Tonawanda News

July 7, 2013

CRITTER COMPANIONS: Have respect for animals

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Recently, my editor reminded me that I write an opinion column and that I should write some articles from the gut. So here is one: I respect animals. 

I hope that over the last year I have expressed that clearly. Whether giving you the most current positive-reinforcement training strategies or providing your critter companions choices in their daily lives through enrichment, I admire pets and all animals.

I have such a high regard for animals that I don’t eat them. That statement almost lost me a high school job at a substandard pet store. Somehow in the interview it came out that I was a vegetarian. The person interviewing me said, “I eat steak everyday and I still like animals as much as you.” I was applying for a reptile and fish keeper job at the store. Three weeks later they offered me a cashier position — I turned them down.

I remember in one instance as a child, a bunch of other children and I were standing around an artificial tidal pool — though where, I don’t remember. Inside the tank were small crustaceans like spider, shore, rock and hermit crabs and lobsters. There were also bivalves like oysters, clams and mussels. Maybe some sea urchins, sea snails and sea stars too. After the presentation the group was allowed to pick up or touch the animals. I went right in and starting picking up the animals to see their primitive features.

I saw eyes moving independently, little pinches moving mechanically up and down and mouth parts blowing bubbles. Some of the kids were not as courageous as me, so the instructor said something to reassure them. She said “They’re more scared of you, then you are of them.”

That did not make any sense to me when I was younger and it still doesn’t make much sense. If a small animal is scared of you, why is it okay to dominate them?

We then zoom out of my elementary micro-view of Western New York and see that on very popular cable channel so called “whisperers” are doing just that: dominating their pets.

The problem with “whispering” compared to positive reinforcement training is a lot like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton: it just isn’t going to stick. Behaviors can be coerced, like pushing a dog down to sit or pulling on a leash to avoid chasing after a skateboard. But much like Liz and Dick’s first three marriages, this union of cues and behaviors is temporary.

Punishment works. It works in real life and sadly plays out really well on television. Sometimes you can get instant reaction. The definition of punishment is to decrease behavior. Reinforcement increases behavior.

Many times punishment becomes habituated, meaning the animal does not respond to it as well strongly as it once did. Usually you have to increase the punisher to get the same behavior. If your dog is walking ahead of you, you could give it a light tug on the leash and the dog falls back in your pace. The next time or the fifth time, your light tug will likely not work. So you pull harder and harder, until the animal is wheezing because the collar is chocking them.

So called “whispers” advertise on this mantra on their website: “Your dog needs exercise, discipline, and affection, in that order.” They may say that the animal is messing with their mind when they misbehave. I respect animals’ enormously but I don’t think my cats know that I have a mind, let alone know how to mess with it.

Jacob Bronowski, a historian of science, mathematician, biologist, author and inventor once said, “Man masters nature, not by force but by understanding. This is why science has succeeded where magic has failed; because it looked for no spell to cast over nature.”

The notion of dominating pets and not providing unconditional affection is a poison being injected into our culture by TV whisperers. The good news is that animal training is science. There is proof and data out there. This confirmed science can be found at reliable sources online, in print or here next Sunday.

Kenny Coogan has a B.S. in animal behavior. Please email your questions to