Why do dogs jump on people?
Updated: Apr 5
There are many misunderstood behaviors in dogs, and jumping up on people is one of them. Often times this behavior is explained away as a product of "excitability" or attributed to the dog's breed. We might hear such phrases as "Labrador retrievers are high-energy dogs, so they are going to jump."
But a dog's genetics is not the primary determinant of behavior. Social upbringing is the most powerful influence on how dogs act. And to say a dog is excitable because they have high energy is an argument that does not contain any argument. Neither of these excuses explains why they are energetic or what the jumping behavior means.
Everything a dog does with their body has purpose and meaning. Nothing they do is randomness for the sake of randomness. It is all part of a connected system of behavior, what I call the unified theory of canine behavior. In this system, every behavior, big and small, is understood as an outward expression of internal needs. Even strange, seemingly aimless activities such as a dog chasing its tail have a purpose in this connected system.
Jumping, in particular, is a common behavior in which many people struggle. Here we are talking about excitable, frenetic jumping; not an affectionate dog that climbs into your lap for a good snuggle. Instead, we are talking about the bold and uncomfortable stuff.
It is embarrassing to have friends and family walk into our home only to be assaulted by our overly-excited dog. And, in some cases, can be dangerous as children and others can be pushed over and harmed.
Why do they do it?
Jumping exists in the parenting spectrum of behaviors. This means that when dogs jump on people, they are actively trying to control and set boundaries for newcomers to the home. The intention of jumping is to push and shove others in order to impede their movement. In other words, when dogs jump on people, they are, in part, attempting to train them to "stay." Setting boundaries in this way is how dogs construct relationships.
When new people first enter the home, dogs become immediately concerned with their own security. That concern takes the form of excessive neural stimulation, movement, and yes, jumping. Impeding the movement of others asserts their control over a situation they feel is in flux. It can be compared to a concerned passenger grabbing the wheel of a car they feel is out of control.
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Jumping is an activity that we commonly see at the dog park -- dogs grappling with one another as a technique for carving out personal, intimate space. That grappling is the same jumping behavior they use on people. This behavior is commonly called "play", but in reality they are building the structure of a family right before our eyes.
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How do we stop it?
The best way to help dogs during these turbulent, transitional times is to control them. We should use a leash during these times to set our own boundaries for their movement. Only after they have regained control over their cognitive faculties should we allow them to meet others in a respectful manner. Using a leash helps to teach them that other individuals also have personal space that must be respected. It also helps them to learn self-control and emotional compartmentalization skills during stressful times. As dogs grow older, they will rely on these coping mechanisms to self-moderate their own behavior when times get tough.
For those of us who get jumped on, the best method is to extend a knee forward to bump and block the dog from jumping on us. While extending the knee, push quickly forward into the dog's space. Repeat as necessary. If the dog turns to jump from a different direction, face the dog and repeat. Avoid turning your back to a dog that jumps.
To learn more about why dogs jump on people visit, Three Dimensional Dog, A Unified Theory of Canine Behavior, and learn to see dog behavior in a new way.