Will the Mystery Antecedent Please Stand Up?

Thank you to Randi Rossman for discussing the scholarly work about antecedents with me. All mistakes are my own. 

I recently found myself in a situation that dogs are in a lot of the time, and it was a revelation.

So here’s the deal. I use a Mac laptop at work when I do bookkeeping tasks. I also own a Mac laptop and use it at home (and other locations).

The one at work has a 13″ screen. My home computer has a 15″ screen. The work laptop is older and has an older operating system.

On my work computer, to scroll down, I move my fingers down the trackpad. On my home one, it’s the opposite. To scroll down, I move my fingers up the trackpad. The software folks reversed it in one of the operating system updates.

I’ve been using these two computers long enough that I switch back and forth fluently. I rarely make a mistake using the trackpad. I perform the correct behavior without conscious deliberation. I had to actually test one of the computers to be able to write down which way the trackpad works on each one. I can’t remember unless I am actually doing it.

Will the Mystery Antecedent Please Stand Up? Closeup of a black and rust colored dog next to a laptop keyboard
I haven’t taught Zani how to scroll using the trackpad yet

Antecedents

So if I perform two opposite behaviors for the same outcome, what is telling me the difference?

“Antecedent” is the term for stimuli and situations that set the stage for a behavior. They include cues (discriminative stimuli), motivating operations, and in some classification systems, setting events.

These things can combine in quite complex ways and I am not going to undertake to untangle them in this post. However, we can explore the factors that may play into my performing one behavior vs. another. In other words, how do I know which way to move my fingers on the trackpad?  Something in the environment is cueing me to do so. What is it?

The obvious candidate is that I am working on two different computers. I mentioned that the computer at work is smaller. I use a smaller set of programs on it, although none of them is unique to that computer. E.g., I use QuickBooks to keep the books at the office but also use it on my home computer to keep my own business books.

The two computers have different desktop pictures. Slightly different power cables. The computers have two different operating systems, which is the reason I have to perform different behaviors in the first place. But those operating systems don’t create much of a visual difference on screen.

Anything else? I’m not aware of any auditory or olfactory cues. There may be kinesthetic ones, but if so, they are small, and I can’t name them.

In both cases, the visual information on the screen is one of the immediate antecedents. What I see informs me that I can move my fingers to view the rest of the document. It looks about the same on both computers. Still, if you had asked me what it was that told me which way to move my fingers to move to scroll down, I would have told you that it was using a different computer.

I would have been wrong.

What’s the Mystery Antecedent?

I long ago passed through the annoying period where I had to learn which behavior to do on which computer. During that time I was making repeated mistakes. After that, something gelled and I rarely thought about it anymore. But recently, the mystery part of the antecedent revealed itself.

When I take my home laptop to work, I usually station myself at a certain table. But the other day, I put my personal laptop where I usually put the work laptop. Guess what happened when I needed to scroll down?

You got it. I performed the behavior that would have worked if I were using my work laptop. The incorrect behavior for the computer I was using.

So the essential thing that tells me to move my fingers up or down to scroll on the laptop is not a physical characteristic of the computer. It’s an element of the wider environment. It’s where I sit.

Location, location, location.

Dogs

Sue Ailsby, in her book Training Levels: Steps to Success, Vol. 1, writes about a time she gave her a dog a cue she thought she knew and received a blank look in return. Sue writes:

I was THREE FEET from where I always ask her for this behaviour, holding a dish which was empty instead of full, and I was facing north instead of east. She wasn’t “blowing me off” or “giving me the paw.” She truly had no idea what I was asking her for. Those three little tiny differences changed what she saw so much that the behaviour seemed completely different to her. –Training Levels: Steps to Success, Vol. 1, page 226

It is brutally common for us not to know what the antecedents are for a behavior we are teaching our dogs. We think we know, and we are wrong a lot of the time. We think the crucial antecedent is the verbal cue, but it may be the environmental setting plus the fact that we are saying something—anything. It might be that the dog is performing the next behavior in a pattern that we as trainers have been performing for years without realizing it. In many cases, the salient antecedent is our own body language that precedes or accompanies the verbal cue.

I have a set of YouTube movies and posts about why dogs might perform the “wrong” behavior for a given cue. (Actually, it’s usually that they are performing the right behavior for a cue that they have noticed and we haven’t.) In one of the movies, I show my dog Zani performing the “go around” behavior. She is to trot out and circle an object and come back. I usually use a tall object such as a floor lamp for her to go around when we practice. I use the verbal cue “Come by” to get her to circle clockwise around it. It appears for all the world that she is responding to my verbal cue when she performs the behavior.

Then, in the movie, I switch out the lamp for a shallow plastic lidded box. I say, “Come by.” Zani trots up to the box, but instead of circling it, she gives it a tentative nose target and then mounts it with her front legs.

Zani is trying to earn her treat. She’s not being hardheaded and certainly not stupid. She’s not ignoring me. It’s just that my saying, “Come by” was not the real cue in the first place. Not the whole cue, anyway. A crucial part was the tall vertical object, in this case, the lamp. When I took that away, I took away part of the information that told her what behavior we were working on.  When I put a box there instead, I was changing the antecedent, and she offered behaviors that are usually reinforced in the presence of the box instead.

This kind of stuff happens all the time in dog training.  Location, as in my computer scrolling issue, is huge. If I usually ask my dog for a sit in the kitchen and a down in the front room, it will take extra effort for the dog to do a down in the kitchen and to sit in the front room. Then there are surfaces. The same dog I mentioned, Zani, dislikes lying down on my concrete floor most of the time. (This seems to be pretty common with small, shorthaired dogs.) Over the years, I have waffled between wanting to improve her response and feeling like it was mean and unnecessary. I’ve been inconsistent. The result is that she will lie down on concrete, but she will not usually do it the first time I say the cue. She’ll try sitting first. And even this is not stubbornness. She shaped my behavior and I let it happen. I rarely ask her for a down on concrete. So concrete, instead, has become part of the antecedent for sit.

Small black dog leaping in front of a woman holding a plastic bowl. The bowl is part of the antecedent for the behavior.
What’s the cue? My saying “Boing!” or holding out the container with the ball in it?

Zani’s jump in the above photo was an offered behavior I put on cue because it was cute, lively, and fun for her. We always do it at the same place and time: when we are playing ball and I have the special ball container. When I say, “Boing!” she jumps. (Sometimes she jumps without my saying it–that should give us a hint right there.) But I have complete confidence that if I walked up to her in the house sometime without the ball container and said, “Boing!” I would get a completely blank look and no jump.

Changing the Behavioral Response

When I had my home computer in my workspace in my office the other day, changing the scrolling behavior was not easy. This is a lesson for us as dog trainers as well. I had this screaming locational cue telling me to do one behavior, and I had to repeatedly override it with my conscious mind. It was tough! I kept reverting. And I have no doubt that the next time I take my computer to work I will have to learn it all over again.

So let’s have some empathy for our dogs. Even though I consciously knew what was going on, I still couldn’t fix my behavior by turning a switch in my head. I had to learn and practice the new association. This happens to our dogs way more often than we even know.

How about you? It’s hard to catch a human situation where the antecedent is not what we thought it was. I lucked into mine. I’d love to hear some others. (Dog examples are OK, too!)

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Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson