There’s an old joke. A man has a terrible pain in his elbow so he goes to see a doctor. Upon being taken in to the doctor, the man is asked about his problem. “Doctor, I have this terrible pain in my elbow.” The doctor replies, “I see. Go on.” “Well,” says the man as he bends his elbow, “it hurts when I do this.” The doctor smiles, “Ok. Don’t DO that!” Ba dum dum – TSHHH!
Corny? Sure. But there is wisdom in comedy. Even bad comedy. Have you ever had a friend tell you that their dog is always barks when they pass by a neighbour’s yard on their walk? Haven’t you ever wanted to say, “Well, don’t WALK there then!” The dog owner KNOWS their dog is likely to bark at that particular place and yet they continue to take their dog there. But hope springs eternal. Perhaps this time the dog magically won’t bark.
And to me, that’s the weird part. There is another old saying about doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. When it comes to our dog’s behaviour, we have control of two things. Neither of them is what the dog chooses to do. We can reward them or punish them after they do what they are going to do and that’s called a “consequence” of their behaviour. The other thing we can do is change what things BEFORE they do the behaviour and that’s called “altering antecedents.”
Don’t let “antecedent” throw you off. It’s just a fancy word for “things that come before” a behaviour happens. It’s important to understand that we have lots of control over the antecedents in our dog’s lives. In the previous example, where to walk the dog was an antecedent. That choice of route came before the problem behaviour ever happened. But there are other things. Was the dog closer to the fence than the owner? What if the owner had walked between the dog and the fence? Then the POSITION of the owner is the antecedent that is changed. Maybe there is time of day that the neighbour’s house doesn’t make the dog bark. Then the TIME we walk the dog becomes the antcedent that we change.
And that leads me to my last cliché. Many times in dealing with problem behaviours, we “shut the stable door after the horse has bolted.” We didn’t manage to arrange our antecedents before the problem happened. Maybe the horse started looking nervous or looking at the open door. That would have been the time to change our antecedents and close the door.
If we are honest about it, we all recognize the tell-tale signs of unwanted behaviours if we are watching our dogs (you are watching your dog, right?). Understanding that we have the freedom to change the antecedents means we don’t need to wait until the dog does the wrong thing before we act. And changing antecedents has other benefits other than avoiding that unwanted behaviour. The dog isn’t rehearsing the unwanted behaviour and maybe getting some reinforcement for it. And, since they are not busy doing the WRONG thing, we have an opportunity to work with them to teach them the RIGHT thing to do.
So if your dog “freaks out” when you do THIS, don’t DO that! Do something different. You might be surprised at how much you can teach when you arrange the antecedents to help, rather than challenge your dog.