You’re walking your dog when an off-leash Lab puppy comes sprinting your way. Knowing that your dog is about to freak out, you shout, “Call your dog!” in the vain hope that the caregiver will (a) call her puppy and (b) actually be able to get the puppy under control. The common response, “Don’t worry, she’s friendly!” sends your pulse soaring.
It’s meant to reassure you, but few phrases are more terrifying when you know your dog is going to bark, lunge or worse.
What do you do? Outdated training advice directs you to just hold your ground until your dog goes berserk, then correct him with a hefty leash pop. That might make you feel like you’re doing something about the problem, but it’s actually not the best time to teach your dog a lesson. To get a predictable response, build up your dog’s experience with success, not failure.
The only thing a correction tells your dog is to put up and shut up. That doesn’t make him feel any better, but he may stop growling—in other words, stop warning you when he’s feeling uncomfortable. It’s like taking the batteries out of your smoke alarm instead of dealing with the fire. Shutting off your dog’s warning system makes his behavior more unpredictable and, therefore, dangerous.
Instead of giving a correction, or even trying to feed your soon-to-explode dog, the best thing to do is to calmly (but quickly) get your dog out of there. For long-term change, do some specific training that’s proactive, not reactive.
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You do not need the violent corrections that you may have seen on television, nor do you need to always stuff your dog with treats. Since 2010, Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) has helped many dogs and their people around the world lead more normal lives. An updated version of BAT first appeared at seminars in 2014 and is now described in BAT 2.0 (available mid- February in e-book and print versions).
With BAT, trainers set up scenarios similar to situations that would cause a reaction, but are different enough that the dog can explore the area and learn about the trigger at his own pace. BAT gives dogs a reality check. Dogs who would usually overreact have a chance to slow down and learn from experiences that contradict their negative expectations.
Here’s how that reality check works. Your dog comes into a situation expecting XYZ to happen. That means he’s ready to respond in a certain way, and to interpret the situation through that lens. When XYZ doesn’t happen, it creates an “expectancy violation,” which can drastically change your dog’s outlook. Carefully orchestrated positive interactions can alter the way your dog responds to triggers.
For example, my dog was terrified of strangers, and BAT helped him learn that people were not scary, but fun. He now solicits attention and affection from people he’s never met. In Oregon, Certified BAT Instructor (CBATI) Dennis Fehling used the method to help a German Shepherd named Emmy learn to interact with loose dogs instead of barking and growling at them. In New Jersey, Molly Sumner, CBATI, used BAT to help her Shiba Inu, Mashi, get back to winning in the obedience ring after he was attacked.
The chance to fully explore a situation and learn about a trigger is one of the biggest differences between BAT and other force-free techniques. Another is BAT’s emphasis on empowerment, on teaching dogs that they can use behavior to control their own safety. Behavior exists to have an effect, and having effective behavioral strategies is one of the basic needs of all animals. Having control over stressors has a range of benefits, including better concentration and improved social skills; a healthier immune system; and resilience to distress, even in situations in which one does not have control.
While I might use a lot of prompting and treats in emergencies—such as meeting the off-leash Labrador puppy described earlier—I see that as distraction rather than as a way to teach my dog to interact socially. Distraction is a useful survival strategy, but it doesn’t give my dog an experience he can use to interact well the next time he meets a dog.
BAT training set-ups are situations that a dog can manage without significant help. We can maximize empowerment by putting treats away and following the dog as he explores. Following your dog may contradict everything you’ve learned about training. You may have heard that you have to be a dominant leader, or that you and your treats have to be the center of your dog’s universe. BAT has a different approach, and it works.
BAT has three components:
1. Leash Skills. Specific ways you can handle a long line so that your dog can move about freely and still be under control for safety. BAT leash skills can be used with all dogs and puppies for socialization, and to reduce pulling. There are about 10 leash skills to practice, including ways to shorten the line without tangling it, keep out of the dog’s way, hold the leash so you can’t accidentally let go, get the dog’s attention with soft strokes on the leash and gently bring the dog to a stop.
For example, you can use the “Slow Stop” to keep your dog from getting too close to a trigger before he’s ready. To do a Slow Stop, gradually slow your walking and gently squeeze on the leash, letting some slide through. Think of it as gradually depressing a car’s brake pedal. If your dog suddenly slams to a stop, he’s more likely to overreact to the trigger than if he is slowly brought to a halt. After you stop your dog, relax the leash a little bit so that he’s not restrained. There are several more leash skills, each with a specific function.
2. Survival Skills. Not the main point of BAT, but they keep your dog from having a bad experience that may set back training. They’re what you use to get through situations that your dog can’t handle yet. For example, if you’re walking down the street with your dog (who often barks at children) and you see a child coming toward you, you could: cross the street, walk in an arc around the child, or cue your dog to look at you and/or feed treats as the two of you pass by. There are many ways to help your dog cope with trouble when he’s not ready to do it on his own.
Mark and Move is a survival skill in which the handler uses some sort of marker signal—say, a clicker—to pinpoint a behavior, like noticing the trigger, sniffing the trigger, blinking or turning away. After marking, the handler happily encourages the dog to move away and then gives a reinforcer, such as a treat or a toy. Mark and Move is basically just clicker training with movement, and is used for surprises on walks or when the dog first greets a trigger in the early stages of training.
Most people don’t want to use treats forever to keep their dog calm, and the good news is, you won’t have to. When you do enough of the training set-ups, your dog will start to handle more situations on his own. BAT set-ups build a solid communication system with your dog, so that if he ever needs your help, you’ll know.
3. BAT Set-Ups. Safe scenarios in which dogs can socialize naturally and interact with triggers in positive ways. I recommend doing your first sessions with a Certified BAT Instructor or other experienced professional trainer, and reading the book or watching the DVD series to get it right. The example that follows will give you a taste of what BAT looks like, but it’s better to know the full technique before using it.
Let’s say that your dog’s main issue is that he barks at children from 25 feet away. In a BAT Set-Up with your friend’s child, your dog would ideally be wearing a harness and on a 15-foot leash. The child could sit at a picnic table with her mom at the far end of a park, say, 100 feet away from you. You and the other adult(s) have phones or radios so you can communicate with one another during the exercise. If you think there’s any risk of a bite, have a barrier around the child or pre-train your dog to wear a muzzle.
Follow your dog casually as he walks around. At some point, your dog might notice the child and go back to sniffing. Simply follow, letting out the leash when needed, then catching up and shortening it again. Let your dog choose the route, resisting the temptation to lead your dog toward the child. To someone watching, it would look like your dog is looking for a place to pee, or maybe sniffing out squirrels— like a dog exploring the area, with an occasional interest in the child.
As your dog wanders, he might stay relaxed but gradually move closer to the child, which is great. If your dog starts to really focus on the child, perhaps by walking in a straight line toward her, do a Slow Stop and relax the leash. You could also walk at an angle that leads your dog away from the child and then stop, waiting for your dog to turn away. Keep the leash loose and don’t call your dog unless your dog is really having trouble. If you need to frequently redirect your dog, you may be too close, or the working environment may not encourage enough exploration. There are more details, but that’s the general idea.
BAT is quite boring, really, and that’s a good thing. Couldn’t you use a little less excitement on your walks?