A couple of weeks ago, I published Take a Breath and Reset Your Mind where I discussed Jack’s progress and my expectations for his continued growth. Briefly, I mentioned how I brought Jack into a training session with a reactive dog named Sadie. Well, Jack did his job and him and Sadie played.
A bit of background on Sadie. Sadie is a Boxer. I first met Sadie at the Humane Society of El Paso where I volunteered several hours a week at the time. Sadie was surrendered by a couple of different families because they didn’t feel Sadie could be around other dogs. While at the Humane Society, she was sweet and enjoyed being with people. When Linda talked about her love of the Boxer breed, I shared there are Boxers at the Humane Society. And what do you know, Linda adopted Sadie!
Sadie’s reactivity prevented the possibility of her being social and greeting another dog. As a smart and dedicated woman, Linda ensured Sadie’s safety and remained cautious when walking Sadie as she would often lunge, crawl, dart or do whatever in an attempt to meet another dog. After Sadie settled into her new home, Linda and I set up training.
The first things the three of us worked on were basic obedience. Sadie is extremely food motivated, so this came in handy. We worked on sit, down, stay, down/stay, focus and loose leash walking. Out of all of these, focus was the most important as a preliminary step in Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT). The reason, focus was the behavior which took the attention away from a distraction and brought attention right back to the handler. Sadie’s energy in training was so great. She learned quickly and stay motivated. Linda also continued practicing with Sadie during the rest of the week and it showed. After several sessions, it seemed to me Sadie’s progress was starting to plateau and I immediately thought of bringing Jack in for Sadie’s BAT training.
What is Behavior Adjustment Training? Essentially, BAT is working below a dog’s threshold to a particular trigger and reinforcing replacement behaviors such as sniffing the ground, looking away, moving away and focusing on the handler when a trigger is present. The goal being changing a dog’s emotional response. Threshold training means working at a point below where the dog becomes noticeably stressed. Once at the point of a dog barking, lunging at the trigger, its vitally important in moving the dog farther away since no training can happen at this time. The dog is too far gone in reacting to the trigger. Once the handler determines when a dog can remain relatively relaxed and practice the focus cue or sees other replacement behaviors and reinforces them, then the handler can slowly decrease the distance to the trigger all the while keeping the dog relaxed. The focus cue (look at me, watch me can all do the same) reorients the dog to the handler and the dog is reinforced after looking the handler in the eye. This is implementing a replacement behavior on cue. For more in depth understanding on BAT, check out: “Behavior Adjustment Training: BAT for Fear, Frustration and Aggression in Dogs” by Grisha Stewart.
The day came for Sadie and Jack’s first meeting. Since Sadie is reactive and being out for a walk may be too distracting and a bit overwhelming for her, Linda and I decided for the two dogs to meet in Linda’s backyard. Both Jack and Sadie were on leashes (which was a difficult consideration, but one where both Linda and I remained in control). As Jack entered the backyard, Sadie was whining, barking, lunging and completely fixated on Jack. She was unable moving away or showing any replacement behaviors. She was locked in! Jack didn’t match her energy. He ignored her, worked on obedience training with me and moved away with ease. Jack and I would move towards them at a safe distance and once Sadie started reacting and lunging, Jack and I swiftly moved far away. We continued working in this fashion. As the session progressed, her energy towards Jack began decreasing and she began sniffing the ground and turning away from him. As soon as she would, Linda would praise her for those behaviors. Sadie showed progress, but still not enough for them working on greeting behaviors.
The second session, a week later, we saw such progress! When Sadie and Jack were introduced again, Sadie did show stress, but her ability in doing replacement behaviors increased and she was able to do the focus cue when Linda asked. The progress made was amazing and reinforced for me the effectiveness of BAT. Even Jack was more comfortable, as soon as training was done, he gave a play bow!
Finally, by our third session with Jack, Sadie seemed even more relaxed. She ignored Jack more, looked away from him and the two of them were able to lay side by side with a few feet apart for a few seconds at a time. Remembering Jack giving the play bow last time, I felt we could move their introduction along. Luckily, Linda has a baby gate which she used for Sadie. I put Jack in the kitchen and baby gated Sadie in the dining room. The gate served two purposes. The primary, it was a barrier for both dogs while allowing both dogs to see and sniff each other without being able to get to one another. The second purpose, it allowed both Jack and Sadie roam free without leashes. As you may know, leashes, especially, tension on a leash often causes tension in a dog which then translates into reactivity. The ability for both Jack and Sadie having the freedom allowed for more relaxed approach in their first meeting. Linda and I practiced obedience training with both dogs as they were separated. Linda also crossed over the barrier and sat with Jack in the kitchen and Sadie didn’t show any stress. After about 15 minutes and Jack jumping on the gate, Sadie and Jack met. Let me tell you, it was awesome. Jack immediately picked up one of Sadie’s toys and started running around the couch and Sadie began chasing him. She allowed him to take a toy out of her mouth and playing ensued. There were moments where Sadie’s body language became rigid and frozen. I made sure to interrupt this behavior since this is indicative of more aggressive action about to possibly take place. I then rewarded the replacement behaviors which happened in response.
BAT is a useful strategy in changing a dog’s emotional response about a stressful trigger. Its done in time with how quickly or slowly the dog works and progresses and should not be rushed.
If you have a reactive dog and you’re concerned about her around other dogs and people, please contact a positive reinforcement trainer for guidance. You can certainly utilize the BAT protocol when out on walks or at home, when you’re working one with your dog, but if you want your reactive dog to meet another dog, before doing so, please have an evaluation done in order for a full assessment on the dog’s behaviors. The last thing you or your dog would want is for a fight or worse.