The Three Term Contingency: The ABC’s of Behavior

The Three Term Contingency: The ABC’s of Behavior

By Christine D. Calder, DVM, DACVB
Calder Veterinary Behavior Services,

Understanding your pet's behavior can be simplified into three main parts known as the ABC model: the Antecedent (what happens before a behavior), the Behavior (what your pet does), and the Consequence (what happens after the behavior). This method, based on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), helps you understand, predict, and modify your pet's actions to improve communication and solve behavior problems.

The Trigger: Antecedent
The antecedent is the event or situation that occurs right before your pet's behavior. It is like a trigger that sets off a specific reaction from your pet. This could be anything from you picking up a leash, indicating it is time for a walk, to external factors like another animal nearby or a sudden noise. Recognizing these triggers helps predict and better understand your pet's actions.

The Action: Behavior
Behavior refers to what your pet does in response to the antecedent. It is the actual action you can see, such as sitting, jumping, or barking. Behaviors can be desirable (like sitting when asked) or undesirable (like jumping on the counter). The key is that behaviors are observable and measurable, giving insight into your pet's needs and motivations.

The Result: Consequence
Consequences are the results that follow your pet's actions. They shape behaviors by either increasing or decreasing their frequency. These outcomes help your pet learn what behaviors are beneficial and which are not. This influence can make a behavior more or less likely to occur again.
• Positive vs. Negative: In this context, “positive” means adding something (like treats or playtime) to encourage a behavior. “Negative” means taking something away (like ignoring them) to discourage a behavior. It is important to note that “positive” and “negative” do not necessarily mean good or bad here.
• Reinforcement and Punishment: These are the tools to change behavior. Reinforcement makes a behavior more likely to happen again, while punishment does the opposite. Adding something (positive reinforcement) or taking it away (negative reinforcement) can encourage a behavior. Adding a consequence to stop a behavior is positive punishment, and taking something away is negative punishment.
• It is All About Perspective: What counts as reinforcement or punishment depends on how your pet feels about it, not what you might think. Each pet is unique, and what motivates one might not affect another the same way.

Applying the ABCs of Behavior
Example 1: Barking at the Doorbell
• Identify Antecedents: The doorbell ringing serves as the trigger that sets off your dog's barking.
• Modify Behavior: Teach your dog to go to a specific spot (like its bed) and reward your dog for staying quiet when the doorbell rings. Start by teaching your dog to station on that spot. Then, practice with the doorbell sound. Use a remote treat dispenser to reward the dog from afar.
• Provide Appropriate Consequences: Reward your dog with treats for choosing to go to its spot and sitting quietly when the doorbell rings. If the barking continues, return to the previous step in which the dog was quiet. With practice, the dog should no longer bark when the doorbell rings.
Example 2: Jumping on Guests
• Identify Antecedents: The arrival of guests acts as the trigger for your dog's jumping behavior.
• Modify Behavior: Teach your dog an alternative behavior, such as sitting to greet or staying in a specific area away from the door when guests arrive. Use training sessions to practice this behavior with friends pretending to be guests.
• Provide Appropriate Consequences: Reward your dog for sitting or staying in the spot when guests come. If the dog keeps jumping, go back a step. Meanwhile, use a gate to keep the dog away from guests or put the dog in a quiet place until everyone's settled. Then, let your dog join in. Keep doing this, and your dog will jump less over time.
•  Example 3: Digging in the Yard
•  Identify Antecedents: Being left alone in the yard without supervision or engagement may trigger digging behavior.
•  Modify Behavior: Change your dog's behavior by giving your dog fun options like interactive toys or a special digging box. You can encourage the dog to use the box by hiding toys or burying treats inside it for the dog to discover.
•   Provide Appropriate Consequences: Give your dog treats for using the digging box or playing with toys found in the box. If the dog digs somewhere else, gently guide the dog to the digging box and then give treats for choosing to dig there.

By understanding and applying the ABCs of behavior, you can improve communication with your dog, address behavioral issues more effectively, and work towards positive behavioral outcomes. Remember, patience and consistency are key, and seeking help from a professional can offer additional support specific to your pet's individual needs.
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