic see Separation Anxiety in Dogs.). It might feel good when others also gush over our puppies but it’s not necessarily what is best for that puppy.

Those first few weeks and months at home our puppies are like little sponges, soaking up every lesson, even the ones we aren’t aware we are teaching. The longer we inadvertently reinforce jumping up the more deeply ingrained that habit will be. Inevitably someone is unhappy about muddy paw prints all over their clean clothes, or maybe puppy is not so little anymore and scares someone who isn’t comfortable with dogs or even worse, exuberantly knocks someone over and hurts them.

When embarrassed puppy parents seek out some remedy, they are sometimes told to knee the dog in the chest, hard. Not only do few people actually want to do this to their dog, it’s a fast way to teach a dog not to trust you anymore and may even exacerbate jumping up as they get anxious and try to appease now unpredictable and volatile human with more face licking.

Luckily most owners want a more humane approach and in doing so, are told to just ignore jumping up. That may have worked in those first few days after puppies arrival but by now that won’t be enough to resolve a bad habit. So what to do?

  1. Prevent more reinforcement: yes, you will have ignore your dog when they jump up. Turn your back on him every time. Avoid even making eye contact until he settles down.
  2. Be consistent in your message Avoid play or teaching tricks that involve feet coming off the floor. And greet your dog calmly.
  3. Set Rover up for success: aka management. A little planning and forethought will help prevent your dog from jumping up on everyone else. Assume that you are going to encounter people who insist that ‘it’s OK, I LOVE dogs’ and work very hard to undo your efforts. That may mean having your dog on leash for all greetings, or behind a gate when answering the front door.
  4. Teach Rover what you DO want  Your dog is not a mind reader. Be sure to teach him what you want and reinforce it well until he is good at it. A sit-stay throughout greetings is nice but not necessary and is just too hard for most dogs. Try reinforcing Rover just for keeping 4-On-The-Floor and reward every few seconds as long as all four feet maintain contact with terra firma. Insider’s tip:  if you want your pup’s focus downwards instead of upwards, drop your rewards to the floor rather than deliver directly to his mouth.
  5. Practice! No star athlete waits until the big match to practice so don’t wait for strangers to come up to you in real life or for your entire family to arrive for dinner to start teaching.  Both you AND Rover will need lots of set ups with friends and family who will just stand there quietly while you reward him for even just seeing them and not jumping. Too easy? Have them be a bit more animated. Too hard? Maybe they need to start 10 feet away. Enlisting people to help you practice allows you to control the level of difficulty so that you can build on small successes. Another tip: Veterinary hospital staff and pet store people are also often more than willing to help you practice.

Committed jumpers may need a few more tricks to be successful so don’t hesitate to enrol in a good positive reinforcement based training class or work with a force-free trainer.