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


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.


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, short-haired 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 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!)

Related Posts

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

23 thoughts on “Will the Mystery Antecedent Please Stand Up?

  1. You know, you can actually fix that so it tracks correctly. I don’t know how – my husband did it on ours. The same thing happened, with the operating system it reversed.

    He googled and found out how to fix it.

    You might be used to it enough not to bother, but if you are so inclined, it can be done!!

    1. How cool! I’ll look it up and then make my decision. If I play my cards right, I might get another blog out of it! Thanks for the info.

  2. Unbelievably enjoyable to read as are all your blogs. Eileen Anderson you are one of the most inspiring, interesting and innovative people working with dogs today, despite your ‘amateur status’. There are many professionals who will be learning from you. Thank you for sharing everything that you do – I learn so much. Boy are your dogs lucky (and also extremely adorable). Especially Zani ❤️ oh and Clara too ❤️

  3. Eileen, this reminds me of something my son told me a couple of days ago: Dogs perform behaviors because of habit; cats because of location. (I do not know the source for the info.) I think, as you’ve shown, location is a huge factor for all of us, regardless of species.

    This is so true for horses as well.

    Peggy Hogan has worked on various cues with her mini, McKee. Not only location, but if there’s something on the ground that looks like it can be stepped on, McKee steps on it. If Peggy holds something in her hand, it’s either “touch” or “bite”. Getting McKee to bite an object that looks like he should step on it was and is hard. And stepping onto a “bite” item that on the ground was also hard.

    Another example is that she and McKee were next to a shed and Peggy said “touch”. McKee looked around for something to touch. There was nothing in the immediate vicinity that resembled anything that he normally touched. So he touched the wall of the shed he was standing next to! Click-treat! 😀

    1. Great stories! Sometimes I blow my dogs’ minds by trying to get them to bite things they usually nose target, or nose target things they usually paw whack. None of us is very good at it–they just go by the reinforcement history of the object and I forget which cue to use!

  4. Excellent post, Eileen! I get so much brain stretching from your blog. BTW I don’t think you want to change your new Mac to match the old Mac’s tracking. The new OS works the way phones work (and presumably the way everything will work from now on). I think you should lobby for a new computer at work! And if you really want to freak yourself out, try using the slider bar to scroll. It still goes the opposite way. I try to pretend it isn’t there.

    1. Yes, I realized that it was more likely that I could get the new one to conform to the old one (don’t wanna) than the other way around. Guess what: I do have a new computer at work. Sitting on a shelf…I haven’t bothered to set it up yet. I need to do that. The slider bars don’t bother me for some reason. I think it’s interesting how the ergonomics have developed over the years.

  5. I must say I so enjoy your writing. So many of the blog posts I come across are your informative educated fun really make my brain think about things in a different way thanks for sharing your insights..

  6. I get caught this way all the time. Nina’s real cue is apparently not my verbal, or even my conscious body cues, like footwork, but something else in the environment (for us it’s all too often a body cue I didn’t know I was using); we get into a different environment–like the obedience ring–and it all goes to h-e-double toothpicks, because those unconscious cues disappear in the fearful presence of an AKC obedience judge.
    One behavior is been absolutely consistent from Cobie through Elly & Lia to Nina: first halt in the heeling pattern. No sit, even if I get my footwork right.. Dog not only doesn’t sit, he/she comes round to the front, & looks up with a “who is this alien & what has she done with my mother??” expression. I am rigid, breathing very shallowly–if at all–& staring at the floor. The verbal cue “heel” is the same the,half-step, close left foot is the same the the environment (ring gates, jumps, judge) is not unfamiliar, but cue from Zombie Handler is not the same as cue from me, & nothing gets sat. AND no tennis balls. It’s a lose/lose.
    All of which is a long way of saying that the handler’s demeanor, & even her emotions are all part of the antecedent, & change those & you’ve changed enough variables to flip the end behavior.

    1. Sorry, I had to laugh at “Zombie Handler.” Dogs notice the darnedest things, don’t they?

      It really gets to me, too, when ALL of my dogs make the same “mistake.” The handwriting is on the wall, isn’t it!

  7. Excellent post!!

    And one folks should re-read whenever frustration rears its ugly head – it’s never the dog – it’s always us – whether we can see it or not!!

  8. As always you make me stop and think love your blog always learn or am made aware of something I was missing. This article reminded me of one I read about riding a bicycle and they changed the steering to the opposite of what they were used to . They managed to learn it over time but thought when they went back to the originally learned way it would be a breeze it was not

    1. Oh I saw that! It was fascinating! And kids were able to make the switch much faster than adults. I always thought someone should try to ride “hands-free.” Seems like if they could keep their hands off the handlebars, the body balance part of riding the bike would be the same.

  9. I just remembered another computer-related example for this during a conversation about keyboarding.

    In college, I decided to teach myself to type on a Dvorak keyboard setup, which is supposed to be more efficient and less prone to causing hand pain. I was participating in National Novel Writing Month and decided that ~obviously~ the thing that was slowing me down was losing a couple seconds per page on an inefficient Qwerty keyboard layout (rather than my refusal to prioritize my writing, etc).

    So I practiced for a month until I could type fluently in Dvorak.

    In the process, I made two discoveries:

    1. Hitting the Y key is apparently supposed to be the job of the right pointer finger. I have always hit it with my *left* pointer finger instead. I must have learned it wrong as a child, because I had never even realized that it was supposed to be the opposite hand until I was teaching myself Dvorak. In Dvorak, the physical keys are in the same place, but their values are changed. The starter keyboard drills worked on the keys for each hand separately… but during the right hand exercises, my left hand always crossed over to hit the Y/G key. I forced myself to practice it correctly during my Dvorak practice.

    2. Once I reached fluency with both keyboard setups, I realized that I still use the wrong hand to type Y in Qwerty like I had for the decade before, but now I use the CORRECT hand to type my Dvorak G. Which is crazy! It’s the same physical key on the same keyboard on the same laptop in the same apps. NOTHING physical changes about the key or my hand placement. It is in exactly the same place. NOTHING changes about the environment or the computer programs. Hell, the G key still has Y written on it. The ONLY thing that changes is that my brain and the computer now agree that Y means G. I can comfortably press Dvorak-G with my right hand without even thinking about it, whereas it feels extremely strange to press Qwerty-Y with my right hand. It is the exact same key in every way except the letter that I intend for the behavior to produce on the screen.

    1. Bridger this a FANTASTIC story! I guess you switch back and forth fluently now? I flirted with Dvorak for a while but never made the switch. I think Sue Ailsby is a Dvorak user.

      1. I’ve fallen out of practice with Dvorak, but can pick it back up quickly when I want/need to. I’m still nowhere close to my Qwerty speeds, though. I type 90-110 WPM in Qwerty and I maxed out at about 60 in Dvorak, which was disappointing. I don’t really have writing-related hand pain for the most part, so the loss of efficiency doesn’t pay off for me. At this point, it’s mostly just a brain exercise.

        1. How interesting. I wouldn’t have predicted that. You are still my hero for doing it!

Comments are closed.

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson All Rights Reserved By accessing this site you agree to the Terms of Service.
Terms of Service: You may view and link to this content. You may share it by posting the URL. Scraping and/or copying and pasting content from this site on other sites or publications without written permission is forbidden.
%d bloggers like this: