Humans love dogs, but for some reason we often have a hard time coping with their love in return. They like to lick us, lean against us, lie on our feet, jump on us, and generally play with us. Many trainers advocate that allowing dogs to invade an owner’s space will lead to behavioral problems, defending their argument with statements such as ‘leaders claim their space’. There is not even an ounce of truth to this; a dog seeking closer proximity is a dog promoting a strong social bond. Likewise dogs are inundated with owners saying: “no licking”, “no jumping” and “no mouthing.” Because ‘jumping’ is one of the most common behavioral complaints from dog owners, I will use that to contrast two schools of thought:
Traditional trainers would tell you the behavior is a sign that a dog is seeking or establishing ‘dominance’ and is the result of you being a poor ‘leader’. These trainers are guilty of gross negligence and animal harm for this kind of ignorance. Jumping is not a dominance behavior. Certain types of conflict behaviors determine social dominance and jumping is not even a conflict behavior. If you are intentionally trying ‘dominate’, that is to use conflict behavior to establish dominance with an animal that is already submissive, then you are tarnishing and destroying your bond with your dog. Methodology aside, a traditional trainer’s objective in training the dog is to eliminate the jumping behavior.
Most positive trainers will tell you that it is simply reinforced behavior and the result of intentional or inadvertent praise and affection (the Applied Behavior Analysis perspective). With animal learning theory, we know that by removing reinforcement we will cause the behavior to decrease, and the objective in training the dog is to eliminate the jumping behavior.
While positive trainers are absolutely right in their method, viewing pro-social behaviors mathematically with no account for form or function of the behavior is also a recipe for potential disaster. There is a higher complexity to social behavior than century old mathematical analysis of learning events; in the words of Konrad Lorenz, the father of modern animal behavior science, “It is quite erroneous to say that such ceremonies are ‘the expression of’ a bond; indeed they themselves constitute it.” [i] If there is nothing that a century of ethological research has taught us, it is that behavior has a biological foundation in our evolutionary roots and serves an explicit function for our genetic fitness.[ii]
The laboratory-based search for general laws of learning seemed to [Lorenz] as misguided as dropping automobiles from buildings under controlled conditions and writing down the results. Without an evolutionary perspective, he argued, psychology does not know what it is looking for and when it finds something it does not know what it is looking at.[iii]
When you walk in the door and your dog adorns you with affection, notice how the ears go back, the body inverts, and the sleeping progeny of a wolf has been replaced with a wiggly worm of love. These pro-social behaviors (in addition to face licking, jumping, pawing, and playing) are genetic and the product of an entire evolutionary lineage that survived through cooperation and the building of strong social bonds through reciprocity, trust, play and affection.[iv] Thus when a dog is being social with us, it is essential to reciprocate their play and affection.
Naturally, if you have giant dogs and young or elderly friends and family, behavior like jumping could very easily end in a trip to the hospital for a human, so polite manners do need to be taught; however, it is essential to understand that we are punishing behavior designed to promote strong social bonds when we withhold affection and you cannot replace a hug with a nose touch. Done properly a dog can adapt very happily to a new greeting ritual, but it has to be done with tremendous care and love, not strict or harsh discipline.
There is prodigious power in the human-canine bond, so much that it is essential for owners to understand that a dog cannot be chiseled into the “perfect” vessel any easier than a child could be. Animals express themselves with species-specific behavior and recognizing when your dog is seeking affection is the first step to building a stronger bond. These are the most important moments in the life of a dog and moments that should never be squandered away—let alone punished either verbally or physically.
[ii] Brown, J. L. (1975). The evolution of behavior. New York: Norton, p 21.
[iii] Griffiths, P.E (2006) Evolutionary Psychology, in Sarkar, S & Pfeiffer, J (eds.) The Philosophy of Science: An Encyclopedia, New York: Routledge: 263-268.
[iv] Bekoff, M., & Pierce, J. (2010). Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals. University Of Chicago Press.