Tonawanda News

March 18, 2013

CRITTER COMPANIONS: It's all a game of trust

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Searching “How to brush your baby’s teeth” on the internet will bring you to a video from a website called Expert Village. The video shows a baby struggling to get out of the highchair and screaming for most of the clip. 

The mother in the clip says this works really well in situations when the child is strapped down. That child does not have a lot of trust.

Typing “gorilla brushing teeth” in the search bar will show you a very different clip. The gorilla is not restrained and in fact can leave at any time. The trainer asks the gorilla to open his mouth and the gorilla shows his teeth and brings himself right up to the side of the enclosure so the trainer can give the proper dental procedures to ensure the health of the animal. Unlike the baby, this animal has a lot of trust in his keeper.

This past week I attended the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators for the third year in a row. Approximately 150 bird trainers from around the world meet in Tampa, Fla., to discuss the best training practices.

One of the most impactful presentations was from the current president on the topic of trust. Although the presentation was meant to be geared toward birds, the power of trust can be applied to all of our critter companions.

The presenter said that all of our relationships are like a trust account. Similar to a bank account, you can make deposits or withdrawals. Every interaction you have with your companion animal affects your account. 

Treats, petting, softly spoken words all aid to a higher trust account. Yelling, the withdrawal of things your pet favors and force will hurt your trust account.

There is no way a pet owner can be one 100 percent positive, but if you have a large trust account it will be okay if you have slip ups. Dropping something and making a loud noise that your pet dislikes or capturing your animal for a health procedure will take a withdraw from your trust account. Having a large trust account will allow your animal to forgive you quickly. If you have a small trust account, your animal will take a while to build up more trust.

If your dog runs off at the dog park and you call your dog and your dog comes back, some people will withhold treats. They might say that they don’t want to give the dog a treat because that will teach them to run off again. Consequences of an action only affect the immediate behavior. Withholding those treats is actually teaching the dog that the behavior of coming back is not good. Giving the dog a treat is communicating that coming over will end in something positive, like a food reward.

Another way to withdraw from the trust account is by lying. Let’s say your dog ran off and you call your dog back, by showing them a handful of treats. Your dog comes running back, with their tail wagging, and you give them one treat. The next time you show them a handful of treats, they will not trust you because they previously only received one of the treats. 

When we reward an animal for doing something, we are not really caring about the behavior right then and there. What we are doing is hopefully changing the behavior in the future. The animal does a behavior and you respond. Tomorrow when the animal has a chance to do that behavior again it will react based on how you responded the previous time.

Kenny Coogan has a B.S. in animal behavior. Please email your questions to, or search for "Critter Companions by Kenny Coogan" on Facebook.