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Expert Advice July 2015 Issue

Dear Doctor - The dog jumps on guests

Letters to Tufts Veterinarians

The dog jumps on guests

Q Our three-year-old golden retriever is lively and often hard to control despite the fact that she has been through two obedience classes. Our main problem is that she jumps on people. Every single time we have company, she jumps on them, and this is very problematic. What can we do?

Jerry Lang
Commack, New York

Dear Mr. Lang,

A First, take a deep breath. This is going to take patience — a good three weeks of it. If your dog were on the small side, we would say to ignore the behavior rather than yell and push her off, which only makes it more interesting to the pet. It becomes a game when you pay attention in that way — jump/push, jump/push. But completely ignoring the behavior — over and over again — teaches the dog that it will not elicit a reaction, and she will finally give up. The hard part is that at first, the behavior gets worse. The dog will try even harder when her usual efforts fail. But if you really stick to your guns and never react (even if you react only sometimes the dog knows it’s still worth a try), then the unwanted jumping extinguishes itself. The dog realizes, what’s the use?

The whole strategy works better if you say “Off” once — and only once — when the dog first starts jumping. (Say it more than once and then the dog is training you to keep repeating a word to no avail.) Then turn to stone: arms folded, hands turned to the side, and eyes averted.

The problem with this approach for a large dog like a golden is that the jumping can go on for a few minutes. That could make for some very unhappy, scratched-up houseguests instructed by you to stand there like a statue.

That’s why for bigger dogs you need to use a head halter, which will put pressure around the muzzle and the nape of the neck when you tug it. When the dog jumps, you apply gentle, sustained pressure to the lead with a soft tug and presto, the dog will have no choice but to abort her unwanted behavior. Just the right pressure points become activated to curtail her activity.

The dog will not feel gagged at the throat because a head halter does not impart pressure there. It’s attached under the jaw so will never cause a choking sensation. There’s no yanking, either. Gentle upward tension on the lead is all it takes with a head halter. (Yanking with a choke collar, on the other hand, is a negative tactic that will only erode trust between you and your pet.)

When the dog complies by not jumping (even though she has no choice), you can praise her warmly and even offer a treat. Over time she may very well get the idea that not jumping results in getting better attention than jumping does, and she will work to please you simply for the reward of your approval (and perhaps a tender morsel of something super tasty here and there).

A final note: if your dog is generally compliant, you might want to try counter-conditioning before going to the head halter. You literally counter the unwanted behavior with a behavior that she can’t do at the same time. For instance, condition your pet to sit for a treat as soon as anyone enters. It’s impossible to jump on someone and sit for a longed-for treat at the same time. Of course, this can only work if the dog has enough presence of mind to listen to your verbal cue when company comes in.

Comments (1)

Great article with awesome tips! In the last paragraph however the terminology is incorrect. Instead of counter-conditioning, you are actually describing a "differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior" procedure. Because the dog sitting is incompatible with jumping up. Counter-conditioning is when you turn your dog's negative association (fear) with something into a positive association.

Posted by: 3termcontingency | July 10, 2015 4:04 AM    Report this comment

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