Control canines with time-outs

December 2010 / Centre Daily Times / State College, PA

We have all had the experience of walking into someone's home only to be bombarded by a leaping canine. Muddy paws can ruin an outfit and even little dogs can tear stockings and scratch ankles with their jumping. Jumping is extremely common among puppies and adult dogs, and is one frequent reason that owners hire dog trainers or animal behaviorists. 

Dogs are a social species. In fact, their social nature is one of the reasons dogs have so successfully evolved living among humans. This sociability also results in their affection for being close to their human family members and, in particular, close to their loved ones' faces. Jumping on someone is one way to get closer to the face for a nose-to-nose greeting, complete with a big lick across the cheek.

Unfortunately, many people find this greeting behavior less than endearing, and wish to reduce it but don't know how. In their various attempts to curb jumping, many owners end up unintentionally rewarding the behavior with all sorts of consequences. For example, many owners use their hands to push their dog down. Others issue lengthy reprimands to explain to their dog why his jumping is problematic. In both cases, the problem can continue because these consequences can serve as rewards to the dog in the form of attention. In fact, much jumping is initially strengthened by attention when owners reward jumping puppies by providing either these intended but ineffective punishers or with laughter, petting, or play. 

Instead, owners can take advantage of the power of their attention by using a procedure that combines a time-out with reinforcement for good behavior. The time-out works as follows. Work in 10-minute training sessions once or twice a day by the front door. Have treats in your pocket or in a jar outside of the dog's reach. Enter the door and greet your dog calmly. The moment his paws make contact with any part of your body or clothing, say "No" in a short, firm voice and step back outside, closing the door behind you. After 10 seconds, return through the door and greet your dog as before. If he jumps, repeat the "No" followed by the 10-second time-out during which you wait outside again. If he does not jump when you greet him, calmly praise and offer a treat. Talk calmly and happily to your dog for a few seconds and then repeat the greeting.

A time-out in this situation is a great way to provide your dog with one clear consequence for jumping - he loses your attention and your physical presence for 10 seconds. For dogs whose jumping has been maintained by attention, this is a perfect way to reverse the consequence desired by the dog and instead provide that attention (along with a treat to boost the power of the reinforcement) for a "four-on-the-floor" greeting instead. 

The next step will be to practice with other family members, and then with volunteer "guests" who can practice with you and your dog, to help ensure that your dog generalizes his new skills to newcomers. Finally, these exercises should be carried out in other parts of the house and yard, and also in public places. Generalizing the "four-on-the-floor" greeting across people and situations will help create a canine companion that all your guests will look forward to visiting!