Tag Archives: bat

Sooo proud of Spencer

I haven’t had a lot of time to post in recent months because work and life have been so busy. I hope to share some posts about the highlights of recent months because Spencer has been going through some really interesting developmental phases.

Today, though, I just want to say how proud I am of his performance on today’s walk. Between the weather, my heavy workload and Greg’s knee sprain, Spencer hasn’t has as many — or as long — walks as he would like recently. So this morning, I pretty much let him decide where he wanted to go. As you can see from this map, it was pretty long. But I can’t figure out how to measure the distance. I couldn’t even figure out how to get Google to let me show it as a single itinerary. For some reason, I had to put three itineraries together. This seems needlessly clunky. But I digress.

At one point in our walk (just above the letter A on the right-hand side) we passed through a major intersection at rush hour on market morning. There were people coming from all directions, waiting to cross busy roads and coming off buses in hordes. There were other dogs on leashes, baby carriages and all sorts of potentially threatening things and people.

And Spencer dealt with it all with perfect calm. He stayed by my side, observed, executed my directions, and oriented towards me for reassurance whenever he was unsure if he should be worried or not. It took us about 15 minutes to navigate a safe route through the crowd that wouldn’t put him in a difficult push and push him over threshold, but we managed.

I’m sure it helped that this was towards the end of our walk, and he has expended all hiss nervous energy. At the beginning of the walk when he was chomping at the bit, I doubt it would have been quite so easy, but this shows how much progress he has made thanks to counter-conditioning, BAT and our learning how to communicate with one another. (And Irène had a lot to do with our progress, so if you’re looking for a trainer in Paris, consider her.)


When too much is too much

I mentioned in a previous article how adventurous Spencer is getting. So our walks are not only in a greater variety of places, but we we don’t always have to go at times when no one else is out. Nonetheless, there are limits to what Spencer can handle, and they don’t always seem predictable. One of the many challenges of reactive dogs is that they may seem OK with a trigger one day and then react to it the next. At first glance, this seems to be totally unpredictable. But as you gain knowledge and observational skill, you can usual work out that what is really going on is a case of “trigger stacking.” Continue reading

BAT cats

A seriously cute bat-kitten borrowed from Catmoji.com

A seriously cute bat-kitten borrowed from Catmoji.com



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. Continue reading

BAT, BAT Black Sheep

In my previous post, I explained how Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) works. We haven’t been using it for very long, but in the past week I’ve noticed something interesting: Spencer has started applying the technique spontaneously.

Although our BAT set-ups focus on people. Scary People are his major trigger, but, for obvious reasons, the consequences of his reacting against people are much more serious than the way he reacts to another animal.

In the past week, I’ve seen him stop in the street on several occasions, look at a Scary Person and then position his body to indicate a desire to turn back the other direction. I try to pay attention to these signals and reward him by going the other way immediately, even if we sometimes come back and make another approach.

I’ve also seen him do the same thing with a strange dog. Ahead of me on the leash, he air-sniffed to gather information about the other dog and then scurried back to my side.

But the most flagrant example I’ve seen all week was Thursday morning at the Parc du Sceaux. Now that the temperatures have risen, the sheep are back out in their pasture. Spencer and I were on the neighboring lawn, exploring and frolicking when he caught a whiff of them. He turned towards them and took a cautious step or two forward. Since he was on the long lead, he had a lot more liberty to manage the situation than when he is on the leash.

Ears up, he peered at the sheep — including the strange, new black sheep that weren’t there last year — and sniffed, and then turned around and trotted happily past me like we were playing. So I trotted too, congratulated him in the Happy Voice, and when we got far enough away for him to feel safe, clicked and rewarded him. A minute or two later, he moved forward again, and we repeated the cycle.

We did that a few more times until he signalled that he was done, so we then headed back to the car.

It was one of those moments that seem inconsequential to a bystander and positively immense to someone with a reactive dog. He wasn’t just responding to a command that kept him out of trouble. He was actively (and successfully) applying a coping mechanism he had learned to a novel situation. This strengthens his understanding of the benefits and also contributes to his ability to generalize the usefulness of the technique.


The training techniques in our arsenal

A lot of Spencer’s training over the past 18 months (since we started working with Irène) has concentrated on counter-conditioning, classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Counter-conditioning basically consists in changing the dog’s emotional associations with various stimuli. For example, we’ll often pop the vet’s office just to go in and eat treats in the waiting room. This helps him associate other feelings besides stress with the location. Since reactivity is triggered by stress, counter-conditioning helps to reduce the number of triggers in a dog’s world. Counter-conditioning does not depend on the dog’s behavior.

Classical conditioning is closely related to counter-conditioning, but adds the notion of sequencing. We used classical conditioning to teach Spencer to stay calm in the car when a Scary Person walked by. 1) Scary Person appears. 2) Treat appears. 3) Scary Person starts predicting treat. 4) Scary Person is much less of a source of concern.

Operant conditioning teaches the dog that he can influence his world. It often starts by explicitly requesting the dog to do a behavior and then reinforcing the behavior through a reward. However, it can also start by “capturing” a behavior that the dog does naturally. We wanted to teach Spencer to do his play bow on request, but we weren’t success at making him understand what we wanted, and we couldn’t predict when he would use one to ask us to play. Then we noticed that he used play bows to stretch in the morning and right before going outside on leash. So we made sure we had a clicker in our hand at those times and clicked as soon as he spontaneously bowed. Then we joyfully danced off to the treat jar together. Once he had made the connection between the behavior and the click, we added the command, trying to precede the bow with the word, so that now when we used that word, he offers a play bow on command.

We’re now moving into a new phase of Spencer’s learning that builds on this foundation. Called Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT), it incorporates elements of the previous three techniques, but frames them in a new way. Basically, you put the dog in a situation where it is challenged by a trigger without being overwhelmed and facilitate a decision-making process where the dog gradually learns he has other options for dealing with the stress besides charging.

There a different ways to design the set-ups, but you can imagine it this way in order to understand how the principle works:

  • A trigger (a person or a dog, depending on what sets the student dog off) remains stationary.
  • The handler guides the student dog close enough that he pays attention to the trigger, but in a fairly relaxed way (i.e. don’t bring the dog close enough that it tenses or, worse, barks or lunges). As long as the dog stays relaxed, he can engage with the trigger through looking, sniffing, etc. as long as he wants.
  • When the dog disengages from the trigger (looking away, ignoring the trigger and sniffing the ground or a number of other predefined behaviors), the dog is congratulated and invited to move away from the trigger in a happy, playful way.
  • It’s optional whether the dog receives a bonus reward (food, a toy or a game) once it has moved away.
  • Gradually, the dog is able to move closer and closer to the trigger during the exercises until it learns that the trigger is “safe”.
  • Additional rounds then include making it harder by having the trigger move, using a new trigger, etc. The dog’s decision-making and coping skills gradually improve and its likelihood of a panicked reaction decreases.

Elementary, my dear Watson

More new friends!  Yesterday we met Sherlock — an adorable but reactive nine-month-old border collie — and his people, Noemi and Frank. They are also students of Irène’s. Having a reactive dog can be a socially isolating experience, so it’s nice when it occasionally is a way to meet people.

Noemi and I had already agreed to help each other with dog training — sometimes the hardest bit is finding a decoy to stand there while you teach the dog not to react. And given Spencer’s recent mishap, I asked if we could benefit from the exchange first.

Noemi and Greg stood in the middle of a circle while Spencer and I walked around and stopped at “decision points” where he was supposed to gather information about the stranger and then politely disengage (this is from Grisha Stewart’s Behavior Adjustment Training technique for anyone interested in the technicalities). He tried to half-heartedly charge a couple of times in the beginning, but he very quickly calmed down and started to do really well. He sniffed all around, looked at Noemi occasionally and sniffed in her direction, but didn’t charge again, even though we gradually moved closer and closer. We ended the session when we were about 3-4 metres away (best to end on a good note rather than pushing the dog too far in the first session).

While we were working, Frank and Sherlock were walking around. At the end of the session, Noemi went back to Sherlock and released him, while I put Spencer on his long lead so the two dogs could play together. They romped rowdily until Spencer had had enough. They both like a very rough form of play that involves lots of running, wrestling and trying to “mount” one another (a common ritual game to express domination). Sherlock is much smaller than Spencer, so it was very cute when Spencer very clearly intentionally lowered his head and let Sherlock “mount” him. It was a clear non-aggression signal and one that required a lot of gentleness on his part.

Afterwards, we leashed the dogs and walked back to the cars together. Spencer pulled a lot because Sherlock was in front, and he clearly wanted to be up with his friend, but until he’s comfortable with Frank and Noemi being nearby, we can’t do that.

The walk back was interesting.

First, since Spencer had played hard, he was much more restrained in his hellos to other dogs. This tiny little ball of (fearless) white fluff came up to him, and that went very well. He was also very gentle with a shy whippet that weighed maybe as much as his head. (Strange dogs. To me they look like too skinny to have internal organs.)

Second, Sherlock is very nervous when bikes or runners go by. He jumps on his leash, barking and trying to chase them away. We’ve worked really hard over months and months with Spencer to teach him to step aside and let others go by. We’re not used to being pointed out as the “good students”, so it was kind of nice to hear comments on how obedient Spencer was. Two women stopped right across from us (and only 2 metres or less away) to comment on how handsome he is. It’s not an easy task to convince people that they really need to move on and stop staring at your reactive dog when he’s sitting there all docile being an angel.

We got back to the car, put Spencer in and stood talking to Sherlock and his family for a while. Spencer continued to be angelic, even when people walked right by the car.

All in all, it was a good day for everyone. We hope to see Sherlock and his people again soon…and next time we’ll remember to take pictures!