The ABCs of Problem Solving

Problem solving is a big part of dog training and behavior consulting. Many problems are very straightforward: my dog pulls on leash, my dog jumps on visitors at the front door etc. Some problems are more difficult: my dog bites the mailman on the third Tuesday of every month except during July on leap years.

At times these problems can be very difficult to get a handle on. Some of them, like the contrived problem I made up above, seem to have countless moving parts. Where do we start? Where do we finish?

And of course we have the seemingly unlimited lists of “common sense” rules and “facts” about dogs and how they operate. Packs, leaders, alphas, betas, rules for 2 females in the same home (if your particular breed or rescue cult allows that), rules for 2 males in the same home (again if your cult allows this – the fact that some people think that this is Not Allowed For Their Breed™ is a matter of great pride for them), rules for when dogs can eat, rules for where they can do their business, and other facts about this and that amazing thing. Many fascinating things that some people might be tempted to say don’t have much to do with much of anything. Like me.

What if, dear readers (all three of you), I could give you a formula that would help you focus in on the real problem while giving you a very very big hint as to how to solve it?

And what if I could tell you that there is a formula that is so basic and so fundamental that it’s been used successfully on just about every known species on this planet? (The only reason I am saying “just about” is I’m assuming there are species no one has tried to work with yet.) This isn’t a new discovery and it’s not some silly “dog training secret” that I am going to hide behind a shopping cart or a membership site. That would be silly and dishonest since this is good old behavioral science and you can Google it and find hundreds of thousands of pages on it, many from colleges, universities and other reliable sources.

This is the good stuff. The stuff that really works.

Antecedent (A) -> Behavior (B) -> Consequence ©

An antecedent is the thing that comes first. In a colloquial sense you can say it “causes” the behavior.

The behavior is, well, the behavior. The thing that happens.

The consequence is what happens as a result of the behavior. (Remember, consequences don’t have to be "bad.")

Let’s look at a common problem:

Antecedent: Someone enters home through front door.
Behavior: Dogs jumps up on person.
Consequence: Dog receives attention.

The most important thing that ABC gives us is a template with which we can focus in on the specifics of a problem. What’s missing from the example above? Quite a bit, and that’s what makes it so powerful. Because what’s missing isn’t needed to solve them problem at hand.

Let’s break down the three components a little further to illustrate how this helps:

Antecedent: Someone enters home through front door.

The antecedent has a couple of basic rules: it has to be a change in the environment made by someone or something other than the dog and it needs to be as specific as possible.

So “the dog runs to the door” would not be a proper antecedent. Why did she run to the door? The antecedent needs to be a stimulus that elicits a behavior, to be all scientific-ky about it.

Similarly, a “person is there” is not really specific enough for us to really start solving a problem. Even “a person walks in the door” could use some help. Which door?

Behavior: Dogs jumps up on person.

Defining the behavior would seem pretty simple, and it usually is. There are, similar to antecedents, 2 pitfalls to look out for.

When describing the behavior, stick to behavior: things that are observable and measurable. “The dog greets the person enthusiastically” is nice and colorful but it doesn’t tell us what she is actually doing. “The dog greets the person inappropriately” also tells us nothing other than someone isn’t happy with whatever happened.

Measurable is a little more complicated. In this example we could measure how high the dog jumps, or for how long she would do it if no one intervened. We don’t need to include a measurement in this specific example, but we could. We might use measurements when we need to describe something involving a specific distance, such as “the dog begins to growl when a person comes within 10 feet of him while he is eating.”

Consequence: Dog receives attention.

Identifying the consequences of the behavior is where things can get tricky.

If you worked with a trainer that uses and talks about positive reinforcement you should have heard one very important fact: the dog decides what is reinforcing and reinforcement and punishment are measured by results. If it doesn’t increase or maintain the behavior it wasn’t reinforcing. If it doesn’t decrease or eliminate the behavior it wasn’t punishing.

Sometimes this means making an educated guess. In our example we have a dog that is jumping on people and presumably not biting them, so we can safely assume she is seeking to greet them and then getting the attention she wants. Here is where what the human thinks might ought to be punishing “Daisy! Get off! Stop it!” and what the dog actually finds reinforcing can be the same thing.

Sometimes it’s more obvious:

A: Child leaves cookies on toybox.
B: Dog jumps onto toybox.
C: Cookies.

Food is a primary reinforcer. We can assume that the cookies are the consequence that is sustaining this behavior.

How can we use this formula to solve a problem? Since I am already past 990 words, I am going to have to save it for next week. Stay tuned and let me know what you think in the comments!

The ABCs of Problem Solving is a post from: Dog Spelled Forward

Dog Spelled Forward Website and Blog

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