I previously mentioned the BAT protocol, which basically helps the dog learn how to make good decisions about strange, new things. It’s all about understanding that once a dog gets too close to something scary (or something they want to play with), if they don’t have good social and decision-making skills, they get sucked in by what BAT-developer Grisha Stewart calls the Magnet Effect. One of the basic principles of BAT is to keep the dog at a distance that prevents the Magnet Effect, doesn’t trigger a reaction and yet is close enough that the dog can gather information about the new thing.
BAT can be used in structured exercises (called set-ups) or in real-life. Personally, I think the dog probably learns more in real-life, but BAT is more challenging in that context because you can’t control all the variables. First, you never know when you are going to stumble into a real-life BAT situation and then the “trigger” may move unpredictably or be too close when it appears.
We are currently working on BAT with cats. We’ve long suspected that Spencer would actually do very well with cats if he could only get to know one in a controlled way. One of the problems with cats is that they have the tendency to run away from a strange dog, triggering his chase instincts. While Spencer gets nervous around small dogs barking at him, he is actually very gentle around small dogs that are relaxed. And while he barks at the hedgehog through the fence, we think it’s out of frustration, because when he actually catches one, he plays with it and doesn’t attack it. So we think that a calm, controlled approach to cat might actually be successful.
Unfortunately, that’s a tall order. We’ve had many through-the-fence encounters with cats that ended with Spencer getting increasingly tense and then barking fixedly at the cat. But then one day, we saw a cat from a long distance, and Spencer was calmer, peering at it and sniffing. From that point onward, I decided to take a BAT approach to cats. It seems to be working, ever so gradually.
A couple of days ago, Spencer spent 20 minutes almost nose-to-nose with a cat. It was really interesting to observe. He suddenly veered towards a fence and pressed his nose against it, a sure sign there’s a cat. Between the muzzle, the fence and some wire meshing lining the fence, there were several layers to keep the animals safe, even though they were physically close. Spencer’s body language was highly alert, above what I would have liked, but his hackles were not up, or barely so, so I decided to let him be and to avoid tugging on the leash and adding tension. The cat was squatting in a ball and growling, but it didn’t leave (the cats rarely do go away, for some reason). Pretty quickly the cat took a swat at Spencer’s nose. Spencer jumped back without saying anything and then came back in for another long look.
They probably stayed like for about ten minutes. It was interesting to see the subtle changes in Spencer’s body language. At first, his weight was very forward, his ears were perked up, and his tail was curled into a question mark. As time passed, he relaxed a bit, his weight shifted somewhat backwards and his tail uncurled. At one point, he even tentatively wagged his tail a few times.
I don’t know who moved first, but the cat finally took several more swipes at Spencer, who barked several times and lunged towards the cat. I took hold of his harness and started walking him backwards, which has proven to be the only way to get him to disengage from these situations. He has to be backed up until the distance is great enough that he can turn away. The good news is that the necessary distance is becoming shorter with time. (I’ve also noticed that putting an arm around his chest can help, which may be related to the research on swaddling animals to help reduce their stress.)
Once I had backed him up enough to reduce his arousal level, Spencer went back to watching the cat, who was amazingly still hanging out there. We finally left. I think the cat got tired of the situation and moved away. It still took me several minutes to convince Spencer to move on.
The next day, we saw another cat through a fence. This time the cat was 4-5 metres away. Spencer was fixated on the cat, but was much less tense. He was able to take treats from me, and I continued to work on associating the cat with good things, talking in a happy voice and clicking and treating the slightest signs of voluntary disengagement on his part. And there were many. As well as glancing from the cat to me, several times he moved a couple of steps away and then came back to look at the cat some more. He even listened to my cue to sit at one point and was watching the cat from a fairly calm sit. He never once barked, and we eventually disengaged and walked away with no tension.
We’ll keep working on this, and hopefully we will some day reach a stage where he can meet a new cat with a calm and relaxed attitude, but I have to say that I’m pleased that he’s making progress and by the speed at which he seems to be progressing.