I work with clients every week who want their dogs to stop jumping on people. In the past week, I spoke with two clients who have been working on this but say the behavior is getting worse. At first, you might think what they are doing is not working. But is that really the case?

As anyone who has worked with me knows, I will always ask people to start by rephrasing their question. The question should not be: “How do I get my dog to stop jumping?” The question should be: “What do I want my dog to do instead of jumping?” Any time you want to eliminate an unwanted behavior, you will be far more successful if you replace that behavior with an incompatible behavior. For example, sitting instead of jumping.

Can you eliminate jumping behavior without giving the dog a specific behavior to replace it? Sure, but you might find the behavior actually gets worse before it gets better. It’s called an extinction burst. If you attempt to address the jumping by taking the first step of ignoring the behavior, you can eliminate jumping. It will just take longer. If your dog is jumping for attention, you need to ensure the dog never gets attention for jumping. No talking, no touching, no eye contact, nothing. Eventually, the dog will stop jumping as long as there is no reinforcement for him. For some dogs, I think they just really enjoy jumping, and the attention might be part – but not all – of the reinforcement they get.

With my clients who are seeing the behavior getting worse, here is what is happening: the dogs are jumping for attention; the people are trying very hard to be consistent about turning away and ignoring the dogs; the jumping is getting worse. Why? Because jumping has worked in the past, the dogs are convinced the jumping will get the attention they want. Now that they are not getting attention, they are thinking: “I must need to jump a little higher or with more enthusiasm. . .” This is where the extinction burst comes in. They were rewarded in the past, and are now getting frustrated that it is no longer working. Sort of like when your computer isn’t working so you punch the keyboard harder, curse at it louder. . . Your behavior gets worse just before you give up the ineffective behavior.

So, sometimes when a behavior seems to be getting worse – and just when many people give up – is when you should really be sticking to it. The behavior is about to go away. But remember, you still need to replace it with something else, because the old behavior can easily come back if nothing else is working either. Ignore the jumping, but ask for an alternative. And if the behavior seems to be getting worse, ask yourself is this is the extinction burst that means what you are doing really IS working.