Understanding why  dogs jump up on people and how to stop them.

Understanding why dogs jump up on people and how to stop them.

November 08, 2023


During the late 1800s and early 1900s, American psychologist Edward Lee Thorndike (1874–1949) began to analyse the reaction different consequences have on behaviour. This study became known as the Law of Effect or Thorndike's Law of Effect and concluded that responses producing rewards tend to increase in frequency. In other words, if someone rewards us for a specific behaviour, we are more likely to repeat it. 

Thorndike was the first person to outline the concept of operant conditioning, but he was also a significant influence on B.F. Skinner's work (1904–1990). Over time, Skinner discovered that he could methodically change the behaviour of rats when he gave a food reward for pressing a lever. 

By understanding these fundamental principles, we can shape our dogs' behaviour. For instance, if a dog continually jumps up on us, and we always laugh, pat it, or make endearing noises, we reward the behaviour and ensure that the action will recur, and the dog will continue to jump up more often. Unrestrained dogs leaping on people is a dangerous practice, as large dogs can knock over children or senior citizens and potentially cause serious injuries. As responsible dog owners, we should also consider the emotional harm this practice can have. What might seem like an innocuous incident may traumatise a fearful person or child for life. 

The more we reward a behaviour, the more likely it is to recur. But what happens when we no longer reinforce a specific behaviour? When we no longer encourage a practice we previously rewarded, extinction occurs. In his book The Behavior of Organisms, Skinner detailed how extinction works. In the laboratory, technicians trained rats to obtain food by pressing a lever. When the lab assistants no longer reinforced the rodents' behaviour with food rewards, they stopped pressing the lever, and in time, the well-engrained behaviour died out. 

Therefore, if we withhold our attention from the same dog that kept leaping up on us and don't pat it or acknowledge it when it jumps up but turn away and ignore it, in time, the behaviour will die out, and extinction occurs. When we stop rewarding unwanted behaviour, the behaviour will ultimately fade away. Furthermore, it is essential to remember that extinction takes time, and frequently, a dog's conduct worsens before it gets better, leading to an extinction burst. During this period, new behaviours such as frustration and aggression may appear. It is vital not to give in. Otherwise, we will reward more unwanted and possibly dangerous behaviours. 

However, extinction is not recommended if the unwanted behaviour is self-rewarding. For instance, if a dog barks at the postman, who then leaves, the action is self-rewarding because the dog's behaviour caused something to happen. Similarly, chewing on inappropriate things, digging in the garden, chasing small animals, or sleeping on the couch are self-rewarding behaviours dogs enjoy. Therefore, ignoring these behaviours will not make them go away. Subsequently, it is up to us to train the practices we want with operant conditioning principles. Based on Thorndike's research, dog trainers widely use operant conditioning principles in dog training today.