eileenanddogs

Tag: discriminative stimulus

Will the Mystery Antecedent Please Stand Up?

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!)

Related Posts

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

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.

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