I thought it’d be useful to do a series of blog posts on how to prevent or change some common problem behaviours. In general, there are some steps that all behaviour changes have in common:
- Prevent what you don’t want
- Decide what you’d like to see instead – the alternative behaviour
- Teach the alternative behaviour AWAY from the problem situation
- Ask for the alternative behaviour
- Reward with the same thing the dog got for the original problem behaviour
(You can read more about this approach here.)
However, there’s a flaw with this approach in some situations. If your dog is too excited, they can’t respond correctly when you ask them for the alternative you’d like. This is frustrating for both of you!
An alternative approach for high excitement situations: reward BEFORE the mistake can happen. I first saw this demonstrated by Sarah Owens of the KPA and had a total “duh! that’s so obvious” moment. The crux of the technique is to prevent the mistake by using something the dog wants very early in the sequence.
Below I explain how to prevent and re-train jumping up using Sarah’s ‘non-contingent reinforcement’ method. It works very well for happy dogs who love people. Don’t try it for dogs who are actually afraid of visitors as it can create conflict and stress – not what you want at all!
Why dogs jump up
Jumping to greet people is totally natural. Most dogs want to get as close to our faces as possible. They really don’t understand that you might not want a good dog snog or muddy paw cuddles.
Why ‘ignoring’ doesn’t usually work
Unfortunately, the usual advice of ‘ignore the jumping’ can actually serve to make it worse. By ignoring the dog, we frustrate him and make him even more emotional and overwrought. Add to that the fact that for most people, ignoring a dog that is trying to sit on their head is just about impossible, and you and see why ‘turn your back’ isn’t great advice. You can learn more about this training method, and it’s pitfalls, here.
A better (but slightly counter intuitive approach) is to reinforce something more appropriate BEFORE the jumping has happened. For most dogs, the best reinforcer/reward is attention – that is what they are jumping for in the first place! Using food helps the process along as most dogs find eating to be at least a little calming.
How to train
- If you can, have your dog confined away from the entrance door so you can at least get in the house.
- Be prepared with a BIG handful of smelly treats. Leave them in a pot outside the entrance door.
- Either you approach the dog, or have them approach you.
- AS SOON as they get within touching distance, stick your handful of smelly food on their nose.
- Either bend over or crouch down, pop the thumb of your other hand through the collar. Provide scratches on the chest (keep the thumb in place!) and calm cooing greeting. Keep trickle feeding treats.
- Prevent jumping with your hand in the collar. (Some dogs will try to ‘suck’ treats AND randomly jump for a sneaky nose lick!)
- Provide a few more calming strokes to the chest.
- Scatter the rest of the food on the floor.
- Disengage and move away.
Firstly, here’s a video clip of Zander, the young Doberman, learning that keeping four on the floor is a great thing to do. Zander is a long-time ‘mugger’ – his usual greeting style is to launch himself with great force at anyone who looks even faintly interested in saying ‘hi’. This has gotten him into trouble on a number of occasions and ignoring him just doesn’t work: the ‘launch’ itself is just too much fun!
By contrast, here’s a short video clip of a visitor, Michelle, encouraging my young border collie, Felix, to keep ‘four on the floor’. Felix is no-where near as over-excited about greetings as Zander. This means he’s less aroused by the jumping itself and really wants the interaction. That means that the thumb in the collar isn’t as vital for him and the patting itself quickly becomes the reward for staying planted.
You can do a modified version of this for guests:
- Have the dog on a lead, stand on the lead with just enough slack that there is no pressure on the dog’s neck but he can’t lift his front feet more than an inch or two off the ground if he tries to jump.*
Here’s how to correctly stand on the lead:
- Prime your guest with smelly treats.
- Have them ‘shove’ them in the dog’s face as they approach.
- Have your guest greet, fuss and feed the dog calmly.
- Provide a few more calming strokes.
- Scatter some food on the floor.
- Disengage and move away.
If they’re not keen on holding smelly treats while having your dog ‘suck’ them from their hand (or they’re likely to just give the whole handful in one go!), you can get a similar effect by tossing food on the floor as the door opens and they come inside. While your dog is hoovering up the treats, have your guests either walk on by into the house or pat your dog calmly a couple of times before continuing in.
(Avoid having people you can’t control greet your dog. They will reinforce jumping and undo all your hard work.)
Over time and repetitions, your dog will start to focus on hands, not faces. This keeps paws on the floor and allows you (or your guests) to provide that much desired attention and contact without the mugging. As you see your dog becoming calmer in greetings, you’ll find that the food becomes unnecessary as the ‘real’ reward is the greeting interaction itself. The food just facilitates the learning by focusing your dog on doing something other than bouncing.
- Be prepared with high value food treats
- Get in quick!! Literally present them to his nose before he can think about doing any bouncing.
- Repeat until greetings are calmer in general.
- Fade out the food support.
*(Is standing on the lead to prevent jumping aversive? Well, if your dog jumps, then maybe. He’ll experience a momentary pressure on the back of his neck (not his delicate windpipe) and he’ll find that he can’t get his feet more than a few inches off the ground. However, it’s a lot less aversive than being banished for bad manners, kneed in the chest, yanked to the ground or ‘firmly corrected’. )
– Sarah and the Gang
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