Dear Sarah, Aug 16

We’ve been trying to stop our dog from jumping up on people, but he doesn’t seem to be getting the message. He will be really good for a while and then go back to doing the behaviour again. Why is this? Henry T

Hi Henry,

Jumping up is one of those things that drives everybody nuts, and one area where we humans are REALLY inconsistent. As puppies, we actually teach our dogs that jumping up often gets them attention, and while it’s kind of cute when your Golden Retriever is a puppy – it stops being cute when they are 30kg of muscle, leaping up to say ‘hello’ to Grandma.

The problem with teaching dogs not to jump up is that it’s the humans that need to be consistent with reinforcing an alternative behaviour (like ‘sit’ or nose target someone’s hand for a greeting), and let’s face it, most of us aren’t great at being consistent. It only takes one person to encourage your dog to jump and give your dog a bunch of praise and pats, and the jumping up behaviour has just been rewarded.

When people sometimes reward the dog for jumping up (with attention) and sometimes don’t, this is known as intermittent reinforcement. This can actually make the behaviour stronger. It’s the same reason why people play poker machines – sometimes they get rewarded by winning.

So what can you do about it? Simply be consistent with training an alternative behaviour. Heavily reinforcing your dog for sitting when he greets another person can go a long way to teach him what behaviour is desirable (he can’t ‘sit’ and jump up on someone at the same time, right?). As dogs don’t generalise very well, you will need to do lots of practice with lots of different people in lots of different contexts (and lots of tasty goodies for a job well done!). Remember, it takes time to build new habits, both for you and your dog, so be aware that this won’t happen overnight. But Grandma will thank you the next time she comes to visit!

  

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