Dog Behavior Problems: Greeting Behavior - Jumping Up

By Ellen Lindell, VMD, DACVB; Monique Feyrecilde, BA, LVT, VTS (Behavior); Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM

Why does my dog jump up?

Social dogs naturally jump up when they greet people. Most dogs are shorter than the people they are greeting and jumping up brings them closer to face level. After all, when dogs meet other dogs, they are typically face to face, but dogs need to gaze upward to engage with a person.

Most of the time, after dogs jump up, they receive attention from the person they jumped on. The pattern of jumping up will therefore be repeated, because it was rewarded - jumping up gave the dog an interaction. Behaviors that enable dogs to achieve their goals are always repeated.

There are other reasons that a dog might jump up on a person. In fact, though it may seem paradoxical, dogs lacking confidence may jump up because of underlying anxiety or conflict about the pending interaction. For these dogs, jumping may release stress or defuse an uncomfortable situation. At the other extreme, some very playful dogs jump when they are excited or overstimulated.

The trouble with jumping up is that the person at the receiving end may not share the dog’s enthusiasm for this type of greeting. In the case of visitors or strangers, jumping can be frightening or even painful for the person.

How do I teach my dog to greet properly?

The first step is to decide how you would like your dog to greet people. Would you like your dog to sit, lie down, stand, or be neutral and ignore the person until they have permission to greet? All training plans begin with the desired goal behavior in mind.

Next, consider what rewards the dog is likely to enjoy during a greeting. Some dogs may like being petted, while others enjoy attention and verbal praise. Most dogs enjoy treats. It is important to know what your dog finds pleasurable, so you can appropriately reward your dog when he exhibits the desired greeting behavior.

Once you have a desired behavior and reward in mind, you can create a training plan. It is important to train systematically, step by step. Your dog will be most successful if you begin with small achievable goals. As your dog’s skills improve, you can gradually increase the challenge or complexity of the tasks.

How do I begin the training?

For dogs who have not yet started jumping up, that is, dogs that are learning the desired greeting behavior for the first time, it is important to begin in a calm environment. Your dog may be enthusiastic, and the first training step may be to help your dog control his excitement.

At first, work only with family members and people familiar to the dog. Work in a quiet area that is free from distractions and have treats ready.

As your dog approaches the person in the practice greeting, quickly deliver a treat before the dog even tries to jump. Encourage four-paws-on-the-floor by continuing to deliver treats. Your dog has approached and never had a chance to jump because he was busy eating treats - he is on the floor and doing the right behavior!

The goal is to catch the moment where the greeting is on the floor and extend that into more complex situations over time. Gradually, over several practice sessions, increase the level of excitement while delivering rewards, as long as your dog has all four paws on the floor.

If you would like your dog to always sit (or lie down) when greeting, wait until "four-on-the-floor" has been mastered, then begin to ask for a “sit” and reward the sit. Your dog will approach, you provide a treat for the calm approach, then ask for a “sit”, and provide a reward. Soon, you will be able to say “sit” the moment your dog gets close to you and that will be the new greeting posture.

If you are alone, you may also train this behavior using a clicker. Here is an example:

  1. Calmly smile toward your dog and say “Hello,” then immediately mark by calmly saying “nice”, “yes”, or “click” (if using a clicker) and drop a treat on the floor between the dog’s front paws. With practice, “Hello” will become the cue for calm greetings.
  2. When your dog finishes that treat, roll a treat several feet away so the dog turns away and is then ready to greet again.
  3. Smile at your dog and say “Hello” as the dog is moving toward you. As they approach, mark the right behavior and feed again on the floor. Feeding low encourages the dog to stay on the floor. Strategically placing your reward speeds up the training process.
  4. Repeat these steps several times, for a few sessions, until your dog is consistently approaching you, pausing with four-on-the-floor, and looking either at you or toward the ground for the reward.

Next, increase the difficulty. You may, for instance, change the excitement level, the environment, or the duration of four-on-the-floor required to earn a treat. Try to change only one variable at a time. To change the excitement level and the environment, you might do the calm “Hello” exercise in the yard on a leash, or in a room with another person present and sitting quietly nearby. To increase duration, gradually increase the interval between treats. This will teach your dog to remain patient with four-on-the-floor until you are ready to interact.

How do I train if my dog already jumps up on people?

If your dog already has an established pattern of jumping up, then your dog has learned that jumping up is highly rewarding. Even if you have tried to push your dog away, you likely leaned over the dog, spoke directly to him, or reached out to touch him or push him away before he had a chance to jump. From the dog’s point of view, all these behaviors provide attention and are rewarding.

"The key to training a successful greeting is to visualize the greeting that you would prefer."

For dogs that routinely jump up, some management is needed to prevent them from engaging in the self-rewarding behavior until training has been completed. It can be helpful to hold your dog on a leash when approaching your training partner. As your partner begins to treat your dog for keeping four-on-the-floor, gently hold the leash just taut enough that your dog cannot easily jump up. Do not pull or jerk the leash.

The key to training a successful greeting is to visualize the greeting that you would prefer. Introduce the skill gradually, prevent mistakes with management, and practice with progressively more difficult scenarios until the greeting behavior is well understood with a variety of distractions, levels of excitement, and environments.

Can I reward my dog with a pet instead of a treat?

Some dogs are comfortable with physical contact and being petted during greetings, and some are not. Carefully watch your dog’s body language. Signals such as leaning away, pausing, looking away, pinning ears back, lowering the head or body, lowering the tail, or moving to the side are all signs that your dog is not certain about the pending interaction and may not want to be touched. In this case, your training will be most effective if you use treats. Otherwise, your dog may become increasingly anxious about initiating interactions with people.

To prevent your dog from experiencing stress when greeting people, never allow any person, whether a familiar guest or a stranger, to reach toward or touch your dog if your dog is showing signs of avoidance or fear.

I have tried this training strategy, but my dog still jumps on people. Why?

If your dog continues to jump up, then he is still experiencing a level of reward for the jumping behavior. Have a family meeting and make sure that everyone is following the plan, and that your dog is never petted or treated for jumping up during a greeting. If the four-on-the-floor behavior is only rewarded sometimes, or by some people but not others, the jumping behavior can increase. This “variable ratio of reinforcement” is a reliable way to make behaviors strong. Consistency is the key to success.

"Consistency is the key to success."

Why does my dog still jump up even though I scold him and push him away?

Friendly, social dogs seek social interaction. Whether you scold your dog verbally or even push him away as he jumps, you are still giving him attention. Even negative attention can be rewarding for a dog.

To change a behavior, you must remove all possible reinforcement. You should not look at, speak to, or touch your dog when he jumps on you. It may be helpful to quietly walk past him. If necessary, you can step behind a gate or door to avoid inadvertent reinforcement of the behavior. Once your dog is calm and your presence is not novel, you may call your dog over and reward the desired behavior of four-on-the-floor before the jumping happens.

Is there a way to tell my dog to stop jumping?

Trying to stop behaviors without carefully teaching replacement behaviors creates frustration. If your dog is excited and you attempt to scold or correct him, he may only become frustrated and more excited. Also, even seemingly benign corrections such as making loud noises or spraying a dog with water can cause fear.

It is always best to systematically teach your dog how to do the desired behavior
than to try to thwart the undesired one.

The difficulty with startling a dog or causing discomfort while they are seeking social contact is that the dog may associate the discomfort, fear, or pain with the person they are trying to greet. This can easily cause dogs to be fearful of family members, visitors, or strangers. It is always best to systematically teach your dog how to do the desired behavior than to try to thwart the undesired one.

What if I like having my dog jump on me?

Dogs can be confused if some people allow them to jump up while others don’t. If you would like a “hello hug” from your dog, then it would be helpful to train your dog to hug only when he is asked to do so. Train the “hug” behavior separate from the greeting, so that your dog fully understands how to hug appropriately. Then, even after he is trained, when you come home, always first ask your dog for a standard four-on-the-floor greeting. Then, you can cue the hug.

If your dog gets confused and begins jumping up on people that have not asked, you will need to give him a refresher training period in which only calm greetings are rewarded.

In general, it is a good idea to encourage calm greetings for all non-family members, visitors, and incidental meetings. Defaulting to a calm greeting will never cause a problem, whereas jumping up can promote fear in some people, or cause conflict between dogs and people. If the dog is quite large or enthusiastic, jumping up could injure someone who is small or frail. Planning for calm greetings all the time keeps everyone safe and happy.

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