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Every Interaction With Your Pet Is a Training Opportunity

Sometimes we accidentally teach dogs or cats to do things we don’t want.

Key points

  • Even if it’s not an official training session, dogs and cats are learning all the time.
  • People often accidentally reinforce their dog or cat with petting or food when the pet does something they don’t want.
  • Positive reinforcement and management are the best ways to deal with dogs jumping up and cats or dogs taking food from the kitchen counter.

We think of training as a specific activity that we do with our pet, with an allotted time and plan. But your dog or cat is learning all the time, even if you’re not intending to teach them anything.

This means that sometimes we teach them to do things we’d rather they didn’t. Here are a couple of examples.

Training your dog to jump

Suppose your dog jumps up on you when you come home. First of all, it’s important to say that if you like this behavior, it’s fine for it to continue; it’s entirely up to you. That said, you should still train your dog not to jump on other people, because maybe they don’t want muddy paw prints on their clothes, are nervous around dogs, are infirm, recently had surgery, etc. It can be very annoying to have someone else’s dog jump on you.

Mathieu Gervais/Pexels
Mathieu Gervais/Pexels

So suppose your dog jumps on you when you come home, and you’d rather they didn’t. But, because your dog is cute and trying to be friendly, perhaps you reach down and pet them while they are jumping and talk to them in a sweet voice. By doing so, you are reinforcing the behavior and it is likely to continue. Your dog jumps up because they want to be close to you and receive some affection, and you give it to them.

If you don’t want your dog to jump on you, there are several alternative behaviors you could train them to do, such as sitting and waiting to be petted or simply keeping all four paws on the floor. These are easy to train with positive reinforcement. Because your dog is expecting affection in this situation, this is a time when petting might work to reinforce the alternate behavior, i.e. wait to pet them until they are sitting (or have all four paws on the floor, whatever you decided you want them to do). But for best results, you will want to use treats as well because we know that food is very effective in training, much more so than petting (e.g. Fukuzawa and Hayashi 2013).

In addition to training the behavior you want, you should remember to stop reinforcing the jumping that you don’t want. Otherwise, it’s a bit confusing for your dog and the jumping will continue because after all, it’s getting reinforced. But don’t yell at them or punish them for jumping, as this is bad for your relationship with your dog and has risks to their welfare (Todd, 2020).

Training your dog or cat to raid the trash can

Another common way people accidentally train their dog or cat is when they teach them to raid a cupboard, the trash can, or the kitchen counter for food. If food is left out, it’s only natural that your pet is going to want to eat it. Then they have been handsomely rewarded—with a chicken breast or a piece of fish or something else tasty—for jumping on the counter or sticking their head in the cupboard.

The obvious solution is to always put the food away and out of reach of your pet, whether that means putting it in the fridge, somewhere high up, or in a cupboard that is dog- or cat-proofed.

You might prefer a solution in which the dog or cat is trained to not eat the food. But teaching your dog to “leave it” only works if you are there. The thing about pets eating food like this is that it often happens when you aren’t there. So the best solution is management—not leaving food where your pet can get it. Unfortunately, this requires discipline on the part of the humans in the household.

There are other situations in which arranging for your pet to work to get food is a great thing to do. That’s when we call it enrichment and the food is intended for them (see "2 Ways to Make a Cat Happier").

It’s also worth noting that although many people don’t realize it, cats can be trained (for more, see Todd 2022; Bradshaw and Ellis 2017). Cats are very skilled at finding that fillet of cod left in the kitchen and learn to look there for food in the future. In this case, something else might be at play too: Cats like to be high up. So if your cat is hanging out on your kitchen counter, try to create another high-up space in the kitchen where they are allowed to be, such as a cat condo positioned nearby.

Finally, if the counter-surfing is happening when you are cooking, you can teach your dog or cat to stay on a mat (or on the cat condo). Remember to use lots of little treats as positive reinforcement.

Don’t require behaviors all the time

Even though your pet is learning all the time, it doesn’t mean that you should require behaviors from them before letting them have something like food or affection. Although there was a time when such programs were popular—often called NILIF (nothing in life is free) or similar—they have fallen from favour. The reason is that we have a better understanding of how a good relationship develops between the dog or cat and their person and how important it is to meet a pet’s needs. As Kathy Sdao says in her wonderful book Plenty in Life Is Free, “Some good things in the dog’s life should always be free—love, air, water, safety, freedom from pain, terror, or temperature extremes.”

Always learning

Your dog or cat is always learning and ideally, so are you. As our knowledge of canine and feline science improves, there is always something new for pet guardians to learn. And you can learn from your own pet too. Pay attention to your interactions with your dog or cat. What do you think they are learning from you outside of official training sessions?


Todd, Z. (2020) Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Greystone Books.

Todd, Z. (2022) Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. Greystone Books.

Bradshaw, J. and Ellis, S. (2017) The Trainable Cat. Basic Books.

Sdao, K. (2012) Plenty in Life is Free: Reflections on Dogs, Training and Finding Grace. Dogwise Publishing.

Fukuzawa, M., & Hayashi, N. (2013). Comparison of 3 different reinforcements of learning in dogs (Canis familiaris) Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 8, 221-224 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2013.04.067

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