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:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2014