Antecedent Intervention


It is well established, I think, that dogs learn mostly via two ways: Association & Consequence.  In either of those two topics there are a myriad of variables that can potentially work for and against an owner. 

In the “Consequence” category we have a simple paradigm of how dogs pick up a cue.  One can put it in a simple way and say “dogs do flowcharts”.  The flowchart for a dog is as follows: 

Antecedent – Behavior – Consequence 

Now, what do all these things mean?  Antecedent refers to the catalyst, or stimulus, that causes a dog to react in a certain way.  Examples of antecedents are verbal commands, strangers, leashes, and doorbells.  The list is quite endless.  Behavior is just that – how your dog responds to the antecedent and the consequence is the result of said behavior, which either reinforces or punishes the behavior thus causing it to happen more or less.

 What I’d like to focus on is the A part of the equation – Antecedents.  They are numerous, easy to stack on top of one another, and, for a lot of dog owners, very difficult to avoid.  Pam Reid talks about a “package of stimuli” in her book, Excel-erated Learning, which basically refers to the entire picture your dog sees, hears, and smells in addition to what we perceive that our dog senses.  Most often in dog obedience training the extra antecedents are caused by our body language.  We raise an eyebrow, lean over our dog, have the alluring scent of liver on our hands, and give our dog the hand signal for sit.  What is the dog really learning as the cue to make him sit?  It might not be what you think.  

Unfortunately for us, not all antecedents are created equal.  The first of the 5 senses your dog gets in life during his neonatal period is not sight or hearing – it is touch.  This is why it is indefinitely important to do as much “hands-off” training as possible as this is a very salient antecedent that is difficult to fade out of training.  The second most important sense is smell – your dog’s scent receptors in his nose are said to be enough to fill a space the size of a Kleenex.  Our scent receptors are only enough to fill a space the size of a postage stamp.  Chances are he knows what’s for dinner even before you do. 

The problem lies in what I call “Muddied Antecedentville”.  No, you can’t vacation there, but many owners seem to live there year round.  We humans, with our big complex brains and emotions, often do not realize the subtle (or not so) “extra” signals we give out while training our dogs. 

So, why is this information important to us? 

 When we attempt to install cues for certain behaviors in our dogs their learning process can be hindered by excess antecedents.  The clearer the picture we draw for our dogs about what we’d like them to do, the more efficient our training becomes.  The two of the demons of dog training that play a hand in fouling up our intended antecedents are called blocking and overshadowing.  Fancy terms, yes, but definitely simple ideas.

 Overshadowing refers to having too many new antecedents present and one that is unintended “winning out” for your dog’s attention.  An example of this would be moving a food lure down between your dog’s paws while saying the word “down”.  What do you suspect your dog is learning predicts the “down” position?  Most likely NOT the verbal cue you gave.  The less salient antecedent of your voice is drowned out by the smell of food because we presented them together. 

The other side of the coin is blocking.  Blocking refers to presenting a new antecedent like a verbal cue at the same time as a known antecedent like a hand signal.  If you say “Sit” at the same time as your hand signal the dog does not learn anything new regarding your verbal cue because he already knows what he needs to from your hand signal.  Again, presenting these things together muddies up our delivery. 

I have noticed some of my students in training classes give countless “extra” body signals they don’t even realize they are doing – but their dogs do.  In the end, they’ve leaned over the dog while raising an eyebrow with their one hand in the treat pouch while the other  hand gives a hand signal – what exactly did the dog learn was the cue for “Sit” again?  In case this evening I noticed this exact "stimulus package" being offered to a Havanese pup during a "Down" exercise.  I asked the student to step in front of her dog and simply lean over in the manner she was doing with her cue without doing anything else - the dog laid down.  Extremely astute dogs will also begin to sing and dance at the sight of a treat pouch on your waist – huge antecedent.  Is that the end of the world? No, but don’t be surprised when you stand up straight and ask for the behavior with your intended cue - the hand signal - and get a dull stare.  

How can you avoid muddying up your cues (antecedents)?

- Focus on doing one thing at a time.  Say the cue; give a half-second pause, and then follow-up with the hand signal your dog is familiar with. 

- Rule out as many extra antecedents as you can so you provide your dog with a very easy-to-understand flowchart.  Practice in quieter environments at first.

- Give one word cues.  “Rover, will you please sit down” is not a cue.

- Keep your hand out of your treat pouch until AFTER the desire behavior is achieved.  There is no louder sound or more salient motion in the world to a dog than a pouch reach and bag crinkle. 


Mom said “sit”, moved her hand in that certain funny way, and then I sat and got paid.  Rinse and repeat until the dog knows that the antecedent of “Sit” = bum on the ground and tasty goodness.

Last, it is important to note that this is only part of the battle that is dog training.  There are other issues that exist to lengthen the training time and unclear antecedents (cues) are but a small part.  Good Luck & Happy Training!

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