The ABC’s of Dog Training

I get asked a lot about dog training and I usually explain the ABC’s of dog behavior. I thought I’d share this with all of you. We, as humans, often don’t consider how the dog’s brain works in simple terms. My hope is that this will help clarify how your dog thinks in terms of getting reinforced. Good or bad. I’m going to “geek out” a bit here, but stick with me!


What happens immediately before (it could be a trigger, a cue, a distraction like a deer or bunny).


What the dog does or his behavior (that we can describe). 


What happened to the dog immediately afterwards.

For example: I hike with my three Border Collies, A LOT! They are all off leash. My young dog, Fergus, likes to sniff the ground and also air scent… possibly for deer, bunnies, etc. I’ve built a ton of value for him coming to me. However, he has a choice. The other day we went out for a hike and Fergus was off leash with my other two dogs, Gem and Slip. He stopped, sniffed the ground, and then ran to catch up with me. Let’s look at how the ABC’s of dog training can work for us or against us in this situation, and how knowing the ABC’s will help set our dogs up for success.

In the example, Fergus was sniffing the ground. Possibly, he was sniffing deer poop or dropped part of a cookie there. The “why” he was sniffing is only something Fergus knows for sure, so I can’t say, “he thinks a dog peed here” or “he thinks I dropped two cookies here.” All I can do is describe what I observe in terms of A-B-C:

  • The Antecedent was Fergus being off leash and with a large distance growing between us, which led to his choice of…
  • The Behavior he chose was to run to catch up to me (I didn’t call him or lure with a cookie).
  • The Consequence of Fergus choosing to leave the sniffing and catch up with me (without a prompt) was that he was praised and rewarded with a cookie.

Now, if I had called Fergus when he was sniffing rather that waiting and evaluating his choice, I would have created a new set of A-B-C:

  • Something good to smell and Robin getting farther away
  • Ignore what Robin is doing and continue to do what you want to do (sniff).
  • Robin calls YOU, making it easy for you to continue sniffing anytime you want, because the reward will be coming to you regardless if you pay attention to her on walks or not.

Can you see the difference between the two A-B-C scenarios? On the first, the choice Fergus made to catch up with me was reinforced, making that choice of paying attention to me far more likely to be repeated. In the second fictional scenario, the ignoring me would have been reinforced, making that behavior more likely to be repeated.

So, if you have a dog that sniffs on walks or is not showing motivation to move, you just need to change you’re A-B-C. But I caution you to think small; split this down into achievable accomplishments for your dog. Possibly start with a walk that begins five steps away: your house and ends with a big party at your house. Then build from there. Play small to play big!

To make A-B-C work for us in our training, it starts with awareness and observation. Begin your observations in your life with your dog. I want you to really notice the “A,” the Antecedent, when you are keeping notes. Here’s what it might look like when you fill it out.


Dog hears frig door open

Toy went on the floor

Food on the counter

Picked up car keys

Put phone down


Dog is on his way to the kitchen

Dog leaves and runs to the toy

Dog jumps up to look at food

Dog runs to the car door

Dog jumps up and stares


Dog is reinforced at the frig

Dog is reinforced by getting toy

Dog is called away from counter

Dog goes for a car ride

Dog gets attention

The ABC’s have been on my mind a lot lately, as I observe my own dogs’ behaviors. Awareness of the ABC’s is going to exponentially increase training success for anyone and grow the understanding of why a dog is behaving a certain way. ABC may seem a bit geeky, but you’ll be turning it into one of the biggest assets for success in your life with your dog. Let me know what you’re noticing about your dog’s A-B-C. And remember, play small to play big!!

Today, I am grateful for the science of behavior and the mentors in my life that have helped me to understand that science makes life so much better for our dogs and for us.

Please leave me a comment at: delany2000@gmail.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *