Starting at the Beginning: the “A” in ABC

Dog trainers that work with behavior problems know that management is key to any successful behavior modification procedure. If we don’t first manage the environment to prevent the problem behavior, we can’t make much progress toward altering that behavior. Often we, as professionals, write management plans more often than we actually carry out any kind of modification plan. The reason for that is simple; management is easier on everyone than modification is. But sometimes management is done in such a way that produces more issues, and sometimes it is not sustainable. To solve these two issues, let’s look at what “management” really is; antecedent arrangement.

The ABCs 

A little background first. Behavior occurs in a loop, and that loop goes Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence. The consequence is what drives behavior to either continue or weaken, while the antecedent sets the scene for behavior to occur. The antecedent is the circumstance(s) that makes a behavior more likely. For example, if your dog jumps on guests that come over, we can put that into an ABC format. Antecedent=dog is loose in the house and you let a guest in through the front door. Behavior=dog jumps on guest. Consequence=guest pays attention to your dog. The next time that antecedent occurs your dog is likely to jump again because the consequence reinforced that behavior. Now, if you don’t like that behavior you could arrange the antecedent differently, by placing your dog behind a gate, on a leash, or on a heavily-reinforced station (mat, dog bed, etc.).  Now that jumping is less likely due to your antecedent arrangement (management) you can reinforce a replacement behavior (sitting quietly behind the gate, for instance, or stationing) and that replacement behavior will increase as it is reinforced.

The baby gate: a major part of smart antecedent arrangement in my house. 

Is Management a “Real” Solution?

If I use gates for the life of my dogs to help avoid problem behaviors, have I failed? If I use a Manners Minder to keep my non-working dog quiet and happy while I train my other dog, am I less of a trainer than the one whose dog simply waits her turn, no extra tools required? I’ll let you be the judge, but I’m happy to arrange antecedents if it helps my dogs engage in behaviors I prefer; much  happier, I’d argue, than I am when I fail to arrange antecedents properly.

Remote reward systems like this Manners Minder are helping trainers create better antecedent arrangements all the time. 

Getting Creative

The most skilled trainers I have worked with are excellent at creating clever antecedent arrangements. Successful treatment of many behavior problems relies heavily on this skill, and I’d argue better performance training does too. Here are a few examples of common issues in agility and obedience in which the “A” (antecedent) should be considered, not just the “C” (consequence):

  • Dog bites handler on course
  • Startline or contact behaviors are self-released
  • Dog misses the down signal in utility

An old school but common response is to apply a punishment contingency (that’s the C) to any of these behaviors; correct for biting with a collar grab/down stay/timeout/etc., correct the broken start or contact by leaving the ring, whap the dog over the head for missing the down signal. A better-informed but still incomplete response would be to set up a reinforcement strategy for each; deliver rewards off the body in training for a lack of biting, set up a more sustainable reward delivery strategy for both startlines and contacts (reward behind for the start, ahead for the contact, etc.), and build more “mass” (commonly referred to as “value” in dog training) for that drop signal by reinforcing it heavily in varying scenarios. A trainer that recognizes the importance of antecedents will go one bigger in all three scenarios. She will use the smart reinforcement strategies, and she will also identify what precursors trigger biting and reduce them. She will pick apart the inadvertent handler cues that are being given in the ring to the dog that can’t hold a heavily reinforced startline stay or stopped contact. She will examine whether ring stress or competing motivators could be the culprit for that missed down signal in utility.

Whatever the problem, a clever antecedent arrangement will certainly help. Whether you find a management solution (permanent antecedent arrangement; like my baby gates) that is sustainable, or you manipulate the circumstances that surround problems your dog demonstrates in sports, you’ll be a better trainer for it. Always manipulate the environment before manipulating the dog.