Grisha Stewart’s new book is an impressive piece of work, and I highly recommend it to trainers, behaviorists and dog owners who are ready to dive into the deep end to help their dog. Behavior Adjustment Training 2.0 (BAT 2.0) is a comprehensive and detailed approach to working with “fear, frustration, and aggression in dogs”. No matter what one’s field, I always am impressed by people who continually re-evaluate their perspectives and advice, and I love that BAT 2.0 resulted from Grisha sitting back and asking what worked about BAT 1.0, and what could be better.
If you don’t know the original concept behind BAT, here’s a primer: BAT is Grisha’s term for the use of Operant Conditioning to change a problematic behavior, emphasizing what Behavior Analysts call “Functional Reinforcers.” (I’m going to use a dog who is reactive to unfamiliar dogs as an example in order to keep things clear.) In other words, what does a dog want who is barking and growling at an approaching dog? Of course we can only guess, but it seems to be true in most cases it’s to increase the distance between the dog and the other dog. (But yes, sometimes because the dog wants to get closer but is frustrated because it can’t.) Like most good, positive programs to treat reactivity, BAT 1.0 advocated carefully observing a dog to find his or her “threshold,” or the intensity of a trigger stimulus required to elicit the first signs of a dog’s response. Then one sets up situations in which the dog is brought close enough to its threshold to notice the trigger, but not so close that the dog becomes over aroused. In other words, ideally the dog in question would notice another dog, but not stiffen, growl or bark.
At that point, the handler either asks the dog to do something appropriate, like “Watch Me”, or waits for the dog to behave in a way that we consider to be more appropriate, like relaxing his mouth, turning his head away, sniffing the ground… any behavior that appears (to both people and other dogs) to be polite rather than aggressive or assertively defensive. My booklet on treating reactive dogs, Feisty Fido, suggests beginning by asking the dog to turn his head to your cue, but then quickly waiting for the dog to offer the behavior himself (which I called an “Autowatch”). As soon as he does, he gets reinforced. Initially I used food as the only reinforcement, but quickly found that playing tug or fetch was a much better way to condition a dog that an approaching stranger meant only good things would happen. This method worked very well for hundreds of my client’s dogs as well as my own Willie, who began as life as a eight-week old puppy terrified by even a glimpse of another dog.
However, it was Grisha’s functional analysis perspective that got me thinking that what dogs really want is to increase the distance between themselves and another dog. That’s when I realized that I hadn’t just reinforced dogs with treats or play for appropriate behavior, but that every time I worked with a reactive dog I took a step or two backwards before offering the food or play object. Once I realized that, I emphasized the backward movement, to give the dog two reinforcements. Who knows which was more salient in the dog’s mind? But if it works, perhaps it’s not that important.
The difference between Feisty Fido and BAT 1.0 was/is in the action of the handler. Do you begin by adding in a cue, (Watch Me!) which you drop out as soon as possible, or stay silent, and let the dog choose the behavior? I would argue there are strengths and weaknesses to both, and I’ve always taken Terry Ryan’s sage advice about having as big a tool box as you can so that you can be flexible.
I’ve provided that background because it felt necessary to explain BAT 2.0, which has two basic steps. The first one reflects the biggest change: Rather than slowly managing the dog to get closer and closer to the trigger (but never too far), one sets up situations in which a dog is much farther under threshold and then let’s the dog decide how to proceed. In other words, the dog has a lot more autonomy than in earlier versions. As long as the dog isn’t walking straight toward the trigger, or doing anything inappropriate, then the dog is allowed to move away, sniff the ground, or move closer as long as under threshold. Another way of looking at this is that the dog gets to decide its own reinforcement for appropriate behavior, and the handler basically gets out of the way. Step Two, titled “Mark and Move,” is for situations in which allowing a dog to make it’s own choice isn’t going to work out–the other dog is too close for example–and one marks the best behavior you can expect, moves away and then reinforces.
I love the idea of giving dogs more autonomy, both on theoretical and practical grounds. After all, we all know that the lack of autonomy is the most probable cause of “leash reactivity,” when dogs bark and charge toward other dogs on leash, but not when free. I talked to Grisha last week about BAT 2.0, and asked if she agreed that Step One of BAT 2.0 was a way of replicating the life that dogs used to have (and still do in some areas) in which they had more freedom than they are now. She agreed, but of course, we often can’t let dogs learn how to handle meeting others without the constraint of a leash, which is why the chapter on leash skills is so important.
I began the detailed “Leash Skills” chapter by stress whining and licking my paws. Picture me decoding the drawings (insert hand into leash loop, wrap leash back against palm of hand, wrap leash back the other way….) with my head turned far to the side and my eyes focused on the page, like a nervous dog exhibiting whale eye. I seem to have the three-dimensional motor skills of a flatfish, which is why I asked Grisha how important it was to master the skills described in the 17-page long Leash Skills chapter. “It’s 80% of BAT 2.0,” she said. Oh, okay. Back I went, and once I took a breath I realized how simple it all really was (“simple” doesn’t mean “not important”). Basically, the chapter is about using the leash as an emergency back up while avoiding interfering with your dog’s freedom as much as possible. Don’t let it intimidate you, it’s well worth it. There’s also a leash skill video here if you’d like visual aids.
There’s lots more to like in this book: Including details throughout the book on “reading” your dog’s visual cues for signs of comfort or discomfort, illustrated stress scales and “reactivity charts,” a chapter for professionals on using BAT 2.0 with clients, and a chapter on puppies. However, this is a 278 page book. As such, it’s appropriate for any trainer who wants to add to his or her repertoire, but not for many of our clients. I did have clients who would have soaked this book up like the desert sand absorbs rain, but most of my clients would have been overwhelmed. It is also true that following BAT 2.0 to the letter is going to take more time and commitment from one’s client than some other methods, but I think of it like painting a house–it’s the preparation that takes the time, not the painting, right?
Remember that I’ve used “reactivity to unfamiliar dogs” as an example, but these methods are appropriate for dogs who are afraid of strangers, children, cars or anything else that sets them off. Other resources to consider are Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed, Emma Parson’s Teaching the Reactive Dog Class, The Cautious Canine by yours truly along with my DVD, Treating Dog-Dog Reactivity (hosted by Grisha, thanks for that!), and an audio telecourse through Animal Behavior Associates titled Rehabilitating the Canine Contender. I’ve also written other related articles in this blog, including “Dog-Dog Reactivity- A Treatment Summary”. There are so many resources out there, I have mentioned just a few. What about you? If you have you owned or worked with reactive dogs, what are your favorite resources?
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Maggie and I spent all of Saturday at a Sheep Management Workshop at Nippersink Hall, given by Gordon Watt. Very much worth it, I came home inspired to spend more time checking my sheep’s teeth and reviewing their nutrition. It’s true that my flock is small, and easy to keep in top condition, but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn more about improving what we’re doing. Right now the breeding ewes and lambs get a supplement of corn, oats, and a protein “kibble” containing a cocciastat, but I haven’t checked how much milk they are giving lately, nor their teeth for that matter. The lambs do seem to be gaining very well, but one can always do better. My primary concern right now is poor Solo, who had a little limp in a back leg last night, but wouldn’t put her hoof down this morning. I’ll keep her inside with a friend for a few days in hopes she heals up, otherwise I’ll call in the vet.
Here’s a flawed photo from the workshop, but I still love the back lighting and that it reminds me how Gordon’s dog Storm was so exceptionally calm and collected while working in close contact with Blackface ewes and their lambs. What a testament to great training and the right set of genes:
Breeding birds are busy all over the farm, including in and on the farmhouse. There are wrens nesting in a vent between the downstairs bath and the great outdoors, and every morning they greet the day well before 5 AM with their musical warbles. For years when I turned on the bathroom fan I’d hear a multitude of high pitched squeaks and image the babies’ tiny feathers blown to the side by the breeze, miniature Snoopy’s in their fighter planes pursuing the Red Baron. Then the fan stopped working, but I didn’t have the heart to take away such a great nesting site for the wrens. They come back every year and raise two or three sets of fledglings. On another side of the house a House Finch has already raised a brood on top of the porch light, a Robin is nesting in the Bridal Veil bush in the back, and a Barn Swallow pair who couldn’t find available housing in the barn (4-5 nests are active there now) has nested over a light fixture in the garage. There appear to be a total of four nestlings, who are always, always hungry. I’d show you the pile of poop that we have to clean up under the nest every few days, but I thought you’d enjoy seeing the babies a bit more:
Along with the birds, we’ve got flowers busting out all over. Hidden behind these blooms is a massive cement cover to our old, abandoned well, which I promised Jim I’d hide with some judicious plantings so we wouldn’t have to figure out how to fill in the massive well cavity to avoid something falling in. It took four years, but between the roses, the creeping oregano (I know, I’ll be sorry) and day lilies, I think my work is done.