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 Outdated training advice directs you to just hold your ground until your dog goes berserk, then correct him with a hefty leash pop.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.
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.