Despite our general tendency to treat them as extensions of our own families, our pets are not human. However, their ability to adapt to our environment is fairly remarkable, considering the obvious communication gap that exists between species.
Melissa Hatfield, a certified canine behavior consultant from Fayetteville, Arkansas, says that because humans and dogs have co-evolved for as many as 16,000 years, our non-verbal methods of communication with each other are extraordinarily advanced.
“Dogs are actually better at reading us than we are at reading them,” she says. “They watch us. They respond to our emotions, whether they’re positive or negative, with behavior.”
Above all, both cats and dogs respond to our reinforcement (like treats or affection) of their own behavior, says Sandy McPadden, an Arizona-based certified canine behavior consultant.
“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,” she says.
Here are five behaviors dogs and cats learn from their owners:
Vocalization, like barking or whining, is commonly mimicked when it comes to dog-on-dog interactions, specifically in a setting like a shelter, where one dog’s barking might trigger an entire room full of vocal canines, Hatfield says.
However, according to Lisa Stemcosky, a certified professional dog trainer and certified cat behavior consultant, vocalization in the form of howling might take place if a dog is encouraged by its owner through reinforcement.
“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,” she says.
Getting Wound Up
Pets, especially dogs, often feed off their owner’s energy. And in cases of excitement, things we traditionally associate with reinforcement — petting, treats — don’t necessarily apply, McPadden says. She outlines a situation in which you, the dog owner, gets a phone call with great news.
“As soon as you get off the phone, you begin jumping on the couch, and naturally, Fido comes to join you,” she says. “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 up on the couch, there is a good chance that Fido is going to join you in hopes of hearing that awesome squeal.”
Jumping on Furniture
Not all instances of jumping on furniture — in the case of both you and your pet — are meant to convey overwhelming enthusiasm, of course. Sometimes, you just want to flop, and here, you and your pet are once again similar.
“Dogs have an innate need to be close physically,” Hatfield says. “If you touch a dog, he’s almost always touching you, too, and there’s no better place to do this than curled up on the couch. Your dog knows this.”
Problems with this may arise if not everyone in the household is on the same page.
“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,” Stemcosky says. “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.”
Waking Up Early
For cats, one of the most common attention-seeking behaviors involves jumping on the bed to wake you up when it’s time, in his opinion, to eat or play.
Stemcosky says many owners reinforce this by giving the cat what he wants before going back to bed. They think they’ll be left alone, but they’re creating an environment in which the cat knows he can repeat this behavior the next day with similar results.
“The best way to remedy this is to ignore the behavior,” she says. “It’s frustrating for people to ride this, though, because it often escalates before it starts to get better.”
Stemcosky says the eventual end of behavior like this is called an extinction burst, and it will eventually arrive with vigilance, but it could take a while, depending on how strongly the behavior has been reinforced.
Playing Catch or Fetch
It makes sense that pets would learn this behavior from their owners, but the way it has been applied, as well as its importance in the dog-human relationship, is novel.
“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,” McPadden says. “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.”
This has begun playing out in shelters across the country as dogs with unknown histories are being taught to respond to humans’ cues. And, as McPadden notes, “the results are life-saving.”
John Gilpatrick is a freelance writer who thinks bunnies make the best pets.