Finding That Teachable Moment

By Jennie K. Willis, PhD as printed in the Coloradoan in December of 2012

Good pet parents are prepared for when their companions make a mistake so we can make misbehavior into a teachable moment. Our pets have only a brief window of two seconds to connect their actions with the consequence. After that window has closed, the learning opportunity has vanished.  Here are some ideas for getting prepared:

  • Make a list of behaviors that you don’t enjoy about your pet. It can be anything from jumping up on you when you have an arm full of groceries to knocking pictures off the back of the piano at night.
  • Think through this list and try to think about when each behavior started. Sometimes it’s valuable to consider what changed in your pet’s life or routine at that time.
  • Prioritize your list. What behaviors change your life and your pet’s life the most?

Approaching the problem in a comprehensive way yields the best results. Think about each behavior from three angles.

  • Prevention. Often misbehaviors such as destruction and over-activity occur due to a lack of exercise and enrichment. If you can’t exercise your pet outside the home, do it inside. Set up food puzzle toys, encourage the kids to play hide and seek where your pet does the finding, or play recall games from room to room.
  • Limit access to the situation. Avoid the provoking stimulus until you are ready to “set-up” a teachable moment.
  • Practice. Plan to practice the situation to give your pet repeated exposure to the results of their behavior.
    • If your dog jumps on you when you open the garage door, practice when you aren’t holding something. Teach your dog that jumping isn’t the way to earn your attention.  Open the door without stepping through, and if your dog begins to jump, simply shut the door and count to 20. Open the door again, and repeat if your dog jumps again. There may be a series of mistakes before your dog starts to connect their lack of access to you with their jumping. Only come through the door if their feet are on the floor. Patience pays off, so don’t give up.
    • If your cat is knocking things off furniture, usually they are doing it because the reaction is so interesting. This may mean the object hitting the floor is interesting, or it may mean you jumping up and yelling is even more interesting. This is a situation where a little set up and environmental teaching may help more than a reaction from you.  Trouble shoot problem locations and set up sticky tape or a motion activated compressed air cans to make exploration in those areas less fun. At the same time, add new activities and enrichment for your cat that will fill the need they have to explore.

Bad behavior doesn’t equal a bad pet. We all make bad choices sometimes. The important thing is to focus on those moments to help your pet learn in a positive constructive way how to do better the next time.

Dr. Jennie Willis teaches classes in animal behavior at Colorado State University and provides consultation for owners about their pet’s problem behaviors.  For more information about consultation, seminars and classes please visit

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