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17 Behavioral Cues that I Didn’t Train (But are Still For Real)

17 Behavioral Cues that I Didn’t Train (But are Still For Real)

Training, 2009
“Real” training with Cricket, 2009

When most of us think of cues, we think of the verbal ones we teach our dogs. “Sit,” “Down,” “Here!” Perhaps we have taught them some hand signals as well. To teach a cue we go through a set process that can be quite a bit of work. It involves foresight, planning, and decision making on our parts. And practice, practice, practice. I think that tends to limit our perception of the other ways cues can come to exist in our lives with our dogs.

There are cues going on all the time that we didn’t plan or teach, and some that we don’t even know about. I’m going to share 17 of these that I have noticed out of the thousands that my dogs probably do, and movies of two of the most interesting ones.

First let’s review the definition. A cue in behavior science is properly referred to as a discriminative stimulus. Such a mouthful. A discriminative stimulus signals that reinforcement is likely available for a certain behavior. (The term also applies to a stimulus that indicates that reinforcement is not available, but let’s leave that alone for now.*). Breaking it down a bit: What’s a stimulus? It is a physical event that the organism can sense. Discriminative? It has a special meaning in this definition.

So in plainer English, and in the usage of dog training, a cue is a green light that tells the animal that there is a desirable consequence available if a certain behavior is performed. In real life training, we need to be sure and make it different enough from other stimuli so that the animal knows what behavior is being indicated. You don’t want your “bow” cue to sound like your “down” cue (thanks, Kathy Sdao!), and if you are using colors as cues, you had better not use colors that look almost the same to a dog, like orange and red.

Note that a cue is not a “command” or an “order.” There is no force in the definition of cue.

The Clever Cue Detector

What does this mean to Clara?
What does this mean to Clara?

My dog Clara has a genius for observation of the tiniest details, perhaps in part a result of her feral background. Since she arrived in my dog household, I have noticed an increase in group behaviors by my dogs that are responses to events in their environment. In other words, they now notice all sorts of things, usually that I do, that likely predict good stuff. And Clara in particular has the ability to follow my behavior chains backwards, to find the earliest predictor that I might do something cool.

Cue #1 The first one that I noticed is that Clara responds when I reach for the top shelf of a particular cupboard in the morning as I am getting ready for work. Virtually the only time I reach up there is to get down the package of cookies that I typically dip into for the dogs when I get ready to leave. Clara gets a nice treat when she goes to her crate, and the others (who are separated in different parts of the house but not otherwise confined) get a small piece too.

If we put that in the language of behavior analysis, we have:

  • Antecedent: Eileen reaches for package of cookies on the top shelf
  • Behavior: Clara runs to her crate and waits inside
  • Consequence: Clara gets a nice chunk of cookie

The interesting thing to me is how far back in time Clara has tracked this cue. Some dogs might not get in their place until verbally cued to do so. That’s the case with my other two dogs. Or a dog might wait until I was walking towards her crate. Or breaking the cookie into pieces, or rattling the package while getting the cookie out. But Clara has traced my behaviors backwards to the earliest consistent predictor of my leaving and her cookie: my reaching for the package. Also, I think it’s very cool that she runs away from the cookie to get the cookie.

In the movie, I show what happens when I reach into the cupboard and pull out something from a lower shelf. (Nothing! Even though it’s a noisy package, the dogs continue to watch, but don’t budge.) Then I show what happens when I reach for the special package of cookies. The sound is certainly part of the cue, but Clara doesn’t always wait for the sound. I have experimented, and she discriminates on the basis of what shelf I am reaching for.

Link to the cookie shelf cue movie.

Here are some more cues that I have come to notice. They are mostly Clara’s, but the other dogs have learned them now as well. I’m skipping past the more obvious ones like how all the dogs come running if they hear me preparing a meal, or opening the front door. Everybody’s dogs do that, right?

Cue, Cues, Everywhere!

The Computer

  • Cue #2 Setting: kitchen, in the morning. Cue: I close the lid on my laptop. Behavior: Clara runs to her crate. Why: I’m getting ready to leave for work, and she’ll get a good treat when I crate her. So actually, now that I think about it, she has traced the cookie cue even farther back in time than I realized.
  • Cue #3 Setting: kitchen, in the late evening. Cue: I close the lid on my laptop. Behavior: Clara runs to the bedroom. Why: I’m getting ready to go to bed, and she loves getting in the bed. (So in these two, the time of day is a part of the antecedent that allows her to discriminate.)
  • Cue #4 Setting: kitchen or office, the rest of the day. Cue: I close the lid on my laptop. Behavior: All dogs jump up or come running from other parts of the house to see what will happen. Why: Whatever I do next will likely be more interesting to them than my working on the computer.

OK, you get that when I actually get off the computer, it’s a real event. And actually, my drawing a breath and reaching for the laptop cover is now becoming the cue.

A different computer cue:

  • Cue #5 Setting: office, early evening. Cue: I put my laptop in its cover. Behavior: Clara runs to her crate. Why: I’m likely going out (I carry my laptop around a lot).

The All-Important Ball

A tan dog with black muzzle and a red ball in her mouth is rushing toward a woman sitting down with a white plastic bowl in front of her. The woman is holding a similar red ball in her right hand, completely covered, and out of sight of the dog.
The Ball Game

As you can imagine, with a ball-crazy dog like Clara, she pays intense attention to any cue that might precede a game.

  • Cue #6 Setting: Afternoon in the yard. Cue: I clean up after the dogs and put the poop stuff away. Behavior: Clara runs up the steps eagerly, looking back over her shoulder to see if I am coming. Why: I might throw the ball.
  • Cue #7 Setting: Afternoon in the yard. Cue: I finish raking and put the rake away. Behavior: Clara runs up the steps eagerly, looking back over her shoulder to see if I am coming. Why: I might throw the ball.
  • Cue #8 Setting: Late afternoon in the house. Cue: I let the dogs out of their various areas after they eat their supper. Behavior: Clara runs to the back door, looking back over her shoulder to see if I am coming. Why: I might throw the ball.
  • Cue #9 Setting: Late afternoon in the house. Cue: I walk towards the back door. Behavior: Clara runs ahead of me, looking back over her shoulder to see if I am coming. Why: I might throw the ball.

OK, from the above four, you can see how important playing ball is to Clara! The other dogs usually come too, since there is fun stuff available for them as well.

Kitchen Stuff, Training Sessions, and Attention in General

  • Cue #10 Setting: Kitchen. Cue: I lean back in my chair after eating. Behavior: Clara comes running over and nuzzles my hands. Why: I am available to pay attention to her again.
  • Cue #11 Setting: Kitchen. Cue: I open the pill bottle for Summer’s thyroid medicine. Behavior: All dogs come running. Why: they all get a little peanut butter when I give Summer her pill. This one is especially interesting because it has been several years since I used to open the bottle for Summer’s pills twice a day. These days I only open it once a week because I cut up the pills and put them in a pill sorter. And I don’t always do that when it’s time to administer the pill. So it is no longer a perfect predictor. No matter; they still all come running. The power of a variable reinforcement schedule.
  • Cue #12 Setting: Anywhere in the house. Cue: I pick up the camera tripod. Behavior: All dogs come running. Why: Training session!
  • Cue #13 Setting: Anywhere in the house: Cue: I pick up one of the dogs’ mats. Behavior: All dogs come running and try to get on it even while it’s up in the air. Why: Training or mat session!
  • Cue #14 Setting: I am talking on the phone. Cue: I start making finishing remarks. My dogs can tell from my inflection that I am winding up the conversation even before I get to “Goodbye.” Dang, they are good! Behavior: All dogs gather around. Why: I will probably get up and do something.
  • Cue #15 Setting: Anywhere in house. Cue: A delivery truck comes by.  Behavior: Clara and Zani come running. Why: I have classically conditioned Summer’s barking to mean a shower of food, and it has morphed into a recall cue. However, Clara and Zani both learned what makes Summer bark, so they no longer wait for her to bark.
  • Cue #16 Setting: going outside. Another recall cue that I wrote a whole post about.

Snow???

A small black and tan colored hound is looking up. She has flecks of snow all over her face
Zani in the snow

Cue #17 Here’s another one starring Zani. Back in 2011, when I was making this movie about negative and positive reinforcement, I trained Zani to run down my back steps on cue. I have not used that cue very much in our life together, since generally she goes down when she needs to and I don’t intervene if she thinks she doesn’t need to. Some of the training for that cue took place during some snow here, a relative rarity. Interestingly, the snow became a cue! See what happens.

Link to movie “A Snowy Antecedent”

There are three types of antecedents: cues, setting factors, and motivating operations. I discussed with some knowledgeable friends what kind of antecedent the snow likely was. Characteristics of the environment are often setting factors. However, the snow by itself is sufficient to get Zani to start running up and down the stairs. So I vote that it is an actual cue. 

What are some of your dogs’ more interesting cues? Planned or unplanned?

Related Posts

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* Keller and Schoenfeld, Principles of Psychology, 1950, p 118. A stimulus-delta is also a discriminative stimulus.

What’s an Antecedent Arrangement?

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 the video for email subscribers.

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?

Coming up:

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