The ABCs of Dog Training

Learning the ABCs of dog training can help you accomplish any training goal! It gives you a clear path to understanding why your dog may be behaving a certain way, and how to adjust how you respond to that behavior.

Woman Training Dog Outside | Busy Dog

Dogs rarely do anything for no reason. In reality, dogs just do what works! Humans grow up learning “right” from “wrong,” but dogs don’t have that same moral compass guiding them. Human concepts (like being rude or spiteful, for example) don’t really exist to our pups. Instead, they learn from us what behaviors work to get them what they want and what behaviors don’t.

Many studies have concluded that dogs and 2-3-year-old human children have equivalent emotional and cognitive capabilities. Of course, we always have to consider our dog’s canine needs and body language, but the same empathy we apply to a toddler can be applied to our pups as well.

Think of a 2.5-year-old - we understand that they haven’t yet developed the language or intellect to reason things out or to control themselves completely. Think of a small child crying at the supermarket - not very fun to listen to. But, we realize that they aren’t intentionally trying to terrorize their parents - they just don’t know how to cope with their emotions yet, and/or maybe their parents have given them something from the supermarket in the past to stop their crying. Our dogs can be viewed very similarly on this cognitive and emotional level. For example, they aren’t pulling on their leash towards another person to embarrass you - they just don’t know how to contain their excitement, and/or they know that’s how they’ve been pet by strangers in the past.

The ABC's of Dog Behavior & Training

The ABCs of behavior is a framework we can use to better analyze and understand WHY our dogs do the things they do. When we know the function of a behavior, it becomes much easier for us to modify it.

A - Antecedent

The antecedent is what happens before a behavior. It’s the situation, context, or cue that gives our dog the opportunity to perform the behavior

B - Behavior

The behavior is what we actually witness our dog doing. It’s important that we try to look at the behavior objectively, rather than labeling the behavior (especially with terms like “spiteful” or “naughty”).

C - Consequence

The consequence is what happens right after the behavior, whether it’s something good or bad.


  1. A person gives their dog a hand signal and says “sit” (antecedent). The dog sits (behavior). The owner gives them a treat (consequence).

  2. A family out on a walk goes by a house with a fence (antecedent). The dog behind the fence barks (behavior). The people walk away (consequence). In this situation, the dog likely thinks HE is the reason the people went away when in reality they were just on a walk and were going to walk on anyway. But in the dog’s mind, he effectively protected his territory, because right after his barking, the threat went away.

  3. A person walks into their house after work (antecedent). The dog jumps on the person (behavior). The person pushes the dog off and says “get off” or "stop" (consequence). This situation is likely going to reinforce the jumping behavior, even though the human had a negative reaction to it. The dog doesn’t understand the term “get off” (unless it’s been specifically taught that). In the dog’s mind, jumping got their owner to look at them, talk to them, and touch them; the behavior gets reinforced just as much as if their owner had praised them and pet them when they jumped.

Start looking a bit more critically at your dog’s behaviors, whether you find them desirable or undesirable.

  • What usually happens before the behavior?

  • What is the behavior?

  • What happens after the behavior?

  • Does the consequence reinforce the behavior or not?

  • Can you change the situation in some way so the behavior doesn’t occur at all?

  • Or can you alter the consequence of the behavior in some way?

  • What behaviors do you WANT to see in that situation?

Emotional Brain vs. Thinking Brain

For humans and dogs, you can’t be incredibly logical and incredibly emotional simultaneously - it’s a trade-off. The more the “thinking brain” is going the less the “emotional brain” is taking over and vice versa. Think of a time you’ve been very emotional and overwhelmed - can you focus well on a specific task (like taxes or schoolwork) during that time? Probably not. The opposite is true as well - if you’re focusing hard on something, it is very difficult to be incredibly overwhelmed and emotional.

Therefore, the best thing we can do for our emotional, excited, fearful, etc pups is to get their "thinking brain" going by redirecting them into tasks, whether it's things like sit, down, a calming activity, touch, etc. Pups who are totally existing in their "emotional brain" won't be able to make good, logical decisions. It's our job to guide them!

Tip: Follow through on commands and say them ONCE!

When your pup knows you're going to repeat "sit" four times, they'll wait till that fourth time to actually do it! Get in the habit of saying things ONCE. repeat hand signals and grab their attention with their name, kissy noises, etc if needed. If your pup knows you're going to say things once and that's it, they will start responding to you much quicker! You can refine this over time as well - if they perform the task instantly, that earns them food, whereas taking their time will only get them "good girl/boy."

If you are going to ask your pup to do something, be prepared to get them to follow through no matter how long it takes! If your pup learns that you don't mean what you say, they will begin ignoring you because that might appear to be the better option for them. But if they know you're going to be just as stubborn as they are, you'll raise pups who follow through much faster because they know they won't get what they want until they listen to you!

On that note, do NOT ask your pups to do things that are beyond their abilities because you won't be able to get that follow-through. Only ask your pup to do things you know they know and in environments, they can do them so you can ensure follow-through. If we ask too much of them and they can't follow through, that is our fault - not our pup's!


Work With A Trainer

If you'd like to dive deeper into crate training, or other puppy training topics, consider working with a certified dog trainer! Use the link below to see if Busy Dog serves your area and book a free evaluation with your local trainer.