The ABC’s of Learning Applied in Dog Training





I am an animal – OP Ed Siebert NYT


The ABC’s of Learning

Joyce Kesling, CDBC

August 5th, 2010

According to Burch and Bailey (1999), Skinner wrote “…to adequately demonstrate what was happening between an individual and the environment, three things must be specified” the antecedent stimuli, the behavior and the reinforcing consequence.  These three elements are referred to as “contingencies of reinforcement” and usually written as SD  à  R à SR+.  This formula designates the discriminative stimulus as SD, R designates response (behavior) and SR+ designates reinforcer.


An alternative formula indicating the use of punishment as the contingency would be written as SP à  R à  SR– and interpreted as SP indicating a punishing stimulus, R indicating the response (escape or avoidance of the punisher) and SR– indicates using the negative reinforcement quadrant.


How could A, B and C be described?


A – Antecedent – happening or existing before something else


An antecedent which occurs prior to a behavior can be anything and when behavior is maintained by the presence of antecedent stimuli it is referred to as stimulus control.  Antecedent stimuli are able to maintain behavior because its presence indicates opportunity for reinforcement.  These antecedent stimuli responsible for maintaining behavior and reinforcement are referred to as discriminative stimuli and commonly written as SD.  In training any other antecedent stimuli present indicates a behavior will not be reinforced.


Trainers are said to be using Antecedent control to manipulate a subjects motivational state, however some types of antecedent control cannot be influenced such as genetics, breed tendencies, biological factors, inherited traits and behavioral thresholds (Lindsay, 2000).


Those antecedent events that can be influenced by trainers are referred to as establishing operations and might include reinforcer sampling, the use of discriminative stimuli and conditioned stimuli.  According to Lindsay (2000), “an establishing operation (EO) is a motivational antecedent that influences the extent to which a particular outcome (reinforcer or punisher) will strengthen or weaken the behavior it follows.”


To further illustrate this point, Lindsay says, “according to Michael, an EO is an ‘environmental event, operation, or stimulus condition that affects an organism by momentarily altering (a) the reinforcing effectiveness of other events and (b) the frequency of occurrence of that part of the organism’s repertoire to those events as consequences’ (Lindsay, 2000).


Both setting events and establishing operations provide the trainer with effective strategies for behavior modification for both reinforcement and punishment.


B – Behavior – can be described as the way in which a person, organism, or group responds to a certain set of conditions.


Behavior is the result of learning and comes under the influence of genetics, biology and physiological constraints and is subject to one’s motivational state.  The subject of this essay is to illustrate how understanding and manipulating antecedent stimuli affects training new behavior and modifying or changing existing behavior.  The answer lies in the reinforcement history for any given behavior.


Controlling one’s environment ~ vital to achieving desired behavior


When we condition stimuli using classical conditioning we are setting the subject up to understand a specific expected outcome as a result, the same holds true in instrumental conditioning when we use signals to gain responses, that in turn give the subject information regarding whether reinforcement or punishment will be delivered.  In instrumental conditioning we use acquisition, reinforcement schedules and extinction to provide the necessary information regarding expected outcomes or contingencies.  It is with this information the subject can draw conclusions regarding their own behavior and consequences.  One may use continuous reinforcement, intermittent reinforcement or differential reinforcement for other desirable behavior.


However, it’s vitally important for the trainer to realize how predictability for both rewarding and punitive consequences may affect the learning process.  It is imperative in training to provide a clear link with any proceeding antecedents with behavior and consequences otherwise the subject may be unable to link their behavior with rewarding or punitive consequences.  This would create a very unstable relationship which can lead the subject to either learned laziness or even worse learned helplessness.


According to Lindsay (2000), the “lack or loss of controllability of positive outcomes affects not only subsequent appetitive training but also the animal’s ability to learn aversive contingencies’ and additionally one may inadvertently reward undesirable behavior and superstitious behavior.


Lindsay (2000) says, “…unpredictable and uncontrollable aversive stimulation” and its effects can be even more “pervasive and debilitating, when a subject is not given the opportunity to learn avoidance cues pertaining to negative reinforcement and noncontingent punishment.  In addition, he says “…the loss of control over significant events via the noncontingent presentation of appetitive or aversive stimuli results in reduced operant initiative and retards associative learning processes.”


The devastating effects on dogs can include becoming “overly cautious, nervous, and insular” since they are unable to predict outcomes concerning their behavior.  Additional observed behavior might include punishment passivity, pain insensitive, stubborn, failing and resistant to learning and appearing to struggle with training often resorting to withdrawal (Lindsay, 2000).


C – Consequence – the relationship between a result and its cause, cause and effect. A negative consequence or outcome could be described as an unpleasant or difficult result of a previous action.


For the purposes of this essay understanding how to manipulate A by controlling the consequences of behavior using extinction, punishment or reinforcement will either strengthen or weaken the target behavior.


Manipulating Setting Events, Establishing Operations and Discriminative Stimuli to Achieve Consequences


Stimulus Control


Stimulus control could be defined as those behaviors where the probability of occurring will likely be increased in the presence of specific and defined antecedent stimuli (Burch & Bailey, 1999).


Identifying these stimuli is critical to behavior modification as well as training new behavior.  These antecedent stimuli are developed when they result in reinforcement and in some cases punishment.   These types of stimuli are what I referred to earlier as the discriminative stimuli or SD.  The presence of these discriminative stimuli indicates when controlled properly the opportunity for reinforcement or that a punishment contingency is in place.


Establishing Operations ~ EO


As I said earlier, establishing operations are motivational antecedents that can be manipulated to control behavior.  These EO’s have ability to either reinforce behavior by strengthening or weaken it by manipulating the subjects’ motivational state.


Achieving consequences for basic training situations


How can a trainer apply these concepts to adequately manipulate a subject’s behavioral consequence?  First, by controlling the antecedents’ presence in the environment, then generalize the controlling stimuli to similar environments.  It’s common knowledge among dog trainers that we can’t expect our dogs to learn behaviors reliably without working in other novel locations.


According to Burch and Bailey (1999), there are several aspects of training utilizing stimulus discrimination that are vital to success; I have outlined them as follows.


  1. Specify the conditions in which the discriminative stimulus indicates the desired behavior by providing clear and distinct signals.
  2. Positive reinforcement should be selected and provided for correct behavioral responses.
  3. Practice, practice and more practice will help you achieve clear discriminative stimuli (signals for behavior).
  4. Verbal or non-verbal and physical cues should be consistently delivered.
  5. Manage the dog’s behavior to minimize mistakes, remember this phrase “perfect practice makes perfect” (Burch & Bailey, 1999).
  6. Change locations to allow for generalization.  Take the entire environment into account, which may include the time of day, weather conditions, other persons, activity levels, the dogs state of mind, motivational considerations and anything else that might be important in achieving those things related to specific goals.
  7. Simulate the environment you want the behavior to occur in.  If you are planning to compete in obedience trials work in similar environments and if your goal is to work on something related to behavior at home, work on that behavior in those types of settings.
  8. When possible try fading the initial rewards such as food and clickers and work towards creating a relationship based on the desire to be with you, not one based on food rewards.


How to effectively decrease undesirable behavior by manipulating antecedents


As I mentioned earlier rewarding desirable behavior isn’t the only way we can manipulate behavior, we can use these same strategies to change existing behavior specifically undesirable behavior.  The types of antecedent control would include extinction, differential reinforcement, antecedent control and punishment.


Using extinction to extinguish undesirable behavior


“Extinction is a procedure whereby a positively or negatively reinforced response is decreased in strength or frequency by discontinuing the contingency of reinforcement maintaining it” (Lindsay, 2000).  Since we are talking primarily about dog behavior, they will learn during the acquisition phase that reinforcement or non-reinforcement is dependent on their behavior.  During the extinction phase, dogs learn previous consequences are no longer available and will not be reinforced.


Extinction provides animals with continued opportunity for learning, by controlling the discriminative stimulus and the desired outcome of a specific behavior.  What occurs is the previous discriminative stimulus that provided the current behavior no longer predicts the previous desired outcomes.  This is controlled by using discriminative stimulus indicating a positive reinforcer SD+ or a negative reinforcer SD – associated with punishment which a subject wants to avoid or escape.  The resulting consequence is dogs learn not to respond in the presence of an SD+ or SD- because it no longer predicts attractive or aversive stimuli (Lindsay, 2000).


This type of procedure is often used to correct attention seeking and disruptive behavior associated with social setting environments.


Extinction is greatly dependent on reinforcement history and if that history included intermittent reinforcement it will be harder to extinguish and are subject to extinction burst and spontaneous recovery.


Differential reinforcement


Differential reinforcement for other behavior (DRO) is structured to allow the subject to perform any other behavior except an undesirable behavior.  This type of reinforcement procedure is suited best for nuisance behavior.


Differential reinforcement for incompatible behavior (DRI) is structured to reinforce behavior incompatible with undesirable behavior and is commonly used after installing an initial DRO.  For instance, a dog who needed to learn to sit rather than jump, might begin training first by reinforcing anything other than jumping, perhaps just keeping all their paws on the floor.  Then gradually rewarding sit as the DRI behavior, since a dog can’t jump and sit at the same time.


Differential reinforcement for alternative behavior (DRA) and offers similarly to the incompatible procedure but allows any behavior that would be more acceptable than the undesired one.


Differential reinforcement for low rate (DRL) behavior offers the opportunity to engage in the behavior, but less frequently.  This procedure may be used to slow dogs down who perform tasks to rapidly.  Time and response frequency are keys to this procedure.


Antecedent Control


This is my favorite and sometimes the easiest part of behavior modification, which always includes controlling the environment so any undesirable behavior is prevented from occurring.  The strategy can be simple or more complicated, but usually means removing the stimulus responsible for creating the behavior.


The next step would be providing cues for acceptable behavior and providing new consequences related to the new more acceptable behavior.


Add or Remove EO’s Establishing Operations


To add an establishing operation will increase the likelihood for a desired outcome by changing the motivation of the subject.  For example, if I want my dog to play fetch and retrieve I might offer using a reinforcer sampling by playing tug with the retrieval object.  This gets the dog in the mood for the target behavior fetch and retrieve.  In this example, the use of the object is a reinforcing control strategy that will make the opportunity to play fetch and retrieve more likely to occur in the future.


When we remove an establishing operation leading to a reinforcing event or outcome, the result is the previous reinforcing stimulus loses its effectiveness.  An example for applying this procedure might be helpful in modifying excessive behavior associated with attention seeking.  My dog used to lick me profusely until one day I liked her back, her response was a look of surprise, however in the future when ever I looked like I was going to lick her she moved away.  This worked in suppressing her excessive licking behavior.


I have omitted using actual punishment strategies or procedures for this essay as they are usually detrimental to most training environments and conclude with the following comment from Lindsay (2000).


…dogs do not learn a habit per se, but rather a set of instrumental contingencies

consisting of available outcomes, rules for their acquisition, correlated expectancies

(given that they follow the rules), identification of the stimulus situations in which

the rules apply, and an overall confirmation or disconfirmation of the learning set

based on prior experience.





Burch, Mary R., & Bailey, Jon S.  (1999).  How Dogs Learn.


New York:  Howell


Lindsay, Steven R.  Handbook of applied dog behavior and training.  2 Vols.


Iowa:   Iowa SP.   2000.  Vol. 1.

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