What’s an Antecedent Arrangement?

One of the classifications in Dr. Susan Friedman’s Humane Hierarchy that is pretty unfamiliar to most of us dog trainers is called “Antecedent Arrangements.” And look, it is on the more desirable end of the hierarchy! There’s no speed bump, caution sign, or stop sight. There’s an inviting little arrow. Worth looking into, don’t you think?

The Humane Hierarchy
The Humane Hierarchy

We are accustomed to manipulating consequences when trying to effect behavioral change, but that’s not the only thing we can do. We can make changes to the antecedents, the things that set the stage for behaviors. Antecedent arrangement is on the desirable end of the Humane Hierarchy because it is less intrusive. You are not actually trying to change the animal’s behavior via reinforcement, punishment, or extinction. You are manipulating the environment to enhance the likelihood of the behavior you want.

How do you do this? The three types of antecedents are cues, setting events, and motivating operations.

  • Cues: You can remove something that serves as a discriminative stimulus for a behavior that you don’t want, or don’t want right then and there. Or you can add something that will better signal the behavior you do want.
  • Setting events: You can make the behavior you want easier by changes in the environment, and make the undesired behavior more difficult.
  • Motivating operations: You can do something that affects the animal’s motivation, either to perform the behavior you want more, and/or to do the behavior you don’t want less.

I have an example of antecedent arrangement in my second post about the Humane Hierarchy.  But another one fell in my lap lately, so I thought I would share it.

The Dread Back Door

Undesirable door behavior
Undesirable door behavior

Since Clara became an adolescent, then a young adult, I have struggled with back door behavior with my three dogs. Actually, since before then, since Summer is reactive and sometimes can’t respond well when she’s worried about what might be down in the yard.

My goal has always been for Clara and Summer to lie down in assigned places close to the back door. Zani can sit or lie down wherever she wants, because she already has nice door manners,  isn’t pushy, and had no agenda other then earning a treat if one is available. Summer needs to be back from the door to help her keep calm, and Clara is back from the door to keep her from bashing everybody else. Theoretically.

This is a generalization of a known behavior. I teach my dogs to get on mats and stay there as a stationing behavior, starting the day they come to me, in all sorts of situations. All around the house I use soft bath mats with rubber backing as dog stations, and they are like magnets to my dogs since they have been reinforced so highly for getting on them, lying down, and relaxing. But I was not able to use them to mark the places I had designated for Summer and Clara at the back door. This was because the den was the one room in the house in which Clara had free range as a youngster, and she would chew them up if not completely supervised. So I bought a couple of rubber non-skid bath inserts, like you put in the bottom of your tub or shower. They made decent station markers but were not attractive for her to chew.

I worked for a long time to get Clara to stay on her mat at the door. It was an “expensive” behavior for her, as Sue Ailsby calls it. There was just too much fun to be had dashing towards the door and knocking the other dogs aside like bowling pins. So it took a high level treat at first and some very consistent practice to get a nice wait on a mat. By the way, using going out of the door as the reinforcer didn’t work as an initial training strategy. Much too exciting. I needed to build the behavior up using high value treats. And since we went out the door many times a day, sometimes with very little preparation, Clara did get some chances to practice the undesirable things. I.e., I couldn’t always have great stuff and I had a hard time being consistent.

Summer trying to make eye contact at the back door
An old photo of Summer trying to make eye contact at the back door when her whole body and mind are already outside

Finally I did some intensive work  over a couple of weeks and got some pretty consistent behavior. Once I got Clara’s behavior in shape, I started working on Summer. That was just as hard, in a different way, because I was working against some emotional patterning. Summer is anxious and predatory, and easily gets worked up into quite a state, anticipating what kind of animal might be in the back yard, especially at night.

So I finally got the general idea across to both of them (along with perfect little Zani), but the reliability of the behavior was not where I wanted it. My walking toward the back door was the main cue, but we were a long way from three dogs slamming into their places. I was still putting up with charging ahead from Clara every once in a while and glassy eyed standing around from Summer more often than that.

Then I had a bright idea. I got our door behavior very close to 100% without a struggle. The short video shows the solution. With one change, I got an improved  cue and setting. Note that in this example, as in much of life, there is not just one learning process happening. The change in antecedent worked in tandem with the positive reinforcement (and differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior) that had already been going on. But it sure gave it a huge boost!

Link to a script of the movie for those who can’t view it.

And that’s the power of antecedent arrangement.

I bet some of you out there have some good examples. How about sharing?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2014

26 thoughts on “What’s an Antecedent Arrangement?

  1. Oh, I LOVE it! This video is gold, and not just because you taught us about antecedent arrangement (BTW, what a great phrase for, in this case, ‘Change out the mat’), but also because you showed owners that even great trainers find challenges in working with their dogs–this all looks so ‘normal’. Sometimes it’s hard to watch proofed Border Collies and make a connection with one’s own situation. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Ingrid! That makes me feel good since it is one of the reasons I started the blog. I figured people might like to see the mess-ups as well as the solutions, from someone who is not a professional and learning as I go.

  2. I like this method. However, I have 10 dogs that all rush the door when I let them out of their crates to go out. And I have a couple of dogs that are rather predatory or want to fixate on others (border collies). Any strategies for this logistical nightmare? I try letting them out one at a time but the ones left in crates are caterwauling. Suggestions?

    1. Kittyherder (great name!) your situation is way beyond my skill level, with that combination of difficulties. Does your group of dogs change (like, are you fostering?) or is it stable? If stable, or relatively so, have you thought about teaching individual release words? That’s what Dr. Patricia McConnell talks about doing in a multiple dog situation. But I don’t see any way around having to address the wailing in the crate problem, too.

      Here is Dr. McConnell’s book on multiple dog households in case you don’t have it: Feeling Outnumbered?

      I taught my three individual releases and felt like that was quite an accomplishment. Tackling 10 would be hard, not just that there are more dogs to train, but because each dog would have to discriminate its own release word from 9 others. But you did mention border collies….

      1. Thanks for your quick response. This is my normal household. All these dogs either are, have been or will be herding competitors. The main problem is the reactions as they wait to come out of crates and rush outside. I do have Tricia’s book and I like your suggestion of different release words. Most of the time I have a high tolerance for their behavior, but sometimes I don’t and my husband definitely doesn’t. So I’ll try the release word suggestion.

  3. Great! I’ve already commented on the Youtube video which I saw first. Just thought it was worth saying it again. “Great”. The effectiveness of manipulating antecendent stimulus is so often overlooked.

  4. I had a similar issue with my Greyhound & BC..trying to train a settle by the door…Impossible, that door just had way too much excitement history…soooo, I started training at a different door, built the behavior strong and used that door for a good couple of months…then went back to other door and with very little practice I had reliability 98% of the time.

  5. Great tips, Eileen. I have seven dogs, and the first three situations in your video look embarrassingly familiar 😀 Two of mine (no breeds, all rescues) are the instigators, especially one who’s older and (maybe) a Corgi mix. She’s nervous and anxious and loud and obnoxious (and yes, we love her anyway), and she’s taught one of the younger dogs to charge at the door. I’d like to solve this behavior before the other two young’uns pick it up, too. You’ve given me lots of homework 🙂

    1. Thanks for commenting, Guilie, and good luck! It’s hard when they learn how to reinforce themselves, isn’t it? I admire you for keeping any kind of order with seven dogs!

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