Tonawanda News

May 5, 2013

CRITTER COMPANIONS: Teach your pets to love the environment

By Kenny Coogan
The Tonawanda News

— Earth Day 2013 was a few weeks ago, but every day should be treated as such. 

The United States and 100 other countries have been celebrating the earth and a promise to protect it for a little over 40 years. Reduce, reuse, recycle has been the motto and with the alliteration it is easy to remember. Luckily it is also easy to follow.

Everyone should be recycling. It is easy. Just think of it like throwing away garbage, but in a separate can. Most towns even provide a recycling bin. So there is no excuse, though I do know that I am preaching to the choir, since all Critter Companions readers are environmentally friendly. If, however, you find an acquaintance or friend that isn’t behind recycling there is a solution: Show them. Show them how easy it is; even an animal can do it.

William Arthur Ward, writer of the Pertinent Proverbs column, once said, “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”

Our plan will be to not just tell our friends how to recycle but demonstrate how simple it is by having our pets inspire them.

You will need a receptacle, something to put in the receptacle, treats and a pet. The most motivating item for the humans watching this behavior would be an actual recycling article like a plastic bottle, can or newspaper. The bin could be the real recycling bin you use, your pet’s toy box or a cardboard pizza box — it doesn’t matter.

I trained a green wing macaw to do this behavior in one 24-hour period. Pebbles is a very quick learner and your pet can be too. To start with I showed him a plastic soda bottle. He approached it and took it with his beak. I waited for him to drop it and then gave him a small piece of nut, one of his favorite treats. After this I introduced the bin. I gave him the bottle again and right before he dropped it I placed the bin under the bottle about eighteen inches so that it would catch the bottle. I repeated this step for five sessions. Each time he would drop it I would make sure it would go in the bin and would reward Pebbles with a piece of peanut.

For the next phase, I placed the bin a little to the right or left of the bottle. Many of the times the bottle would hit the edge of the bin and fall in. On those instances, the bird would get a treat. On the times it fell to the ground, nothing. By the fifteenth repetition I saw that he was leaning towards the bin to ensure the bottle – bin connection. 

Each session lasted around three to five minutes and within that time I was handing him the bottle five to ten times. Then I would take a break for an hour or two and then go back to where we left off. Each session ended with Pebbles getting the bottle in the bin, with a treat following the behavior. If he had missed putting the bottle in the bin a few times, I would make the bin closer to increase the chance of him being successful.

By the next morning I was able to present the bottle anywhere on the play stand. Pebbles would come over and take the bottle and then climb around to get to the recycling bin.

To train a dog, cat or small mammal I would go about it in the same way. If your dog, for example, isn’t interested in retrieving an item, smearing a little peanut butter or wet dog food on it might entice them. If you have the opposite problem, with them not wanting to let go, showing the treat before the behavior is completed will often do the trick.

Making it very easy in the beginning and gradually raising the bar will make this behavior fun and manageable. Having your pet show off their new trained behavior throughout the year will not only show off your training skills, but also you and your critter companions’ love for the environment.

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