“He just bit me, out of no where, he gave no warning…”
The above statement is something we hear often. However, despite popular belief, it can never be said that behaviour comes “out of nowhere”.
Behaviour is the result of past consequences. This means that if your pet does something that leads to something great happening, he will do it more often. If you ask your dog to “come” and you give him a chunk of chicken when he gets to you, he will probably come more often in future. If his behaviour leads to something unpleasant happening, then he is less likely to do it again in future. So if you ask your dog to “come” and then get give him a tablet or a bath, he is less likely to listen to your cue next time. We can remember this in all our interactions with our pets. When we train with positive reinforcement we are adding a great consequence when our pets do something we like.
As well as being influenced by consequences, behaviour is prompted by what we call antecedents. Simply put, these are the things that happen right before the behaviour, they set the stage for the behaviour to happen. Leaving the lid off the garbage bin could be the antecedent for your dog digging through the trash. You cueing “step up” could be the antecedent for your bird to step onto your hand. It is important for us to pay attention to what conditions set the stage for our pets to behave in certain ways. By modifying the antecedents, sometimes we can change or even stop the behaviour.
When we want to change behaviour, we can describe three things:
A: Antecedent (what set the stage)
B: Behaviour (what we want to change)
C: Consequence (what follows)
Depending on the behaviour we can modify the antecedent, or the consequence, or both, to achieve our training goals.
In some situations where our pets appear to act very suddenly and without warning, we need to consider if we know what subtle body language they might have given prior, and also consider whether we might have done something to make our pet feel as though their body language was not enough. Many dogs, cats, parrots, etc who lunge or bite other animals or people give a lot of body language prior to reaching that point. Dogs may freeze, stare, turn away, or put their ears back. Cats might flick their tail, pin their ears back, or crouch away. Birds often lean away, pin their pupils, and either slick/fluff their feathers (species vary). If we persistently ignore this body language and proceed to push our pets too hard and too fast, they may simply stop giving those signs and start using more obvious body language, such as biting.
Our pets do not behave at random, they are always learning, and their goal is only to get the good stuff. If we don’t take the time to teach them appropriate ways to earn the goodies, then it is inevitable that they will find their own games (and you might not like them).