In the past month, I’ve had a number of clients whose teenage dogs are jumping up on them or on guests. I was contemplating doing a post on this topic, just so that I could put everything together and keep it all in one place when along came an article in The Guardian last week asking for ways to stop dogs jumping up on children which spurred me to action.
The first thing we need to do when we’re thinking about dogs jumping up is define the context, the purpose and the emotions underlying it. Without this, what you think this behaviour looks like and what I think it looks like might be worlds apart.
I’m writing here about jumping in a very specific circumstance: on you, on guests or on people you might meet out and about. It’s a behaviour that would happen within two minutes of greeting, if your dog isn’t on a lead or behind a gate. I’m going to write next time about dogs who jump up when they start to get excited. Heston does a little pop of joy when he sees the special treat bowl come out, and Lidy does a leap for joy when she sees her bowl. These two behaviours are different and they have different mechanisms requiring different solutions. They have different underlying emotions and we need to think about them differently.
I am not, however, talking about dogs who jump to get over fences or baby gates, who hop like cats onto various high surfaces for a vantage point.
If you’re not sure whether you’re reading the right post, ask yourself if your dog jumps up or would jump up on people within two minutes of meeting them. That may even be if the person had gone out of the room and come back in again. The gap between that absence might be days or weeks. It could even be seconds, particularly if you have an anxious dog or a dog who is very attached to one individual. If your dog would generally jump up on people when you meet them, this post is for you.
I’m talking about dogs who jump on you as soon as you get in through the door when you come back from work.
I’m talking about dogs who jump up on your guests as soon as they arrive.
I’m talking about dogs who bound over to other people when you’re out on a walk and jump all over them.
Why are we starting with the ‘why’?
Because if we don’t understand WHY dogs do this, then we have no business trying to stop it. If you don’t understand what drool and blinking do, then you shouldn’t go around trying to stop it either. Only when we understand what the behaviour is designed for can we then find efficient ways to address problems with it.
The fact that my clients whose dogs fit this bill have dogs who are teenage dogs between 6 months and 3 years is also telling. I don’t think dogs jump up more at those ages. I just think we start to get a bit tired of our puppies doing this. No doubt it’s a behaviour they’ve been doing since they were puppies but it gets more tiresome when they grow up. Not only that, as dogs come to social maturity, then they tend to be more conflicted about social activities which can fuel their behaviour. They’ve lost that puppyish ‘Hail, fellow, well met!’ feeling they get when they see new people or greet people they already know, and they’re into the realms of feeling awkward about it. It’s at this age (and younger… Heston started at 10 weeks – shepherds!) that dogs start feeling ambivalent towards new humans. They may also be fueled by feelings of discomfort if they’ve been left alone – and that can start even from days after birth.
Unlike humans, dogs are not a fusion-fission species. We apes live in large groups that tend to disperse and come together regularly. Think about all the times you split up from your family group and come back together again. You probably don’t even all sleep in one single room anymore and even within the home, you’ve got walls splitting you up from the rest of the family at various points. We split up, we come together.
Lots and lots of other mammals don’t do this. Either they disperse and stay dispersed, or they stick together. Some larger groups of social predators like wolves do split up from time to time on a daily basis, and that’s where we might see quite frenetic greetings.
I adore this video of wolves – we don’t have context but this looks like typical pack regrouping behaviour. Say one or two had gone off, this looks like very typical reunification. It could also be the kind of pre-hunt behaviour. Wolves quite often exhibit this exuberant behaviour when they’re about to go off and hunt together.
Look at those open mouths, those loose tongues. These are not stressed spatulate tongues that are hanging out way below the mouth. You can usually see the bottom teeth. But it’s not warm and these tongues are not on show for panting and temperature regulation. Mouths are open and loose. Bodies are loose and wiggly. There’s some lovely head-to-head greetings, almost like playful head butting. Eyes are soft. Tails are sometimes high but loose. There’s lots of submissive behaviour towards the big guy on the right who’s much less playful than the other four. Look at how the wolf approaches at 0.10 – 0.15 – low, curving, indirect approach, head low, mouth open, eyes soft, long blinks. And what does he do at 0.16? Opens his mouth from a much lower position and licks and nibbles the other wolf’s jaw. The same head-pressing at 0.22 – 0.23 with the new arrival. We’ve a lovely shake-off at 0.45 and a great five-way head-to-head at 0.52 before we’ve got a huge knot of wolves and tails. Seriously, if you have five minutes, slow it down to 0.25 speed on YouTube and look at the synchronised tails. It’s quite magical.
There’s a lot to take from this. The first is the amount of face to face contact, including muzzle licking and muzzle nudging. The second is to see all the same behaviours even in our bichons and maltipoos – the loose open mouth, the wiggly body, the low posture, the soft eyes.
So why does jumping up happen? Face-to-face greetings, soft headbuttings even muzzle licking … they’re all part and parcel of social greetings for dogs.
And where is your face?
Usually at the top of an upright body.
Added to this, humans don’t all like or accept bending over to have a dog lick their mouth and chin. I confess I’ve become much more accepting of doggie greetings now I understand what they are. Dogs can, of course, be taught not to do this to humans during the socialisation processes which tell dogs WHEN it’s appropriate to do a behaviour. Lots of my dogs have been taught not to lick humans… Ralf, Tobby, Heston, Tilly, Saffy, Amigo, Flika… none of them were lickers.
How does a dog try to solve the problem of you having your great big face over a metre above them?
Well they jump.
Do we see dogs jumping at the faces of other dogs?
Sometimes. I’ve seen some small dogs who were ignored by big dogs trying to jump up at their face.
But mostly, dogs of different sizes tend to dip or raise their head to make a face-to-face possible. Horses greet dogs in this way. Friendly cows do.
How is it that human beings with our great big uber-developed giant brains can’t understand that jumping up is caused by a desire for a face-to-face contact?
I don’t know.
We’re very out of touch with animals sometimes. Especially since, living in France, the hardest thing about Covid was not going to kiss the cheeks of literally everyone I know… those face-to-face greetings can be a real compulsion if you’ve built a culture around them.
But you don’t want to get down on your knees and stick your oddly-shaped head up close with a dog. Or maybe you can’t. Also, I don’t advise this, especially with dogs you don’t know.
And if you do (and I do, sometimes, with my own dogs or dogs I know) then you understand you can’t ask that of everyone. Especially if they’re small children who might get bowled over, or older people who might easily get toppled.
The most important thing to understand, then, is that face-to-face greetings are normal for dogs. They don’t separate and come together in ways like we do, and it’s stressful. We also need to understand that really, we ought to be teaching these skills when the dog is young and we can more easily modulate in-built behaviours than trying to do it when the dog is six months old and it’s already an entrenched habit we don’t like anymore.
We also need to understand the emotion behind the behaviour as well as its purpose or role. Jumping up is often fuelled by social anxiety. People see it as friendly behaviour. This is especially true compared to, say, barking at strangers or growling at them. Yet what I see in many of our so-called ‘super social’ dogs are behaviours that are frantic and slightly compulsive, fuelled by social anxiety. We think often of dealing with stress as ‘fight or flight’ – and that is especially true of unfamiliar encounters. But we also need to think about ‘tend and befriend’ behaviours, especially within familiar groups or with humans and dogs we expect our dog to behave in a friendly manner with. ‘Tend and befriend’ is another model of coping with stress that is proposed as an add-on for how we handle stress. Often, after stressful events (like greetings) there will be a lot of social grooming, displacement behaviours, checking others out. One prime example was a dog who’d snapped at another. The other dogs present, straight after the two had split up and shaken it off, then went to go and check out the snapper, as if to say, ‘Things okay mate?’
Jumping up often fuelled by social anxiety. Those who get the most exuberant jumping may well be the ones who cause the most anxiety for the dog. Alternatively, the most exuberant jumpers can often be caused by people ignoring them. This is what’s known as an extinction protocol and it means often that dogs will try harder and put more effort into what they are doing. This is not to say we should indulge jumping up, but it is to say that people ignoring it will often find that it gets worse. I’ll talk about that later.
Jumping up can also be fuelled by social tensions, particularly in teenage dogs. I often find that if they’re jumping up more at specific individuals, it can be related to appeasement behaviour: it’s often the person who makes the dog feel most ambivalent who gets the most jumping up. That goes for children too, if your dog doesn’t have a long socialisation history with children. It may also be worsened in times when children are developing – particularly when they start becoming hormonal.
The third thing that may fuel jumping is overarousal. As you know from my post about dual processing, when in doubt or arousal, dogs are going to choose the dog thing to do, not the odd little quirky thing you’ve taught them to do. If it’s a choice between voluntarily sitting or pogoing in someone’s face, then if a dog is aroused, innate learning (pogoing) will always trump learning from this lifetime. Who has most problems remembering their learning? Teenagers…
So jumping up has a function. It is an instinctive way that your dog is solving a problem of your face being very far away and not having been taught when to greet humans face to face.
It is sometimes fuelled by anxiety. Other times it can be worsened by social tensions and frustrations. And it may be worse when our brain is at a developmental period where we’re struggling to even remember the most basic things we’ve known since being very small indeed.
Now you understand that, we can start by thinking of ways to address it.
The first is management. Baby gates, distance and leads are a very good ways of preventing a dog from jumping up. If you’re far enough away and your dog is on a lead, your dog can’t jump up on a guest. Management is going to be vital for anyone training a dog not to jump up. If you’re just letting your dog jump all over people, they’re just practising and getting better at it. If people are finally giving in and greeting the dog or giving them attention, then you’re also shaping bigger, more frantic, more frequent and more dangerous behaviour.
If you’re trusting your guests not to encourage it, stop. You can’t trust people not to reinforce your dog with attention.
In any case, not giving your dog attention is ignoring the dog’s needs and it’s going to create both frustration and fallout. When frustrated or thwarted needs fuel behaviour, we’re going to see dogs trialling other things, such as barking at the guests or even nipping at them. Ignore jumping up at your peril. Not only is it unkind in that it doesn’t meet your dog’s needs, but it may also fuel way worse behaviour that you’re going to really struggle to ignore.
Manage every situation in which your dog feels the need to jump up by keeping them far enough away and removing as much social anxiety as possible. One of my dogs barks at guests. He has a Kong when they arrive and a few treats, and he settles almost immediately. Another is not the type of girl to cope with greetings, so she stays in another room with some fun stuff to do. If those people are going to be sticking around, we have our own programme of what to do, but trying to bring her along with me in a fusion-fission human world is a recipe for disaster.
Lower arousal and social anxiety
Many dogs live lives where they are in semi-permanent states of arousal. They have compulsive behaviours. They can’t settle. They’re frantic, busy dogs who seem constantly on edge. Twice this week I’ve advised more mental enrichment for teenage dogs, and both times the guardians have seen an almost immediate reduction in arousal levels in other areas of the dog’s live. Teaching dogs to permanently settle down or calm down is holding them to higher standards than we hold ourselves to. It is also dull. Dullsville dull. It requires the kind of insane willpower that even humans don’t have.
Let’s stop proposing teaching calmness and settling the whole time. There are other ways to dampen arousal levels, and that’s to make sure our dogs have the right balance of mental and physical activity alongside plenty of sleep.
Most fired up dogs have too much physical activity. I see them red-eyed and panting after two-hour walks. They live on adrenaline and never come down from that high.
I’m not a fan of making dogs work for every morsel of their food. But using a good proportion of it for scentwork, games and scatter feeding can make an enormous difference.
Enrichment alone will not stop your dog jumping, by the way, but it might lower their general anxiety and arousal levels just enough so that they remember what you’ve taught them.
Many dogs I see like this are singleton dogs who have missing socialisation. They’re battling against early learning. Many have a place to sleep in a highly frequented place in the home: kitchens, living rooms, hallways. They’re underfoot and unable to get any solid naps in during the day. Unlike humans who tend not to nap, dogs are diurnal and I see a lot of dogs who can’t get undisturbed sleep during the day. Being free to go to your basket in a room where the TV is on, where kids are playing, where machines are running… that’s not enough. Sleep is such an essential prerequisite for learning that to miss out a long siesta during the day is to make it even more difficult for your dog to remember what it is you are trying to teach them.
For reasons you will now understand, greetings can be stressful for dogs, even those who we might consider to be super social. You may really benefit from taking the emotional sting out of those. Don’t be too judgey: you surely don’t get as giddy as you did when you were a child over those kind of knicker-wettingly exciting things as Christmas or birthdays, snow days or holidays. Nor do you (hopefully) feel meeting people is traumatic as you did when you were a child and you used to hide behind a parent.
Taking the emotional sting out of things is best done through a classical counterconditioning process known as desensitisation. This pairs a state of relaxation up with a very minimal exposure to the thing that causes the jumping. As the dog learns to habituate to people and feel relaxed, the level of exposure increases. That will include distance and time. In other words, we start with a single person who is very far away for a very short time and we build up incredibly slowly to a number of people who are very close and for longer periods of time.
Desensitisation is a process that I think most of us understand, and many of us try, but most people go far too fast in steps that are far too big. Make sure your steps are very gradually incremental.
You can also improve your desensitisation by teaching it out of context. So if your dog just jumps up on people in your hallway, doing it outside the home rather than in the hall will help. Then move up to doing it in the garage, the dining room, the kitchen. Remember too that when you put the dog back into that context, you’re more likely to see the behaviour pop back again, so go back to being as far away as possible with the least challenging humans and for the shortest amount of time.
If your dog does jump up, take a brief break. Do something different and then come straight back to it. During sleep, our learning is consolidated. What that means is that we firm up the neural connections and it makes learning stronger. That’s something we absolutely don’t want to happen with problem behaviours, so tackle them straight away if you can.
Teaching better greeting behaviours
One thing that I see some guardians trying to do over and over, and failing over and over, is to teach their dog to be calm and to sit during greetings. Usually, they’re using food to try and make sure the dog sits, or keeps four feet on the floor, or even goes and lies down on a mat.
There is a logic behind this. In science terms, they’re trying to to reinforce an incompatible behaviour. Put simply, they’re trying to teach the dog to do something that they can’t do at the same time as jumping up. You can’t sit AND jump. You can’t lie on a mat AND jump. You can’t have four feet on the floor AND jump.
But if you’ve ever seen dogs trying to do this, you’ll know it’s an exercise in futility and frustration. We can make it so much easier for ourselves and for our dogs!
The first thing to do is realise that jumping up is fed by attention and greeting. Generally it stops once this has happened. Dogs don’t keep pogoing for ever. They just don’t. Nobody is calling me saying their dog is still jumping up at a constant frequency or intensity after three hours.
Jumping up is reinforced by contact.
Dogs aren’t jumping up for food or toys. They’re jumping for social contact.
It’s vitally important to build new behaviours that allow dogs to access that same thing. Trying to build any incompatible behaviour will fail if you are not using the reinforcer the dog wants to access. In other words, if they weren’t jumping up for food, it’s unlikely they’re going to stop doing it for food either.
It’s literally like giving me a sandwich if I want to shake your hand.
We’d make our lives a whole lot easier if we understood it’d be much easier to teach a replacement behaviour using the same stuff the dog wants to access. Not only that, it’s kinder and more appropriate. If the dog wants contact and we’re depriving them of that, especially if it makes them feel anxious not to get contact, then we need to give our heads a good wobble.
Once you know that you should be building behaviours that are reinforced by contact, you’re going to make life easier.
When you understand that asking for what I call Taxidermy Behaviours is also making our own lives more difficult, as well as those of our dogs, then you’re also going to make life easier. By Taxidermy Behaviours, I mean the kind of thing a stuffed dog could do – hold a sit, hold a down, hold four feet on the floor. Asking for moving, fluid behaviours rather than something a stuffed dog could do is going to make your life easier as well.
When you know those two things, whatever you ask for is going to be so much easier. Absolutely anything can generate human contact: hand touches, chin rests, standing between legs, leg weaves, pushing a flipping pram with a baby doll in it…
You do, however, want something that naturally encourages your guests to pet and make contact with your dog. Not everyone likes being bopped by a dog nose, especially on their hand. Vertical people have very little to rest a chin on (except feet, for very little dogs). Standing between legs can quickly knock people over. Also, and I’ve done this myself, when your dog likes jumping, the last place you want them to try to do that from is between your legs. That way, very unfortunate accidents can occur. But it depends on the dog. One dog who was anxious and jumping on people was very happy to go stand between her guardian’s legs until all the people had sat down. That worked for her. For a dog named Zébulon (Zebedee in French, from The Magic Roundabout) standing between his guardian’s legs ended up with a very unfortunate head making contact with very unfortunate delicate bits of the of the male anatomy.
The replacement behaviour I like the most is a leg lean. Most people instinctively bend down when a dog leans on their legs. Most people pet the dog. Flika used this to her advantage to elicit petting from various humans she met. Sometimes with me it was more of a leg slam, but most of the time, it worked.
If you’ve got seated people, a chin rest is a good one. Amigo, the tart of the dog world, would make his way around with his doleful eyes, resting his chin daintily on any lap he could find. Again, it most naturally ends with contact and I find those two behaviours to be most natural to the dog.
If you’re going to choose a replacement behaviour, make it easier, make it less effort, make it natural and reinforce it with the same stuff.
Teach it out of context and make sure it’s really well embedded before you embark out into the world. Make sure your dog can cope with times when they won’t be permitted to make contact – for people who don’t want to pet the dog or give the dog attention. You can, of course, use food when teaching the behaviour in the first place, but even there, I switch quickly to using contact and attention. You can put it on cue if you like. Ask the dog to ‘lean’ or to ‘rest’ is one way to do this. That way, you can encourage guests to ask the dog for the behaviour.
In sum, the whole chain would look like this:
- Teach the behaviour, reinforcing with contact (and food if you like)
- Put the behaviour on cue: ‘lean’
- Manage and teach the behaviour around guests (say behind a baby gate or out of context)
- Encourage guests to ask for the behaviour if they want to greet the dog
- Keep the cue fairly sloppy – let the dog do the behaviour when they like and reinforce. You shouldn’t have to ask them to do it all the time
- Manage the dog in context, ask guests if they’d like to greet the dog. If they do, ask them to cue the behaviour and reinforce with contact.
Having a good recall and a dog who can tolerate frustration will also help. You may well need to call your dog away. I quite often cue them to do the exact thing to me – Flika never seemed to care who petted her at greetings as long as someone did. Asking her for a lean meant she knew who was paying up and who wasn’t. A long history of reinforcement means the dog is more likely to seek contact out in people they can get it from rather than arse about trying to get it out of people who aren’t likely to pay out.
Between those four steps, I find the problem soon resolves itself. Give dogs the means to ask for what they need in ways that are socially acceptable, and everybody wins. You don’t have to put an end to your guests fussing your dog because it ends up restarting your dog’s pogo problem, and you don’t have to starve your dog of contact when it’s in their very DNA to ask for it.
Should we punish or correct?
If you follow the steps above, you won’t need to. Of course you may be tempted towards spray bottles, shake cans, kneeing the dog in the chest or even shock collars. You don’t need to use these methods. Punishment deprives the dog of getting their needs met. If trying to teach a dog to sit for a biscuit instead of jump on guests for greeting fails, you can be sure you’re going to need a pretty unpleasant experience to override your dog’s basic instincts.
It’s for that reason that many aversives fail.
If they succeed, they run the very high risk of a) damaging your relationship with your dog and b) making them feel even more uncomfortable around greetings. When you’ve read the explanation of what fuels excessive greetings, then you’ll realise that dogs already feel uneasy or ambivalent about greetings. They’re going to tend and befriend MORE if they feel nervous. So, here you are with your knee ready to punch the dog in the chest, wondering why your dog feels more anxious than ever about greetings. Punishment won’t resolve that. So besides potentially worsening your own relationship with your dog, worsening how they feel about people coming into the family group and needing to start at a high enough level to act as a deterrent for a very natural and normal behaviour, we should always remember that punishment simply suppresses behaviour temporarily.
It does not suppress the need to do the behaviour. It does not meet the dog’s needs. It may not even meet your guests’ needs if they’re in need of contact too. It’s our responsibility to teach our dogs. When we’re successful, we won’t have a problem. If your dog still isn’t quite getting it, it’s because you’re asking too much. Make it easier for them.
I find it massively ironic that people are so weird about greetings. Just 22 miles over the sea from the UK, where no contact at all is fairly standard, our French neighbours are busily shaking hands much more frequently than we British people do, and they’re also happily kissing cheeks in ways that can make repressed British people incredibly uncomfortable. Americans are huggers in ways that I will never be, and don’t get me started on life in Japan, where every bow is nuanced with meaning and even eye contact can be offensive. When we have a queen who people are supposed to bow or curtsey to – are they? Who knows? – and there are people to tell you how to address her if you meet her, it all feels a bit rich that we can’t understand our dogs’ frantic attempts to be a dog and their discomfort when they don’t have their needs met. If you are unsure how this works, try elbow bumping or bowing to the next person who offers you a culturally acceptable hug, kiss on the cheek or a hand shake. If you don’t both feel awkward, I’ll be happy to retract my statement and update my understanding. Fist bumps, high fives, back slaps, butt slaps, hand shakes, hugs, bisous, bows, curtseys… humans are WEIRD and etiquette matters. If you didn’t feel awkward when Trump tried to shake the Queen’s hand, don’t be upset when your dog gets it wrong with you. Humans are not just weird but weirdly unable to understand that dogs greet like dogs and that it’s hard for them not to.
In next week’s post, I’ll look at dogs who jump up because it’s exciting and things are WHOOO HOOOOOO!
PS I’ve got a book out! Find it in Amazon.