Each of these photographs shows a dog jumping up on a person…..with the person appearing to be quite happy about the interaction. Yet, jumping up to greet is a frequently cited complaint that dog owners make to dog trainers. While I am sympathetic to owners’ frustrations, the underlying cause for jumping up in most cases is simply a dog who is exuberantly saying “Hello! How are ya! How about some lovin?” And of course, a contributing cause is that, as seen above, we are frequently inconsistent in our responses; some of the time we enjoy it and encourage it, and in other circumstances (such as when Muffin knocks over Grandma or places muddy paws on a visitor’s white dress) we are not quite so happy about it.
Although trainers’ opinions certainly vary, my general view of jumping up is that “Yeah, dogs do this. Yeah, many owners dislike it and would like to stop it and we can help them with that. However, in the overall scheme of things, having a dog who is a bit too friendly and exuberant really isn’t such a terrible problem to have now, is it“? So, my training school’s approach to the problem is to first frame it in terms of what it actually is…….a dog being friendly. Maybe even an overly excited, young, goofy maniac of a dog, but still, he is just trying to say hello, albeit with an enthusiastic demeanor.
We then address ways to modify a dog’s behavior to reduce jumping up to greet. One approach with unwanted behavior is to train the dog to offer an alternate response that is incompatible with the undesired behavior, a technique called “response substitution”. For example, in the case of jumping up to greet, we teach Mr. Exuberance to “sit for his lovin'” rather than to jump up for it. First the owner, then visitors, crouch to greet and reinforce with treats and affection, eventually shaping the behavior to achieve sitting for greeting with folks staying in an upright position as they reinforce sit or simply “keep four feet on the floor”.
Photo used with permission (Sophia Yin, DVM, MS )
An alternative approach is extinction. Extinction refers to purposefully and consistently preventing reinforcement of the unwanted behavior until the dog stops offering the behavior (i.e. the unwanted behavior is extinguished). Using the example of jumping up, this means removing the person. Because greeting the dog (providing petting, love, interaction) is what positively reinforces and thus maintains jumping up, extinction involves telling the owner to ignore the dog by turning her back, backing away, or walking away from the dog whenever he attempts to greet by jumping up. (Note: In this particular example, extinction is almost indistinguishable from negative punishment).
Does Extinction Work? However, actually putting this technique into practice presents some problems. It is associated with what traditional behaviorists (of the Skinner “can’t talk about internal emotional states” ilk) refer to as an “extinction burst”, and what trainers typically refer to as “frustration and emotional distress”. In practice this means that the dog increases his bid for attention by following the owner and jumping more emphatically, becoming more active and frantic, barking and whining, nipping or mouthing. Generally, you end up with a mess – a dog who went from jumping and happy to jumping and distressed and who may have added one or two new and equally undesirable behaviors to his repertoire.
Why we need data: Which all begs (pun intended) the question – Does extinction work well as a practical training approach with dogs? If it does effectively reduce unwanted behaviors, does it come at the cost of unnecessary emotional stress and the risk of creating new problems? Regardless of my personal opinion of using extinction in dog training, all that I really could say about its use has come from personal experience with my clients and their dogs and discussions with other trainers. And despite the existence of an effective alternate technique (response substitution), ignoring a dog who jumps up (extinction) continues to be frequently recommended to pet owners by a wide variety of trainers, behaviorists, bloggers, veterinarians and authors.
Published Study: Until recently, there were no data that specifically examined the use of extinction with pet dogs. However, building on work from a previously published study, a group of researchers recently asked the question “Does the use of extinction with dogs produce an aversive emotional state [even while it may effectively reduce the targeted behavior]?” (1,2). In other words, does the use of extinction in dog training cause emotional distress?
Study Protocol: Altogether, 45 dogs who lived as companions (i.e. in homes with people) were studied. The protocol included three phases: The first was a warm-up during which the dog met the trainer and became accustomed to the training area. The second was the training (acquisition) phase. The trainer used dried liver treats to positively reinforce “gazing behavior” (looking into the trainer’s face) each time that the dog offered it. Three sessions lasting 2 minutes each were completed with each dog. The liver treats were kept in a container, located on a shelf, next to the trainer. The third stage was the extinction phase. The experimenter continued to stand near the shelf but now ignored the dog when he/she offered the previously reinforced gazing behavior. Three extinction sessions were conducted for each dog. Each session was video recorded and rated by an impartial observer following the sessions.
Study Results: While using extinction significantly reduced the targeted behavior (gazing), it also led to an increase in behaviors that are associated with frustration. These included withdrawing from the trainer, lying down, increased movement (ambulation), whining, sniffing (often considered to be a displacement behavior), and avoiding the trainer. The researchers note that these results are especially relevant given the common use of extinction for discouraging unwanted behaviors in pet dogs.
Take Away for Dog Folks: For trainers, this study (and the researcher’s previous work) showed that extinction can effectively reduce a previously reinforced behavior in pet dogs. The results also showed that, while effective, extinction causes stress and potentially leads to displacement behaviors that can be problematic. I finished reading this article thinking about two important differences between the study protocol and the use of extinction in everyday life with the dogs who live with us:. These are:
1. The trainer in this study, while friendly and pleasant to the dogs, was unfamiliar and had no previous relationship or enduring bond with the dogs.
2. The targeted behavior, “gazing” was trained for a very short period (6 minutes!), and so had a very short and weak reinforcement history.
Together, these two facts suggest that the behavior that was trained (gazing) and subsequently extinguished was not a persistent behavior that held a lot of significance to the dog. It had an almost ridiculously short reinforcement history and involved a person who really held no importance to the dog. Yet, extinction still caused frustration and emotional distress in the dogs in this study. Wow. Soap Box time……..
So, one can imagine the degree of frustration felt by a dog who loves his people (and visitors) and who has a long history of being reinforced for showing what he considers to be just normal doggy affection (jumping up), when suddenly, all of the positive stuff abruptly stops. His pals begin to ignore him completely, turning their backs, walking away, not speaking to him, whenever he attempts to say hello.
Personally, I found the results of this small study compelling if simply to suggest that it may be time to consider the extinction of extinction in dog training. This is certainly not a difficult call, given that we have available other, more effective and less stress-inducing approaches, such as response substitution. Although training a dog to sit for greeting takes a bit more time, patience, and tolerance (jumping up is NOT the end of the world, after all), certainly it is preferable to using a technique that causes emotional distress to the dog, has the potential to cause other problems, and removes yet another opportunity to interact positively with our dogs. Nuff’ said. Off soap box. (Read the papers to learn more!)
1. Bentosela M, Barrera GT, Jakovcevic A, et al. Effects of reinforcement, reinforce omission and extinction on a communicative response in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris). Behavioral Processes 2008;78:464-469.
2. Jakovcevic A, Elgier AM, Mustaca AE, Bentosela M. Frustration behaviors in domestic dogs. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 2013; 16:19-34.
Excerpted from: “Beware the Straw Man: The Science Dog Explores Dog Training Fact & Fiction” (2015).