Tonawanda News

June 30, 2014

CRITTER COMPANIONS: Bringing home work

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — In six days from now, it will be officially summer! In seven days from now, it will be Northtown Subaru Dog Days of Kenmore, celebrating dogs and their people. This year’s event is especially exciting for me because I was asked to be a guest judge for their dog-owner look-a-like, coolest trick and best dog costume contests. I hope to see many of you there from noon to 4 p.m. June 22. Please stop by and say hi.

Speaking of summer and dogs, every year when the summer comes around, I think about internships. Dozens of NCCC animal management students, as well as many other students from other colleges and universities, are being proactive by getting their hands dirty in the animal field. Having a foot in the door, even if it is doing free labor, is a great move into procuring a vocational job such as animal trainer or zookeeper.

Many years ago, I met Kayla Bergman when she was an intern at the Aquarium of Niagara in late summer, early fall 2006. She was working with the California sea lions and harbor seals. Later in winter 2007, she was hired to teach school groups about marine life. She graduated from Buffalo State College and has been working as a marine mammal keeper at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island, Brooklyn, for about four years. There, she works with a variety of birds, fish and marine mammals, including walruses.

I know that I bring my skill set of animal training home with me every day, and I was curious to find out if others did the same.

In six-plus years in the field of marine mammal care, Kayla has had the opportunity to train a wide variety of behaviors — including blood collection, radiographs, ultrasound, oral and eye care, fast swims and jumps out of the water — by reinforcing small approximations.

Although her German shepherd, Abby, and Corgi-Jack Russell mix, Steve, are not marine mammals, she said that having a better understanding of animal behavior and how to use positive reinforcement has helped her out immensely.

“Abby used to become very nervous every time I left the house,” Kayla said. Abby had separation anxiety.

Abby would pick up on cues that Kayla was getting ready to leave, even beyond getting her keys and putting her coat on. If Kayla were to start putting make-up on in front of the mirror, or even put perfume on, it would upset her.

“She would begin to pace around the house frantically and when I would leave she would try to bolt and leave with me,” Kayla said. “When she wasn’t able to go with me, she then took it out on my apartment and belongings. One of the most memorable destruction ‘projects’ she had was ripping apart an entire phone book.”

Kayla realized that separation anxiety is a behavior, and she could train it like it is another behavior. She started shaping a calm behavior using small approximations.

“I might have felt silly or even looked silly at times to my roommates. I started off with things I knew cued Abby into my leaving,” she said. In addition to walking around the house holding car keys, she would also spray herself with perfume or stand in front of the mirror.

Once Abby was calm, she would walk out the door just for a few seconds initially and then up to five minutes at a time.

“As she became more comfortable with me near the door I would stay outside and wait longer before I came back in,” Kayla said. “I would peek through the window and re-enter when she was calm and not frantically looking for me.”

Now eight years later, Kayla says Abby will still peer her head out of the room when Kayla is leaving but she doesn’t get up and goes to her bed and lies down.

Kayla said the things to remember are no cuddly goodbyes; give the animal a task or a toy when you leave, and don’t throw a welcome-home party.

She said that by coddling them before you leave, it will most likely lead to more anxiety.

Giving them a feeder toy as you leave can serve two purposes.

“It also not only reinforces me leaving but keeps her busy for about the first 10 minutes when I am gone,” she said. “It is said that the first 10 minutes are the most stressful for your animal.”

Kayla has found that by calmly walking into your home, getting settled and then greeting your pet is the best protocol for separation anxiety.

Who knew the training principles for walruses, sea lions and dogs were so similar?

I did and I bet Critter Companion readers did too. See you next week at Mang Park.

Kenny Coogan has a B.S. in animal behavior and is a certified professional bird trainer through the International Avian Trainers Certification Board. Please email your questions to, or search for “Critter Companions by Kenny Coogan” on Facebook.