I recently received this question from a reader:
I’m having several family members (including children) stay with me for two weeks this Christmas. My 1-year-old Labradoodle is a great dog, but for the life of me I cannot get her to stop jumping on people. I’m worried she will knock the children over. Any advice?
Jumping on people is a common concern for many dog owners, so thank you for the important question. You do have enough time to work on this issue if you start right away.
Since we can’t ask our dogs why they jump at our faces, we can only take our best guess as to the reason for their antics. Many trainers feel a dog does this to lick us “hello” — it is a polite dog-to-dog manner of greeting. Dogs can also act like pogo sticks when they get excited, especially about visitors, and pair jumping with licking to create their own manner of greeting. The more often they get to act like this, the stronger that behavior can become.
Such behavior can also become habit if you don’t have people over very often. Visitors are rare enough that they are new and exciting to the dogs. They don’t get the opportunities to learn the behaviors you prefer. Not to worry, though — there is a lot you can do to curb your dog’s desire to jump up on people.
So long as you are certain your dog’s behavior is not stemming from aggression (such as a really hard, rude muzzle punch on the guest’s face), you can start right away on getting a more desired behavior from your girl. But if you feel the behavior is stemming from anxiety or aggression, you will need a qualified trainer or behaviorist to help.
We have an expression in dog training that is spot on: You get what you reinforce. When an undesired canine behavior keeps happening, start to resolve the issue by taking a step back and looking at your behavior. What are you contributing to the situation that encourages your dog’s actions, even if it doesn’t seem encouraging to you? So very often, a human bringing up her knee to block a dog – while talking to or even yelling at the dog – becomes THE CUE to BEGIN THE JUMPING GAME. You think you are correcting the pooch, but she thinks you are asking for and engaging in a game.
Again, I can’t ask a dog to explain the why of continued unwanted behavior, but science has proven how dogs (and all animals) learn — if a “normal” behavior continues, the animal is getting some sort of reinforcement for it. So, step one is to observe your own behavior and look to see what you can change there.
Next, start reinforcing the heck out of sit throughout the day when there are no guests in your home. I want sit to become a default behavior, in which your dog loves, loves, loves, LOVES to sit because the command has been so highly reinforced. Sometimes the reinforcement is a slow petting session on the dog’s chest or back, sometimes it is a game of tug or tossing a ball (if that’s enjoyable to the dog), and sometimes it is a delicious quality meat or cheese morsel. Be sure to “catch” your dog when she begins to offer you a lovely sit all on her own – that’s when you know you are making good progress.
To address the excitement of guests arriving, put a leash on your dog, take her to the door, and work on sit sit sit sit sit sit sit and more sit with no one on the other side. In the beginning, if the door really excites her, reinforce every sit. Once that becomes a fluid behavior, then knock on the inside side of the door while she sits and is reinforced. Work up to having a friend be on the other side of the door and acting in a real-life human manner: knocking or ringing the door bell and then entering the house.
Repeat often until your dog understands that the door doesn’t open until she is sitting and that she gets GOOD THINGS for being in that sit. Have your friend come through, which reinforces the sit. One beautiful thing about a dog sitting: A dog cannot both jump on people and sit at the same time.
Last week I worked with a delightful family with a Goldendoodle who loved to jump on the kids when they came to Grandma’s house after school. The kids ranged from 5 to 12 years old. We reframed how the kids said hello to the dog.
Each child took turns with cut-up hot dogs. First, they waited the dog out, not talking or looking at the dog. Then they would quietly lure with a piece of hot dog over the dog’s nose to get that first sit (if needed). When the dog sat, the child would give the dog an enthusiastic “yes!” and throw the hot dog over the dog’s head, telling the dog to “find it!” The dog LOVED the game and caught on with lightning speed. She’d run from child to child, offer a sit, get a “yes!” and then was encouraged to use her nose to sniff out the thrown treat. She stopped jumping that very day.
Good luck with your training, Mary!
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About the author: Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force-free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She is also working on a book due out in spring of 2016: The Midnight Dog Walkers, about living with and training troubled dogs. Join Annie on her dog-training Facebook page.