Antecedents: Cracking the behavior puzzle

In my last post, I introduced the topic of fear in dogs, explaining how a dog’s emotions can override her ability to cope or adhere to previously learned training. Continuing my series on fear in dogs, this post will focus on the events that immediately precede the fear reaction in dogs, known as antecedents. My next post will focus on the events that immediately follow the fear reaction in dogs, known as consequences. 

Studying antecedents can help us understand our dog’s behavior.

Think of the last time your dog misbehaved. I mean really misbehaved. The time Fido embarrassed you when chatting with the new neighbors by incessantly barking. The time your docile girl turned into a big ball of bared teeth and raised hackles. Or maybe, the time you came home to what looked like the remnants of a natural disaster in your living room. We’ve all been there, and we’re all familiar with that feeling you get when you have no idea why your dog is behaving a certain way.

What are you focusing on when recalling this incident? Most likely, you’re remembering your dog’s behavior: the damage done in the living room, the barking, the bared teeth. As the most visceral stage in the chain of events that comprise a dog’s behavior, it makes sense that this would remain foremost in the mind. However, when it comes to behavior change, the behavior is just one of many factors that dog owners and trainers must consider.

This is even more critical when dealing with that most powerful of dog emotions: fear.  In fact, when it comes to dealing with “problem” behaviors in dogs, in particular fearful ones, I feel that too much emphasis is placed on a dog’s behavior without considering a critical factor in behavior assessment: antecedents.

Technically speaking, an antecedent is something that occurs before the behavior and also plays a role in triggering that specific behavior. For example: You lose your temper at work (the behavior). Right before you lose your temper, you pulled a muscle in your back. Because your pulled muscle occurred just before you lost your temper, the pulled muscle is an antecedent.

Renowned dog trainer Wendy van Kerkhove sparked my interest in antecedents when she led a webinar on the topic for the Academy for Dog Trainers, illustrating how antecedents can crack the code for many behavior conundrums.

In her chapter titled “Antecedent Events – Looking Past the Cue,” in The Dog Trainer’s Resource 2: The APDT Chronicle of the Dog Collection, van Kerkhove writes, “Behavior can be as functionally related to antecedents as it can be to consequences. This fact can help explain why some behaviors seem to be impervious to changes in consequences. If the behavior is a function of an antecedent, then it is that which will need to be changed in order to bring about a change in behavior” (48).

Applying this to the example of losing your temper, attending anger management likely wouldn’t be an efficient solution to ensuring you keep your cool at work. Nor would disciplinary action from your boss. A more effective and simpler solution would be to reduce the pain of the pulled muscle, or avoiding pulling a muscle altogether.

The topic of antecedents is a vast one, so for the sake of brevity, I will focus on its basic applications to fear in dogs. Often, dogs are misdiagnosed as “aggressive” or “dominant,” when in actuality they are scared (hence the term fear-based aggression). When a scared dog reacts, it can certainly look aggressive to us; his teeth are bared, he might bark and pull at his leash, his hackles might raise. But these signals don’t automatically mean you own a dangerous dog. What’s more, if we don’t focus on the antecedents, we won’t be able to solve the behavior problem (or, more importantly, assuage the dog’s fear).

So, we know what antecedents are and why they are important. But how can we use them in a real-life scenario? Let’s look at a case example. Maggie, a recently adopted adult dog, has been doing the following behaviors in the home during the mornings, when her owners are still home: urinating in the house, destruction of household furniture, whimpering, pacing, and panting. She does not show these behaviors in the evening when her owners are home.

If we were only to look at the behavior, we would likely go down the wrong path toward solving the problem. Housetraining, a visit to the vet regarding a potential anxiety disorder, and punishment for chewing on furniture are all interventions that fail to get to the root of the problem.

But what if we looked at what happened before Maggie commenced these behaviors? We might find that Maggie’s owners are getting ready to go to work, performing the same morning ritual each day, and then leave for six hours. This information paints an entirely different picture of what’s going on with Maggie. We are no longer dealing with a dog that needs basic obedience training or housetraining. On the contrary, we’re dealing with a dog that has separation anxiety. Our previous interventions of housetraining and behavior modification for chewing furniture wouldn’t get us very far.

Antecedents and behavior analysis can be more complex than the example above, but the fundamentals remain the same: antecedent leads to behavior.

You can apply this procedure to a myriad of behaviors in your own dog. Once you know the antecedent, you and a dog trainer can treat the behavior and work on your dog’s fear by avoiding the antecedent altogether, working with your dog so that he is no longer afraid of the antecedent, and so forth. Not only will you gain more insight into your dog’s behavior, but you’ll more accurately recognize and treat your dog’s fears.

– Maureen Backman, MS

Maureen is the owner of Mutt About Town. To get in touch, email her at