Tonawanda News

January 16, 2014

Critter Companions: Behavioral Momentum

By Kenny Coogan
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Sometimes we just need things to get started in order for them to come to fruition.  Like a single snowflake hitting the ground and rolling into a giant snowball, behaviors, both human and animal, need a momentum behind them. If you have never exercised in your life and all of a sudden for your New Year’s resolution you had planned on exercising an hour a day, you are most likely to fail. You may be able to do the task for the first week or so, but you will quickly grow tired, and maybe even give up.

What would have been more successful would have been a resolution of being active or exercising for five minutes a day for the first week and incrementally adding time or actives as the year progresses.  You may look at five minutes a day and think it isn’t worth the energy to invest into something so minute but to someone that has never worked out before, moving a little bit a day is a big change. The end goal could remain the same, moving an hour a day. With starting the smaller units that are reachable and end in contentment the probability of finishing the goal becomes more achievable. 

When training animals new behaviors confusion can occur. If I am training a dog to turn in a circle and they are more than half way into knowing the behavior, but get confused, I use to give them a time out. Now I have a better alternative.

When I say they know more than half the behavior what I mean is I do not have to show them food to follow my point. I can give the animal a cue (request) and they kind of move in the direction I want (turning around) but not completely, or the turnaround is a not a pretty circle. What I use to do was to not give the dog a treat for an incomplete behavior and I may have even walked away from the situation or ignored the dog for a few seconds. What I thought I was doing was giving the dog a time out. It works for humans so why not our critter companions. When humans do something erroneous we sometimes get a time out, unpaid leave or become grounded.

The problem with giving a pet a time out is that they are left not knowing what to do. They know that sloppy turns get them no treats and attention from their favorable caregiver is also removed. Next time, after a time out, they may pay closer attention to us, to figure out how to give those desired treats. But, they also may not. They could give get frustrated and give up – much like a person getting frustrated that they can’t reach their daily goal of exercising an hour a day.

What I have found that is much more beneficial then giving an animal during a training session a time out, is to quickly ask for something easy, and build from there. If they can’t give a perfect turn around (or any other complex behavior) ask for something that is more solid.

If barking on cue is a usually an easy behavior, ask for that and reward them. Asking for a simple wave, sit or stay behavior will start that behavioral momentum snowball. Next ask them for another simple behavior. Each behavior you ask for builds confidence. You are communicating to your pet that paying close attention to yourself is rewarding. You eliminate the guessing. After a few easy behaviors back up the more complex behavior so it is reachable for your pet. If the animal rarely turns in a circle without extra effort on your part, give them the extra body signals so they can reach the perfect turnaround and pay them heavily once they do so. Soon you will be building speed with complex behaviors, all based on a little bit of momentum.

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.