Accidental Antecedents

“How does your animal know it’s time to eat? Khakis and keys.” This was a statement at a roundtable discussion on honest signals at a conference I attended. That means many times our physical presence in the room signals to the animal that food is on the way. The dishonesty comes in when khakis and keys means “I forgot my sweatshirt in that area”, or “I need to come in to your holding to grab my water bottle.” At those times our khakis and keys become a dishonest (yet unintended) signal that can result in frustration, aggression, and even be a trigger of stereotypic behavior.

An antecedent is anything that happens before the behavior occurs. These antecedents can be intentional cues we give our animal, as well as many other unintentional ones. Think of it as a picture the animal see before doing any given behavior. The antecedents are everything that is occurring in that picture. Our job is to ensure the animal can decipher which things in the picture are important to pay attention to.

Let’s work through an example. First, you are shifting an animal for cleaning. The actual behavior is the animal moving through the door so you are able to close it behind them and secure that area. The first step is for you to enter the area, then check locks and secure the area you will be shifting to.

Is your animal up and active yet? Is he or she fixed on you watching for anything?

Next you get your cleaning supplies prepared and set them in front of the area you’re cleaning. Now you get our your food bin and your bait pouch so you’re prepared to reward them when they move to the new location.

How about now?  Surely your animal is up and active and waiting by the door?

It’s time to unlock the lock and give the cue to shift. Does the animal go through the door even in absence of the cue? If so, you likely have a few accidental antecedents at play.

Now it’s time to decide what cue (antecedent) you want to use and work to counter condition the others so they no longer initiate behavior.

In this case we want the cue “shift” to be the antecedent that signals to the animal that it should shift through the gate. Let’s pretend that our animal was up and active waiting at the door when we got our food out of the fridge. In order to counter condition the opening of the fridge, we could ensure that we do sessions that aren’t shifting related so retrieving the food from the fridge doesn’t always mean shifting. Or we could get our food out and reinforce the animal for moving away from the door. Another option is to have food in a bait pouch when we walk in and reinforce the animal before it get up.

What if our animal moves through the door regardless of the presence of the cue.  We could work on a station behavior and reinforce the animal for staying at station even if the door is opened. Or we could reinforce the animal for doing anything other than moving through the door when it’s opened. The possibilities from problem solving are endless!


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