How to Keep a Dog From Jumping on Everyone

A method to keep dogs from jumping up on people even when you are not around

Posted Oct 12, 2016

melis /
Source: melis /

"Yesterday he jumped up on me when I let him back into the house from the backyard. He got muddy footprints all over my coat and I had to change it for a clean one of before leaving for work."

The woman speaking to me was a nurse named Eva, whom I had come to know during a seemingly endless series of medical tests. We were sitting in a small coffee shop which was part of the entryway to the hospital, and she was talking about Foster, her black Labrador Retriever, a bouncy young dog around 14 months of age:

"Foster jumps up on everyone. It's particularly bad when someone comes to the door of the house. But it seems that whenever he wants some attention from a person he jumps up on them. I've read that this might just be him trying to do some nose-to-nose touching as a sort of friendly greeting, or it might simply be excitement. Nonetheless I'm afraid that he will soil other people's clothing with his muddy paws, or even worse he might knock down a fragile elderly person or a young child. In any event, most people find this jumping up behavior to be bothersome and even potentially frightening.

"I've tried many different solutions. The simplest was shouting 'No!' whenever I saw him about to jump. That didn't work. One dog expert said that because this is an attention-getting behavior, the best thing to do was to simply turn my back on the dog when he jumps. That has had no effect. Another dog expert said that when he jumps, to grab his front paws and hold him there until he gets uncomfortable and really wants you to let go. This is supposed to make the jumping behavior aversive. That didn't work. Finally this dog guy on television said that when the dog jumps you should lift your knee to hit the dog in the chest to show him that this kind of activity is unwanted. I tried that, and I must have hit him too hard because he nearly flipped over and landed on his side. Nonetheless, that didn't stop him. He thought it was a game because he just came back onto his feet and tried to jump on me again. I am getting really frustrated. Even worse, my partner is getting quite angry about the situation and is talking about giving up the dog if we can't solve the problem."

Dogs frequently jump up on people when they are excited or are soliciting attention. I was obviously talking to a woman who had already done research on how to stop the problem. However, as she found out, there is a lot of bad advice out there. Further, when people are stressed, as she clearly was, they seem to overlook simple solutions to their problems.

When clinical psychologists encounter behaviors which are annoying, maladaptive, or potentially harmful, one common technique they use is called "counter conditioning." This simply means that the individual is taught a behavior which competes with the undesirable behavior and prevents it from occurring. As I pointed out to Eva, she already had the solution to her problem—all she needed to do is apply it. Because Foster had been through a basic obedience class, he clearly knew how to sit on command. A dog that's sitting can't jump up on people. The trick is to place a container of treats near the places where the jumping behavior normally occurs (near a door, or at the back of a kitchen counter), so that the treats are readily available. Whenever you anticipate that the dog is about to jump, command the dog to sit, and when he does, reward him with a treat. If you do this systematically, the dog will come to anticipate that when he runs to the front door and someone arrives, all he has to do is to sit to receive a treat. Most dogs will start to sit at the door when it is opened instead of jumping up on the visitor in excitement.

Eva nodded and smiled, but then a wrinkle appeared in her forehead as she encountered what she thought might be a problem. "Well I can see how that would work, and I definitely will try it, but it will only keep the dog from jumping up on people when I am there to issue the sit command. How do I keep him from jumping up on people when I'm not there?"

Sometimes in order to solve problem behaviors in dogs, especially those involving interactions with people, you have to take the normal responses of a human being into account as part of the process. I explained to Eva that the solution to the dog jumping up involves a second step: You must teach the dog a new signal that indicates that he is expected to sit. This is where the ways humans respond in specific situations comes into play. The most common response people make when a dog jumps up on them is to hold their hands protectively in front of their body with their palms facing the dog. This response is almost reflexive because it places the hands between the person and the dog and allows them to fend off any contact. So the trick is to teach the dog a new hand signal which tells him to sit. The hand signal is two hands upright, palms toward the dog.

SC Psychological Enterprises photo
Source: SC Psychological Enterprises photo

If the dog already knows the verbal command "sit," adding this new signal is quite simple. Stand in front of the dog and say "sit" while holding both hands palms forward toward the dog. When he responds, reward him with a treat. Do this a few times and then phase out the verbal signal. Most dogs learn this very quickly and begin to respond by sitting whenever they see the defensive hand signal. The neat thing about this is that people visiting your home don't have to know anything about dog behavior. If the dog comes toward them and seems ready to jump, they will automatically hold their hands in front of themselves. The dog doesn't know that this is not meant as an instruction, but he will read this response as a sit command and usually drop into the sitting position instead of jumping.

SC Psychological Enterprises image
Source: SC Psychological Enterprises image

As I said before, sometimes when dealing with problems associated with dogs interacting with people, you have to take into account the responses of the humans, as well as the canines.

Stanley Coren is the author of books including: Gods, Ghosts and Black Dogs; The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

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