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The ABC's of Dog Training

Updated on June 12, 2013
How do the ABC's of dog training work?
How do the ABC's of dog training work? | Source

What are the ABC's of Dog Training?

You may know well your ABC's as you learned them in school, but you may have never heard about the ABC's of dog training. No worries! Most likely, if you have trained a dog before, you have already unknowingly incorporated these important puzzle pieces. You don't have to have a history of training a dog to do back flips or anything fancy in order to apply the ABC's; a simple sit or down involves already all these steps. However, being aware of them can help you be a better trainer.

So what are these ABC's? Well, basically, each letter entails an important step necessary to help Rover learn and follow your lesson plan. All three of these steps necessitate you and you dog's cooperation, so make sure you are clear, consistent and that you are armed with good incentives to motivate your dog. The ABC's of dog training incorporate 1) the antecedent, 2) the behavior and 3) the consequence. We will go over all these three steps in the next paragraphs and discuss some important tips to help you and your dog succeed so you can make training happen.

A verbal command is an antecedent

An insider look into the ABC's of dog training. Pronouncing word "lie down"
An insider look into the ABC's of dog training. Pronouncing word "lie down" | Source

An Insight into the ABC's of Dog Training

When you train your dog, you are asking for specific behavior to happen. This requires a distinct series of steps to help you gain success. The ABC's don't happen only in training; interestingly, any behavior your dog performs may follow these steps if you are attentive enough in recognizing these elements. So in this paragraph we will take a closer look into the ABC's of dog training and will also tackle behaviors that your dog performs spontaneously. If you ever wondered why Rover behaves in a certain way, the ABC's may help give you an answer.

A for Antecedent

What is an antecedent? Vocabularies tell us it's that something that precedes in time or order. When you are training your dog, you are asking him to perform a certain behavior. In order to do this, you must rely on a cue. Just like a teacher gives instructions by asking a student to "read out loud an excerpt from page 2" you must let your dog know you want him to "sit, lie down or roll over". However, in order to comply, your dog must first know what those commands mean. Most likely, you have trained your dog with a food lure by making a precise movement, then gradually faded the food lure (hopefully!)--otherwise you could end up bribing instead of luring, then gradually faded the movement, and then once your dog gave signs of understanding the concept, introduced the verbal command.

So in this case, the antecedent is the signal that puts your dog into action. It doesn't have to necessarily be a verbal command, it could be a hand gesture. Most dogs respond readily to hand gestures as they are very salient from a dog's perspective since that's how dogs mainly communicate among themselves. In some cases, such as in herding dogs, it's a whistle.

As we mentioned, antecedents are also there when the dog appears to engage in spontaneous behaviors. For instance, if you are sitting on the couch, and you touch the arm rest to get up, you may notice your dog getting excited. In this case, touching the arm rest is an environmental cue. If your dog is reactive towards guests, you may notice how the sound of the door bell or the noise of a knock gets him revved up and barking. In this case, the doorbell is the trigger. If you watch your dog carefully, you will notice how many of your dog's behaviors are a response to an environmental cue.

By controlling the antecedent, you can control the behavior and with behavior modification change the emotions towards the antecedent. When dealing with dog aggression, it's very important to recognize the antecedent, that element that triggers the reactive behavior. With my clients, I often tell them to observe their dogs' behavior and write down what antecedents they have found. We then go over them in class.

* Of course, if their dog is aggressive, I just don't go out to tell them to purposely elicit their dogs reactivity be exposing their dogs to triggers. I just tell them to rely on their memory to identify past triggers.

The behavior unveils....the pup lies down..


B for Behavior

Next in line, after the antecedent, is the actual behavior. So while the antecedent is what happens right before the behavior, now we're at the core element, the behavior itself. So if in training your dog, your dog was asked to sit, you will see him lower his rump on the floor. If you asked him to lie down, he will lower his rump and touch his elbows on the floor, if you asked him to roll over, he will drop to the ground and roll.

If the dog was exposed to an environmental trigger, let's say the door bell, you may see the dog get up, and start barking. It's important to note that behavior often evolves. For instance, if the dog used to bark at people entering the home, he may one day upgrade into biting. Or if your dog used to get up and act excited one day when you touched the arm rest, he may now get up and lead you to the refrigerator or towards the door. When I am assessing behavioral issues, I like to have as many details about the behavior as possible. What did Rover do exactly? What was his body language like?

Consequence, right when pup lies down I give a treat


C is for Consequence

What is a consequence? The consequence is the end result of a behavior. If you are feeling thirsty (environmental trigger) you will likely get up (behavior) and feel relieved by the refreshing water quenching your thirst. If you are training your dog to sit, lie down or roll over, you must have an appealing consequence to make the behavior worthy of practicing. In most cases, it's treats, games or other forms of rewards your dog looks forward to.

* Note: The choice of consequence is very important and a poor choice may have a deleterious effect on the outcome of training. For instance, if you are training a dog a recall, and the consequence is giving your dog a bath, which he hates, you will see a decrease in the coming to you behavior. If instead you call your dog to let him out in the yard where he has the fun of his life, you will increase the probability of him coming to you in the future. Reinforcement-based consequences, increase behavior, punishment-based consequences suppress behavior.

When it comes to behaviors your dog performs spontaneously in his environment, you will notice that consequence is what keeps these behaviors alive. For instance, if your dog hears the door bell and visitors are coming and he barks at them, and the people leave, this consequence keeps this behavior alive if he is territorial and wants to keep people away. If your dog gets up when you touch the arm rest and you then take him on a walk or feed him something, this appealing consequence increases the behavior of reacting to your movement.

The consequence is what fuels the behavior. Watching your dog carefully each day may reveal the consequences he looks so much forward to. Your dog may be looking for food, attention, space, interaction, cuddling, relief from pressure or any other appealing consequence your dog perceives as reinforcing. When a behavior has been successful and continues to be so, it will be resistant to change. For more on how behaviors are reinforced, read the "four quadrants of dog training"

*Note: in cases of aggression, the aggressive behavior may be self-reinforcing. When dogs aggress they are exposed to a chemical bath of adrenalin and another hormone known as noradrenalin, which can be quite addicting explains James O Heare in his book “The Canine Aggression Workbook”.

Troubleshooting Problems

So know that you are familiar with the ABC's of dog training, we can dig deeper into the dog's mind and identify factors that are important for success and that may also lead to lack of success.

The Antecedent

Make sure your command is clear and that you are always consistent. Set your dog up for success by exposing him to an environment that isn't too stimulating at first. Always use the same command. If you want reliable voice commands try your best to not blur them with competing bodily movements that may overshadow them.

If your dog appears distracted or is having difficulty, use this checklist on my hub "Why is my dog not listening to me?"There maybe many things going on that may cause a dog to not pay attention and it's most likely not your dog's fault.

In behavior modification, identify what triggers and environmental cues your dog reacts to. See if there is a pattern. Does your dog react more towards people with hats, children, people with eye glasses, blue eyes, who have drank alcohol? Is your dog intimidated by big dogs, black dogs, hyper dogs that pant heavily? Does the jingling noise of id tags cause a reaction? Identifying a pattern will help you establish a good desensitization program with your behavior professional. In desensitization, the antecedent is presented in such a way that it doesn't trigger a reaction.

The Behavior

Evaluating the behavior is important. If your antecedent was clear and the environment is safe from Rover's perspective, he will perform the wanted behavior. In training, you need to watch the behavior carefully so you can then decide if it's worthy of reinforcement. In behavior modification, you'll need to evaluate if the behavior is getting better or not so you can gauge your success. Your dog's body language during behavior modification will tell you if there's progress. If for instance, you're changing behavior though LAT look at at that, the antecedent should with time cause the dog to look at the trigger and feel happy about it and perhaps look at you afterwards with a tail wagging in anticipation for a treat. If there is a set back, and the dog looks upset, you know your are going to fast in your behavior modification program.

The Consequence

If the dog carries out the behavior you asked for you will need to be very fast in rewarding the dog. If you are training a sit, you need to reward it the moment it happens and not when he gets up. If the dog makes a mistake, you can choose to ignore it or remove reinforcement. Punishing it through positive punishment may cause a dog to lose motivation, start showing calming signals and if you punish often, even to fall into a state of learned helplessness.

In behavior modification, the consequence is key to success. If your dog is exposed to a trigger and sits on command upon seeing it, you want to reinforce lavishly so the dog is rewarded for sitting and at the same time forms positive associations with the antecedent. In the video below, watch how ignoring bad behavior from an autistic child may help in extinguishing it. Using punishment-based, aversive consequences may appear to suppress unwanted behavior, but they don't address the dog's emotional state.

Alexadry© all rights reserved, do not copy.

Using the ABC's to Reduce Behavior Problems in Autism Therapy


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