“How do I stop my 2 year old Labrador from jumping all over me and my visitors? I’m not sure how to correct him so he’ll learn it’s bad.”

Most people looking for help with dog training ask a question like this. Usually when a question starts with a phrase like, “How do I stop…” or “I need my dog to not…” the perceived training goal is to suppress or correct an unwanted behavior.

You can’t blame people for considering training help from this perspective. Many dog owners look to behavior suppression as the means for controlling their dogs. That’s partly due to the legacy of physically and emotionally aversive training techniques. For most of the last hundred years, dog training meant responding in a harsh way to a dog for doing anything that people didn’t like.

Stopping an annoying, destructive, upsetting, or even dangerous behavior that your dog does has an appeal to it that we humans tend to find attractive, because it will often appear to work. If a dog is afraid of being dealt with in a way he or she finds painful or frightening, they’ll seek to avoid that treatment the next time they’re in a similar situation. Such a response by the dog provides a powerful reinforcement to the human for doling out aversive treatment. “See, he stopped doing what I don’t like. This works!”

There are two main problems with this approach. The first is that getting a dog to stop an undesirable behavior does nothing to teach him what you do like. In our theme question above, the dog–we’ll call him Joey–is only doing what he thought his human wanted, because Joey had always gotten attention from the humans for jumping all over them by way of greeting them after an absence. Now suddenly the humans have changed the rules but neglected to tell Joey they no longer like the jumping. Not only that, they gave him no acceptable alternative way to say hello.

That brings us to the second problem, which is that the dog has to figure out some other behavior on his own. Often, things only get worse from there. Let’s suppose Joey’s humans are so desperate for him to stop the jumping that they started to knee him in the chest whenever he jumped up to greet them. After a couple times, Joey finds that so unpleasant that he stops greeting them altogether. In fact, he shies away from them when they come home. More often the opposite will happen, which is that Joey can’t understand why his greetings aren’t working anymore, so he tries harder to appease his human family. After all, enthusiastically bouncing on them has always worked out great. Maybe now he bounces even harder, plus throws in some pawing, licking, and howling to get the message across. Of course, Joey’s efforts only cause his humans to knee him more forcefully, or resort to additional attempts to stop his jumping, and the cycle continues.

My view is that it doesn’t have to be that way. For most dogs, you can begin to change their behavior by changing your thinking; not in a mystical, alpha dog, pack-leaderish, energy-of-the-universe type of way, but by changing your thinking habits and looking at your dog’s behavior in a new light.

So, how can you make such a change, and how will that affect the way your dog behaves? Start to practice the following three new habits:

  1. Identify what you want from your dog as a positive action statement.
    Clearly, Joey’s human family and friends don’t want him to jump on them anymore when they show up at home after being gone. Instead of asking, “How can I stop my dog from jumping all over me and my visitors?” ask yourself what you do want the dog to do when you or your guests walk through the door. Then write down that behavior without using negatives like, “not” or “no.” For example: “I’d like Joey to stay on the floor whenever people come through the door.” Great! Now you’re up and running. Remember, though, that we want to turn you and your dog into partners cooperating towards a shared goal. So…
  2. Think about what your dog wants and needs.
    Dogs naturally want to greet their human family and friends after an absence, and doing so is highly reinforcing on its own. Most dogs also get heavily reinforced during puppyhood (when they’re cute and small) for jumping on people to say hello, so it’s a habit that stays with them as they get older, bigger, and stronger. Continuing our example with Joey, once his humans understand that he feels a huge need to greet them and his other human friends excitedly, they need to teach him a more acceptable way to do that by using the first habit above as a guide. Taking Joey’s preferences into consideration, their statement for habit #1 might be, “I’d like for Joey to keep his paws on the floor and give us and our friends space at the door when they come over.” Now we have a clear set of behaviors we can teach Joey and we can make a plan for training him to do these things and earn reinforcements, while still allowing him to do what he really wants.
  3. Always look for opportunities to reward rather than punish.
    An easy way to do this is to create opportunities to reward your dog by breaking down your training goals into small, easy steps. Reward anything your dog does that resembles your stated goals from habit #1. For example, part of Joey’s training plan could be to practice being near the entry area at home with someone pretending to visit at the front door. With Joey on leash so he isn’t able to jump on the guest, his human waits for a moment when he isn’t bouncing, then gives him praise and a piece of food as a reward for the moment of calm. More calm moments will follow, because they are now being reinforced, and those additional calm moments can also be rewarded. Eventually Joey will move away from the door (since that’s really paying off), which earns him an even bigger reward, and the progress continues.

By practicing the three habits above, you’ll start to think differently about how to respond when your dog behaves in a way you’d like to change. Your overall training will become easier with a more positive tone, and you’ll build a stronger connection between you and your dog.