Tonawanda News

August 11, 2013

CRITTER COMPANIONS: The ABCs of human and animal behavior

By Kenny Coogan
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — It is three in the afternoon and I have decided to go to the cinema. The movie starts at 4 p.m. 

A few minutes later I make myself a late a lunch. I arrive at the theater after 4 p.m. and I still have to watch sixteen minutes of movie trailers. I do not like movie trailers. The last time I went to the theater to see a movie was last month and the time before that was around a year ago. I usually do not care what is coming out and would much rather wait until I can watch it at my house.

Behavior should be looked at from a distance. That is to say behavior is not just the here and now. Things happen before the behavior and after. This stuff can predict future behaviors. When we train our pets that is what we are truly interested in: future behaviors.  

B. F. Skinner, a famous American psychologist and behaviorist, said that these things before and after the behavior are essential to learning the meaning of behavior. The stuff that happens before the behavior are called antecedents and the things that happen after are called consequences. Therefore we have antecedents setting the stage for behavior which leads to consequences A, B and C. 

Let’s say the behavior that we are interested in is me attending the movies. What are the antecedents?

What affected me getting to the movies? By not eating breakfast until later, I was not hungry for lunch until 3 p.m. I ate a little after 3 and that pushed me into leaving the house even later. I could have left sooner by eating earlier. If I had decided to go to the movies earlier in the day, I could have rearranged my eating schedule. These are just a sampling of some antecedents that set the stage for me getting to the movies. You might be able to think of a few more, including route taken, traffic patterns, going the speed limit, etc.

Due to these events I arrived at the theater a little after 4 p.m., the time that the schedule said the movie was to start. That is the behavior: me attending the movies a few minutes after 4 p.m.

The consequences of a behavior are very specific to the individual. When I arrived at the theater I probably missed one movie trailer, but saw at least five others. My consequence of arriving a little later allowed me to miss out on something that I didn’t want to see in the first place.

If I had gone to the movies with someone that loved movie trailers, their consequence of us arriving late would have had a different effect on them.

Consequences act as feedback to the individual that persuade them to behave in a certain way, the next time similar antecedents are presented. I was still able to see the movie, the entire movie. If you were to predict my behavior the next time I go to the movies you might guess that I would leave the same window of time — around ten minutes — to get to the theater from my house. You could also predict that I might leave at the time the schedule says the movie starts. If I would have left at 4 p.m. I would have only had to sit through six minutes of trailers. You might also predict that I would not trust the movie schedule, since it said 4 p.m. start time, when the movie actually started at 4:20.

The ABCs of training (human or animal) give us insight on how to increase or decrease future behavior. If you want your pet to sit, speak or come when called, what are some of the antecedents you can arrange to set the stage for the behavior? Some things that come to mind are feeding schedules, caregivers present or absent, verbal and hand cues, body posture, proximity and relationship to the pet, and many more.

After the behavior is completed what happens? Does the pet receive praise and treats? Does the animal get put back in their cage or driven away from the fun dog park? If you had to predict future behaviors based on the consequences you deliver to your pet, is it worth them to repeat that behavior again in the future? By changing the stuff that happens before and after the behavior we can change behavior.

For those that are interested, the movie I saw at the theater that day was “The Wolverine” and I give it four and a half Critter Companion stars.

Kenny Coogan has a B.S. in animal behavior. Please email your questions to