5 Learned Pet Behaviors That We Reinforce Without Knowing It

Posted by TF Oren
Shiba Inu pay attention to his owner at dogschool.

Despite being different species, dogs pick up on everything humans do. 

In fact, according to canine behaviorist, Melissa Hatfield, “Dogs are actually better at reading us than we are at reading them…They respond to our emotions, whether they’re positive or negative, with behavior.”

Certified canine behaviorist, Sandy McPadden, notes that the way we reinforce our pets’ behaviors – such as giving treats or scoldings – is the key to understanding why they do what they do, and exactly how we are responsible.

With that in mind, here are five behaviors pets learn from their owners.

1. Vocalization

dog howl

Dogs see humans talking and want to talk, too.

Vocalization is a common dog behavior that is reproduced in group settings, such as an animal shelter, where one or two dogs’ vocalizations might lead to a room full of barking dogs. Even though it is an innate behavior within wild dog packs, humans tend to answer a barking dog by telling them to shush which reinforces the behavior.

Howling is another form of vocalization that tends to develop with encouragement and reinforcement, such as might be provided by a dog owner.

According to professional dog trainer and cat behaviorist, Lisa Stemcosky:

“Howling represents the reunification of the pack. While humans and dogs can’t be in the same pack scientifically speaking, reinforcement in the form of petting that comes afterward sometimes makes dogs repeat the sound.”

2. Excitability

happy dog

Our pets are keenly attuned to our energy, and dogs in particular tend to feed off of the energy we put out with our body language. Getting wound up is a behavior that doesn’t require reinforcement in the way we traditionally think of it (giving treats or chew toys, affection, or a scolding).

McPadden gives a great example of how we unintentionally reinforce excitability by outlining a scenario in which a dog owner receives a phone call with good news.

“As soon as you get off the phone, you begin jumping on the couch, and naturally, Fido comes to join you…You squeal in excitement, and Fido is just eating it up. No cookies, no petting, but Fido loves this high-pitched voice of yours. The next time you jump on the couch, there is a good chance that Fido is going to join you in hopes of hearing that awesome squeal.”

3. Getting on the Furniture

dog on couch

Everybody likes to flop down on the couch once in a while. Our pets are no exception.

According to Hatfield, dogs have a strong desire to be physically close to their owners. The couch and the bed are perhaps the best places to enjoy such close proximity, and dogs are well aware of this.

If not all human members of the household are in agreement about whether or not drooling pets are allowed on the furniture, problems can arise.

“If it’s something you can tolerate, and your partner doesn’t, you need to figure out how to get on board with each other,” says Stemcosky. “Otherwise, it can affect your relationship with the animal. If a cat comes on the sofa, and my husband pets, but I don’t, the cat is going to stop coming to me.”

Bottom line: Get all humans in the household on board with the pet/furniture policy, and be consistent about the decision, whatever it may be.

4. Rising Early

sleepy cat

Cats commonly seek attention by jumping on the bed when they feel it’s time for you to get up and feed or play with them.

According to Stemcosky, owners reinforce this attention-seeking behavior by giving into the cat, mistakenly thinking that giving the cat what it wants will stop the behavior. Quite the opposite is true because the cat knows jumping on the bed will consistently produce the desired result.

So what is an exasperated cat owner to do? Ignore the behavior, says Stemcosky.

“It’s frustrating for people to ride this, though, because it often escalates before it starts to get better.”

Stemcosky notes that the behavior will eventually end in what’s called an extinction burst. However, it could take a long time to come about depending upon how deeply ingrained the behavior has become due to continual reinforcement by the owner.

5. Playing Fetch

dog fetch

It’s not hard to imagine how pets learn this behavior from their owners. However, its significance in the sphere of dog-human interaction is quite remarkable.

McPadden says:

“One of the only behaviors that can increase the odds of an animal being adopted from a shelter is responding to the adopter’s invitation to play. If the human throws a ball, and the dog brings that ball back, that dog is more likely to be adopted than a dog who wouldn’t.”

Shelters across the country are tapping into this insight and teaching adoptable dogs to respond to human cues, such as an invitation to play. The results, says McPadden, are “life-saving.”


Good or bad, many of the behaviors you observe in your pet probably trace back to you in some form or another.

“Every interaction you have with a dog, class is in session. They are learning and adapting to the cues you’re delivering, intentional or not,” says McPadden.

Have your pets learned some of these behaviors from you? What’s your best method of dog training if there are behavior problems? Tell us in the comments section!

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5 Learned Pet Behaviors That We Reinforce Without Knowing It