Celeste Patten on December 15th, 2018

She didn’t know it, but my mom grew up with a unicorn and maybe you did, too.  Sometimes unicorns look like Labs, or Border Collies or German Shepherds.  My mom’s unicorn was Princess, a Boxer cross.  According to legend she came in a cardboard box; as is the genesis story of many a Unicorn-Dog. I grew up hearing stories about Princess.  Like the time Grams worked in the administration offices of a university and walked out for lunch only to see Princess riding around

in the backseat of  a convertible loaded with college students. No one asked if they could take her – She belonged to everyone and to herself.  They just picked her up like a friend and dropped her off on campus when they came back and she took herself home.

To better understand the family legend of Princess I took my grama out for coffee.  When I told her who I wanted to talk about she suppressed a chuckle and smiled to herself and told me she was just thinking about her the other day. She went on to tell me several stories I had not yet heard and verified some others.

She recalled stories of princess waiting for whole afternoons outside a store when an aunt or uncle of mine went in one door and out another.  Of the dog being shown around the town grocery store to prove my grama wasn’t there and then catching a ride home with the shop owner who knew where she lived.

The Last Dog Syndrome

Dogs like Princess are wonderful but they can give people the false belief that this is the default setting for being a dog. Any dog who comes after runs the risk of falling short of the legend who came before. Clients will say to me “but our last dog…” Or “But when I was a kid our dog…”. I don’t for a second think these stories are untrue, but I do think they are Unicorns. Elusive and sometimes truly the stuff of lore.  I often see the new and wholly wonderful pup or dog being held up to the image of a mythical beast as wonderful as a Unicorn-dog.  It is really quite unfair. They don’t stand a chance of measuring up.

Magical creatures are magic: when you are with one, enjoy the time, especially if you are lucky enough to recognize it while its happening.  But don’t discount every other dog or person because they can’t meet such a standard.  There is beauty and magic in all of us.

Memories and Expectations

My personal unicorndog Diane was perfect, beautiful and delicate.  Everyone loved her, I could take her anywhere and let kids pet her. All the things we dream of as dog people.  She was a thing of beauty. When she died, people had trees planted in her name and cried as much as I did.  Jonny, in his fluffy majesty, is amazing and has taught me many things already but he will never be her.  He will always be a bit too big, a bit too clumsy; he is not as easy to take out in the world.  But he is great just as he is. I love him with eternal devotion and will not compare him to the sainted memory of Diane.



Celeste Patten on October 17th, 2018

In my day to day life I drive a Prius because it’s economical and efficient. Last week I got to drive a Lamborghini Huracan on a real racetrack. As I’m sure you can imagine, those two cars handle quite differently! Of course I immediately thought of the canine parallel. I mean, have you ever noticed how much car talk is borrowed by the dog world? We talk about dogs having a handler (the person holding the leash — not necessarily the dog’s owner) and I have often heard of super-fast agility dogs being referred to as  “souped up” like a race car, via breeding or through controversial training methods. When I was in dog training school, Jean Donaldson assigned a young Border Collie named Zipper to me as my last training dog. She told me Border Collies are like Ferraris; when they work, it’s a beautiful thing to see, but they are always in the shop. What she most likely meant was that Border Collies are fast and fun to handle, but they are also fragile and can require a lot of maintenance, just like a sports car.

Jonny, my poodle mix, is  sweet, sensitive and fragile in his own way, but he is no Ferrari. I have a friend with a sport-bred cattle dog, and other friends who have competitive agility dogs. Those dogs are fast and flashy as hell. Jonny is great, but he will never be like them and I would never ask him to be.   Much like my friends don’t want their dogs to be Jonny; they want the speed and sex appeal of their flashy sports car dogs. I am glad we all have the dogs we want and appreciate them for who they are.

What does all this mean for you, my Clever Owners? I suggest you learn to drive the car you have. Learn how to be your dog’s best handler and get the best out of them. Don’t try to make them be something they are not. The most troubling thing to watch is someone trying to make a sweet calm lab be a fast herding dog, or vice versa.

Driving the Lambo was fun, but I’m glad it’s not what I drive daily. I also love working with my fuzzy Poodle mix, but when I get another dog I might get something a little sportier. Time will tell.  I will have to be willing to commit to the work of having and maintaining a sports car dog.

Celeste Patten on March 23rd, 2018

Clever Owners, what if I told you that you could play all of your dog’s problems away?  Would it sound too good to be true? I thought so too, but now I am a converted true believer. Earlier this month, I went to see Dr. Amy cook of The Play Way to learn about therapeutic play for dogs.  Dr. Cook holds a PHD from the University of California at Berkeley, and spent her time in graduate school conducting groundbreaking research on the dog-human relationship and the importance of play. She is a pioneer for sure. You can read more about her and her work here at Play Way Dogs.  Dr. Cook is a hilarious presenter who you should all check out if you get the chance.  She is lighthearted and irreverent, but what more could you ask for in someone who basically makes her living teaching people how to get down on the floor and play with their dogs?

The matter is simple enough — play! But like everything simple, doing it with ease and grace is complicated, and of course Dr. Cook makes it look easy.

First off, Dr. Cook redefines play — because, of course, there are many kinds of play.  She is not talking about fetch or tug or anything like that. For the most part (like everything, there are exceptions) she takes away your toys and food.  This is true social silly play — play for the sake of play play. So get ready to laugh and roll around and remember how to have a good time, just you and your bestie on the floor, like when you were both young and shiny.

This is an example that Dr. Cook used in her presentation to show some awesome play.

Like with everything, there are some rules of engagement.  The above video is so great because it follows all those “rules”.  Here is the simple outline for keeping your play within the lines:

Invitations: You must have consent. You can only invite — never force. But don’t be put off if your dog looks at you like you’re being weird – you are being weird! So ask. If they say no, try again another time.  Relationships take time to build. And remember, your dog is living in an arranged marriage that you set up for them.

The 3 second rule: You may not touch your dog for more than three seconds. Why? See above. No seriously,  you need to keep asking if your dog still wants to be doing this.  So sure — pet, cuddle, and then take your hands off. If they move back into you, then game on. If they don’t, or they move away, tell them you still love them and you can play later.

Predator vs. Prey – make sure you and your dog each spend time being both.  Dogs and people are both social predators by nature. So let your dog ‘get you’ sometimes; don’t hog the predator time by always saying “gonna get you,”. Remember to roll over and let your dog get you – squeal too it helps sell it.

To learn more, take this class online:  Dealing with the Bogeyman 

Or read Dr. Cook’s blog about Play Way here in her own words. 

So, Clever Owners, since Connection is one of the 3 C’s of being a Clever Owner, get ready to reconnect with your dog through play! I am happy to facilitate play sessions for you and your dog, and then help use that play to rehab your rover!

Celeste Patten on February 19th, 2018

Wait… what?  Why would you do that?  Well, you wouldn’t, or would you?  Poison, like many English words, has multiple meanings and uses, especially when it comes to slang.  In the current dog training parlance, “to poison” something (usually a cue — check out the Poisoned cue by Dr. Rosales-Ruiz) means to inadvertently punish something you intend to be a good thing, or at least a neutral thing. If you do this enough you make the something not trustworthy, unpredictable.

This brings us to the nature of a punisher: a punishment –and for that matter, a reinforcer — is defined by its function.  The learner (dog, horse, cat) will either do less or more of a behavior depending on whether they find what happens after the behavior fun or terrible – FOR THEM.

So how does this apply to food?

Well, say for example you want to get your dog into the crate that they don’t like being in (aside: you need to train that separately).  You offer them your hand full of chicken. Your puppy comes over and takes it.  Then you pick them up and put them in the crate. Eating chicken was just followed by the crate (a punisher in this scenario).  You have poisoned chicken, and by proxy you have poisoned their trust in you and what you offer, and even your outstretched hand. Because sometimes its just the chicken and sometimes its chicken and the crate.

I recently worked with a dog who would dart in, cower and run away from a hand that held out food.  My only explanation is that she must have been baited with food too many times to trust the hand that feeds her.  This made me and her owner so sad.  Now, I don’t know for sure if my theory is right because I can’t ask the dog. But I can  say that an outstretched hand of food has been at some point punishing for her, because the behavior — running up, loose and happy, to eat food — has been diminished (definition of punishment), and the behavior of avoidance and fleeing has been increased (definition of a reinforcer).

I also have recently been working with a dog who recalls in, takes her food reinforcer, and then flees. Why? I can only say that, for her, staying to see what happens after the food is given, has been punished.

So what is one to do?
Don’t bait. Train.
Understand that your dog will tell you if they are being punished or reinforced.
Listen to your dog.

Celeste Patten on December 11th, 2017

I have a favorite essay that doesn’t get talked about much, but which I think is very timely as we enter the season of giving. “Creating a Culture of Abundance” is part of a collection titled On My Mind, Reflections on Animal Behavior and Learning published by the much-beloved Karen Pryor. The book was published in 2014, and is not well known.  The essay I am referring to is a short two-page essay in which Pryor tells us of her friend Lynn who is a social worker. Lynn had started a program with her client families, most of whom were at risk for child abuse. In the program, the families trained shelter dogs once a week.  Lynn kept a big jar of candy on the table in the training room.  It was, of course, intended for the people to use with each other.  While they worked through their dog training projects, they were encouraged by the staff to reinforce each other with candy. The staff would also walk around and reinforce behaviors. Lynn is quoted as saying, “That big bowl of candy on the table is obviously more than we need, far more than we are going to use. There is plenty. There is more than plenty. That bowl in the room creates a climate where it is alright to be generous.”

Pryor goes on to say that stinginess is the enemy of clicker training. This has always stuck with me. In our culture where we are working to save more and spend less, and people talk about downsizing and minimalism, I often have to work very hard to get my clients to be generous with their dogs.  So as we are in the season of giving, I challenge you to give more to your dog.  Find all the moments they are doing something right and tell them with a click and a cookie even if they just walk by something and don’t jump up or put their paws on the table. Don’t take that choice for granted; pay for it. Be freehanded and generous with the reinforcers.  Create a climate of abundance for your dogs.  This does not mean cow ears and bones every night, although I’m sure your dog would love that too.  I mean chop the hot dogs even smaller and give “twice” as many cookies.  Create the culture. Give three pieces of hot dog where you would have given just one.  You can hold back that last bite of meat on your plate and give it later that night for an awesome recall.  Share and share alike.  Pryor reminds us at the end of the essay that like most things in dog training, we must also move this personal growth into our real lives. So give abundantly! To yourselves and your friends. Maybe this year you spend half as much on each gift and give twice as many.  Or give the gift of time with someone — a long, generous afternoon coffee with someone you care about. They will feel loved, and you will have spent the same amount of money on that cup of coffee as if it was a five-minute coffee with them. And don’t forget to be generous with yourself!  Let yourself take a nap instead of stressing about the holidays.  Create a culture of abundance and generosity with your dog, your friends, and yourself.

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Celeste Patten on November 10th, 2017

This week I saw two clients whose dogs have fairly serious behavior issues.  One had even bitten a human.  It’s a big deal.  These clients were overwhelmed and stressed, not only by their own everyday lives like all of us are, but now by the added pressure of their dog’s behavior issues.  It brought to mind one of the C’s of being a Clever Owner:  Care.  Let’s talk about care or caring.  The verb care means “to look after and provide for the needs of.”  As a human who owns a dog, you are responsible for the needs of yourself and your dog’s self. Why do we need to talk about self-care in a dog training blog? Well, mental health goes hand in hand with behavioral health.  And a large part of mental health is self-care. Meeting the needs of the self…. And your dog has self-care needs as well.  Often the root of  behavioral issues are unmet self-care needs of the dog.

First put on your own mask.

Self-help books are full of analogies for this idea. We’ll use the airplane oxygen mask analogy.  Part of my training plan for clients can be to get them to spend some time on their own self-care. You can’t possibly give 100% to your dog’s behavior needs if you are gasping for air. So put on your own oxygen mask first, just like they tell you to do on the plane.  Make a list of some things you can do for your self to feel cared for and ready to give to another – your dog.  Really.  Write it down. And if you don’t know what to write,  perhaps that in itself is a wake up call to get to know your self more.  Do you need quiet time to meditate and clear your head?  Perhaps you like to wander through a museum by yourself, or maybe you like to create and make art of your own.  I have a friend who puts on her headphones and listens to positive affirmations. Whatever it is, do it.  Your dog needs you to come fully prepared to be able to help them deal with their demons.

Now sign your dog up for a yoga retreat…. Wait….

Dogs need self-care but for them it obviously looks a little different.  Most importantly you have to ask them what to put on their list. It is, after all, their self we are tasked with the care of.  They might not sign themselves up for a yoga retreat or even a walk with you.  In fact, that might be what the stressful training session is about if your dog struggles with dog reactivity!  But they do often like some space to sniff on their own terms.  Maybe your dog loves to get down on a raw bone.  Jonny is in LOVE with cow ears.  I don’t love them but I know for a fact he does.  He literally flips for them.  It’s a blast to watch him with one.  He tosses it in the air and then pounces — it’s A-dorable.  He enjoys his walks, etc., but LOVES a cow ear.  He often gets them after a boarding dog leaves.  Hosting house guests is hard work for him and for his troubles he gets a cow ear night as a thank you for being a good host dog and sharing his stuff/beds/mom.  He also likes walks with dog friends, but he likes some dogs better than others.  So not every walk with another dog counts as a de-stressor.  I have a client dog he is friends with and rides in the car and walks with well. But it is not a self care moment by any means.  It is work.  That dog asks a lot of him.  Get to know your dog.  What would he do if he could for his/her self care?  Kongs, walks, snuffles, walks with a friend, dog walks with a special human friend?

Pay attention to how often you ask your dog to do things for you and how often you do things for them.  Remember to pay them back; being your dog is hard work!

A dog list might include: food toys, Snuffle mat time, bones, cow ears, Lap of Luxury, water treadmill, T touch, massage, nosework class, decompression walks (term coined by Sarah Stremming), chiropractic care, diet, friend time, acupuncture.

Your list might include: Therapy – to truly dig into the Self, massage, chiropractics, floating (it is amazing!), yoga, acupuncture, mani-pedi, diet – eating right and meal prep counts as meeting your own needs — learning to manage your time well, exercise, friend time, or alone time.

Celeste Patten on September 19th, 2017

While walking out of my yoga class one day, I struck up a conversation with the instructor about a particular asana, frustrated that I wasn’t able to reach a certain place in the pose.  He commiserated with me and told me he wasn’t able to either ten years ago.  The pep talk he gave me sounded a lot like the pep talk I give my students when they are frustrated with something they are not able to do as trainers.  Neither could I, I tell them, when I started.  Dog training, yoga, playing the piano — learning new skills as an adult is hard.

It’s a lot to learn to watch your dog, mark the right thing, feed the right way, hold the leash, and keep it loose.  And of course, do this all while walking.  It’s a skill set all its own. We call it dog trainer mechanics.  You get better with practice is always my answer.  Keep training.  Keep practicing.  I have been doing yoga consistently for a year now.  I can do things now that I would have laughed at last year, but I want to cry over what I still have yet to master.  Ten years.  Thousands of hours.  Whatever buzz phrase you use, the implication is it just takes time to get good at a new skill.

My yoga instructor was very encouraging, but he can’t do the work for me.  I still have to keep showing up.  I try to be encouraging to my students but, alas, I can’t do your work for you.  You still have to keep showing up for yourself and for your dog.

I have been training dogs for over a decade now. I am not the trainer I was in the beginning. I would not give the same advice today as I did to those early clients (sorry guys). I hope I feel the same way about today’s clients ten years from now (sorry guys).  I keep learning and so do you.  I promise that if you keep training your dog and keep taking classes from me, from the other great trainers in our area, or online, and keep reading books, you will not be the trainer you are today ten years from now — hell, even a year from now.

You also can’t rush the learning process.  That just makes it worse.  If I push too hard in yoga to get to a place my body isn’t ready for, I will injure myself.  If you push your dog or yourself into training places you are not ready for, you will injure your relationship and possibly your dog (this is seriously true for you with agility aspirations).

Find a good teacher/trainer/coach and then just keep practicing.  Show up to class, take weekend seminars.  Read the books and blogs we tell you about, and listen to the podcasts we tell you to listen to. But most importantly, have patience with the process.  You don’t get to set the pace, but you can keep returning to the game.  Every week/day for years, and you and your dog will get somewhere, together.  And the next dog will be a whole new ballgame.  You will not make the same mistakes, but you will make new ones.  And the learning will continue.


Celeste Patten on July 24th, 2017

C is for Consequence.

In my previous two blog entries, we talked about antecedents, and then behavior.  Now it’s time to discuss the C in ABC — consequences.  I might be expected to get deep into the Four Quadrants of learning theory, various reinforcement schedules, and heated warnings against the use of punishers. But let’s start off with a quote from Dr. Susan Friedman’s paper, which we have been using for the series: “Consequences are the engine that drives the future strength of operant behavior — the very purpose of behaving.”

Let’s think about that.  The consequences of today drive the behavior choice of the future.  Animal trainers are a lot like gamblers — playing the odds, forever trying to tip the scale of another animal’s future choices in the direction we would prefer. With all this meddling in the brains and behavior choices of other sentient beings, comes the responsibility to use the least invasive approach — one that considers the subject’s experience first.  One that asks the following questions:  How will the application of the consequence I am using affect our future relationship and this puppy’s future world views?  Will this animal want to work with me again?  Will they feel free to explore their world and test things and be bold or scared in my presence?  Or will they be shut down and fearful when I ask them to do something, or hesitant to offer a new behavior?  Will they feel safe or less safe in their own world for my intervention?

About those pesky quadrants.  I think what trips people up the most is the “insider lingo.”  Every technical field has its jargon, and behaviorists are no different. Words are used differently than in lay speak.  For example:

  • Positive means to add (to give)
  • Negative means to subtract (to take away)
  • Punishments drive behavior down in frequency
  • Reinforcements drive behavior up in frequency

The key to it all is the understanding that the subject horse, cat, dog, or child decides how it all plays out. I am not going to go on a rant about punishers and how no one should ever use them.  The truth is they are one of the four quadrants because they exist.  They are a fact.  You can’t live a life free of punishers, and you will sure as hell drive yourself nuts trying to craft a world for your puppy that is free of them. I am also not going to try and sell you on why reinforcement works.  It just does.  Again, it is a quadrant because it is real. What I want to ask you, again, is what kind of relationship do you want to have with your dog?

For more on quadrants check out these links:
Why Positive Reinforcement ALWAYS Works by Sarah Stremming of The Cognitive Canine

This article on Operant Conditioning 

I know Jonny will experience punishers. I have seen it happen.  Sometimes I have unknowingly been involved. The idea I am asking us to wrestle with is this:  When you intervene and set up a training session, or place your dog in a situation,  what are you using as your intentional consequence?  The intention is the point.  If you knowingly deploy punishers, you will change behavior for sure — no behaviorist worth their salt would tell you otherwise. You will, however, also have a lasting effect on the psyche of that being – dog, parrot, cat, or donkey.  And if that punisher comes from you, then you have also had a lasting effect on their feelings about you.

I also know that Jonny has experienced the joy of winning, of solving a problem, and of managing for himself his own emotional inner world.  I have witnessed this and have set him up for it. Those moments where I have set him up for success and he looks at me with bright eyes and a self satisfied smile, I know – we’re good.  We are in tune, we are winning together.  His joy is my joy.  As his chaperone through this life and the intentional crafter of his experiences, I feel it is my responsibility to give him as many of these experiences as he can fit into his short trip on this rock with me.

So let’s dive into our three running examples.  I have listed all the types of consequences.  For me several of these options are off the table from the start.  You however will have to engage in your own personal journey to decide how you want to proceed.

A (Antecedent): Provide ample legal chewing options. Pick up off the floor things you don’t want chewed.
B (Behavior): Chewing — it’s a natural thing.
C (Consequences) – Possible options:
Punish: Yell at or some other intervention that is designed to scare a pup for chewing.
Prevent: Make sure all illegal items are not available. Restrict access to parts of the house that are too much for puppy to handle.
Redirect: Use a cheerful interrupter to stop the inappropriate chewing and send the pup to a legal outlet.
Reinforce: Toss a cookie or talk sweetly to a puppy who is chewing the right items.

Door greeting behavior:
A (Antecedent): The sound of the car in the driveway, the doorbell.  We talked about taking those out and creating a CER to those specific Antecedents (hear car: food) (hear doorbell: chicken).
B (Behavior): Jumping, etc.  Whatever the dog is currently doing or you want them to do.
C (Consequences) – Possible options:
Punish: Insert all old-school methods for anti-jump training; kneeing a dog in the chest, etc.
Prevent: Holding the dog back on a leash or behind a baby gate while visitors come in.
Redirect: Playing toy toss or giving puzzle toys to otherwise keep dog busy.
Reinforce: Mark and treat for four on the floor.  Train a hand target to strangers.

Target training:
A (Antecedent): You present your hand.
B (Behavior): Dog touches or does not touch the hand.
C (Consequence) – Possible options:
Punish: If they don’t touch the hand, a less than savvy trainer might want to give an Uh UH.
Prevent:  Not applicable.
Redirect:  Not applicable.
Reinforce: Mark and reinforce the hand target.

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Celeste Patten on June 13th, 2017

B is for Behavior

Okay!  So in my last blog, we talked about antecedents.  Now it’s time to discuss the B in ABC — behavior. In the article referenced throughout this series, Dr. Susan Friedman says the following: “Behavior is defined as what an animal does in certain conditions, which can be measured. Hypothetical, psychological constructs (e.g., intelligence, dominance, motivation) and vague, diagnostic labels (aggression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder) are not behaviors — they are concepts and concepts cannot cause behavior.”

Behavior is what the animal is doing.  Observable and quantifiable.  Behavior is information.  It will help you adjust your training plan, or show you where you need to create one. You have to identify the behavior so you can see if it changes after you start the training plan or other behavioral intervention. Behavior is not moral, it is not perpetrated against you as the trainer, it is not what you think the dog is thinking, or why you think it’s doing the behavior (motivation).  It is simply what the dog is doing.

Let’s look at the first of our three training scenarios, the hand target. The behavior is dog puts nose on hand when hand is presented. That’s it. They do or don’t do this thing.  It is seeable and measurable.  If you change your expectations, like adding more distance to get to the target, then however far the distance the dog has to move to the hand is now a part of the behavior and it is also quantifiable. Say you want your dog to jump up to the target; then the behavior is dog puts nose on hand when hand is presented above the nose.  You can add layers of difficulty to the behavior, but the behavior is always measurable and seeable. If you present your target and the dog does not touch their nose to it, then it was a missed trial.  Your job as a trainer is to make note of this and possibly make adjustments to your training plan — not to get mad at your dog because he “should” know it.

Our second scenario is chewing.  This lack of labels becomes even more apparent when we look at a behavior like chewing.  Your dog is not morally corrupt or out to get you if he chews your $700 cell phone.  He probably did it for a variety of reasons.  But the motivation is not what we are talking about;  the behavior in question is chewing.  It’s also chewing when he goes to town on a marrow bone. To a dog chewing is chewing.  Both the cell phone and the marrow bone are just objects that he has chewed.  You will need to look at antecedents and consequences to resolve this problem, but getting mad about the chewing is not the thing to do.  It is, after all, at least with respect to your cell phone, just a misapplication of a normal dog behavior.

In our third running example, we are looking at door greeting behavior.  Most of my clients say, “He jumps all over people!” or “He barks at guests.”  These are accurate statements, but I often hear the anger and frustration in their voices.  We must remember that, again,  jumping and barking are normal dog behaviors and our embarrassment or frustration at the situation should not be taken out on the dog who is just doing what comes naturally.  Your dog is not trying to upset you or embarrass you.  As a trainer, you must identify what behavior you want less of and what behavior you want more of and then tip the scales in the favor of the ones you want more of.  If you get stressed and embarrassed about what your dog is doing, take a series of deep breaths and remember this: all behavior can be modified. The other day I was listening to a podcast by Hannah Branigan and she said that when she is frustrated by her dog’s choices, she reminds herself that “this is just behavior and all behavior can be modified.”

The real take-home of this “B is for behavior” blog is that we need to stop placing our own morals and judgments on what our dogs are doing.  Behavior is just information.  I chewed your cell phone… maybe I needed to chew and it was what was available, or I was stressed and it smelled like you (antecedent issues). Maybe I am jumping on people because I am height seeking for comfort (internal antecedent issue).  Maybe I am jumping because I don’t know what else to do (consequence issue).

Whatever the A and C might have to do with it, the B is neutral — it is just information. Use the information your dog is giving you to make a training plan or to change the environment in a way that tips the scales in the direction of choices you would rather he or she make.

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Celeste Patten on May 8th, 2017

This is the second in a series I have been doing on the ABC’s of behavior and training. Click HERE for a link to catch yourself up on the first bog.  By the end of the series, we will have gotten to the heart of the matter: consequences.  However, we will start at the beginning with antecedents.  In the same 2009 article I referenced in the first blog of this series, Dr. Susan Friedman said the following:  “Antecedents are the signposts that signal the behavior-consequence.”  I often see clients focusing on antecedents instead of consequences, so I suppose it is a good thing that it comes first in the series.

The antecedent people are most familiar with is the one taught in classes — a verbal or hand  “cue.”  This is sometimes still called a “command.”  I say “cue” — not “command.”  The use of  command comes from the military history of dog training and holds an implied threat – do it or else.  A cue is a stage direction:  now is when you should do that particular thing, i.e. sit or speak or lay down.  It also rings more true to the real meaning of the antecedent: the thing that comes before, or as Friedman said, a sign.

Dr. Susan Friedman also has something called a “Hierarchy of Behavior Change Procedures” (see illustration).  It is designed to help trainers make choices about behavior modification plans, and aids trainers in the self imposed “first do not harm” philosophy.  As you can see from the illustration, “Exit One” is to look into any physical wellness and health issues the pet may be having that would prevent otherwise open learning, or even the physical ability to perform the task.  “Exit Two” is “Antecedent Arrangements,” so if your dog is of sound mental and physical health, the next step is to look into antecedent arrangement or other antecedent issues. A few changes at this “Exit” and you may not even need a huge training plan. Notice this comes before any talk of reinforcement types or schedules.

While it may be the antecedent people are most familiar with, a verbal or hand cue to do something is not the only antecedent to talk about.  There are other ways behavior gets prompted.  We have three examples running through this series, let’s look at some environmental antecedents in those examples.

Chewing is a puppy behavior that can drive people batty.  So if chewing is the behavior, what is the antecedent?  Well, one could make a case that being a puppy is the distant antecedent for chewing.  So if the very fact of existing as a puppy is the antecedent for chewing, then how you can arrange the immediate environmental antecedents to set the pup up for success is the question.  Have plenty of legal chewing outlets available — chew toys of all varieties — AND pick up things you don’t want chewed.  Puppies make you a good housekeeper!  So pick up your shoes and put down a chew toy.  Exit one. You have set the stage for the pup’s success.

In our other example of teaching the discrete behavior of a hand target, the behavior is dog nose to your hand.  The elicitor (antecedent) of this behavior is the presentation of your extended hand. When you extend your hand the first time, you can try to enhance its general appeal by rubbing a treat on it, and you can place your hand close to their nose, thus arranging things and setting a scene in which nose to hand is highly likely. I was recently working with a young shepherd on hand targeting.  He was not sure what I wanted and began offering other behaviors.  So I realized that he needed the whole picture to look different.  I tossed a treat away from us on the floor.  He ran and got it, turned and ran right back, and just as he was about to run into me, I offered my hand.  He, of course, pressed his nose right into it.  Presto, mark and toss treat.  Within a few clicks, I was standing and offering my hand like before.  I just needed to rearrange my antecedent  presentation — that’s all.

In our more complex greeting of guests in the home, there are multiple behaviors one might be looking at, but to start at the very beginning, the origin antecedent, as it were, is likely the doorbell or knock — or even the sound of the car in the driveway. You have to ask your dog in order to know for sure, so pay attention to when the behavior actually starts and ask what happened right before,  because that is the predictive antecedent.  If it is in fact the doorbell, you have a trainer’s choice to make. You can work on changing the response to the cue of the doorbell by counter conditioning it, or you can put a note over your doorbell that tells people to text or call to announce their arrival, thus allowing you to work on your door behavior without the very charged beginning cue of the actual doorbell.  This also allows you to work on your retraining of the doorbell separately, without rehearsal of the behavior you don’t want to see anymore.

So until next time, see how much change you can affect in your dog’s behavior by changing some antecedents. Work on setting the stage with the correct stage directions in place.

Coming next month…. B is for Behavior.

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