PROCESSING… more thoughts about Boogie and BAT.
This is a follow-on from my previous blog post.
I want to write down and share a few events from yesterday simply because GOOD EXPERIENCES are worth remembering and sometimes I get emails from blog readers who are struggling with reactive dogs who ask me if Boogie has changed with the training that I have been doing. If he is a different dog or if he is better than before?
My short answer is that Boogie will still BITE if he feels threatened. He has done it too many times already (up to Level 4) and I don’t think I can ever eliminate this possibility. Boogie is a very sensitive dog, and he still gets startled and freaks out. BUT…. the biggest lessons I have learned are that I CAN help him relax and/or bounce back so he doesn’t freak out so easily. I CAN reduce the likelihood of him feeling triggered out on the streets, and I think he is doing really well in the context of my insanely busy neighborhood. Yes, he IS a different dog from 2 years ago. He is a much more communicative dog than he ever used to be. And whether it’s only because I am better at listening to him, or whether he has actually expanded or clarified his “body language” repertoire… I am not sure. Training works both ways, right?
Here are some more detailed examples of what I see as “progress”. Yesterday….
SCENARIO 1: GIANT MASTIFF
Boogie and I were out walking and he stopped to pee and sniff the ground. He didn’t see that a person and their giant mastiff had appeared on the other side of the street. Knowing Boogie’s tendency to be triggered by “sudden environmental contrasts” (SECs) — ie, he is ok with a group of people walking towards him, but may be triggered by 1 person appearing on a quiet street — I thought it better to point out the mastiff to him so he wouldn’t get startled when he finished sniffing the ground. (Raise head, strange dog WTF! , freak out)
I said “Boogie, Look at that!” (cue to look at something, then look back at me)
Boogie raised his head, turned around, looked at the mastiff.
Me: “Yes!” (mark the “look”)
I was quite surprised that Boogie didn’t want a treat. He turned away from the treat in my hand. Instead he took a few steps back to sniff the ground behind us. (calming signal, self-soothing behavior)
I waited. The mastiff had walked past by now.
Boogie looked up at me: “Ready for that treat, mom!”
I said “Good Boy!” and gave him a treat.
Did Boogie really just direct that entire BAT sequence himself with bonus reward?
SCENARIO 2: EXCITED CORGI
We were taken by surprise when we turned a street corner. Right there – a few steps away- was a man and his barking corgi – just standing there. I am not sure what they were doing but that corgi was pulling on the leash barking his/her little head off at Boogie. Not in an aggressive way, but super excited all puppy-like.
Boogie did not take his eyes off the barking corgi. This was not a good time to go anywhere even though my natural impulse was “Gotta get away”.
I waited. My thought bubble: “Relax the leash relax the leash, just breathe” Puppy still barking at my dog.
Then Boogie turned to look at me, and asked to walk in the opposite direction. We turned away together and left the barking puppy far behind.
SCENARIO 3: ANGRY FRENCHIE
A man and his Frenchie were passing in front of us. The Frenchie stopped and stared at Boogie face-on. I recognized this Frenchie – he is left outside in his yard all day to run around barking at passing dogs. Boogie froze. I waited for the the Frenchie to keep walking but instead he was really stuck, just stood there (not sure what owner was doing) staring at Boogie before suddenly exploding in a fit of barks.
Boogie exploded back, pulling, lunging, barking. To me it didn’t sound like his usual “I am going to kill you, asshole!!!” bark, more like a “shut up, you idiot” bark.
Frenchie moved away. Boogie did a whiplash head-turn to look at me. He looked so proud of himself like he wanted a treat.
I gave him a treat for checking back with me and tried to console myself that THE OTHER DOG STARTED THE DRAMA FIRST even if I did not manage the incident very well.
SCENARIO 4: POLITE PUPPY BEHIND A FENCE
Yes, really. These 4 incidents happened all on ONE walk that lasted about 40 minutes. Welcome to my world.
There is a really adorable black puppy who hangs out in his yard, and he is the sweetest, most polite, most mellow-friendly puppy ever… to both dogs and humans. The first time we met this puppy (weeks ago), when Boogie looked at him through the fence just a few inches away, the puppy sat down, averted his eyes, turned his head away, went all “soft and curvy”, basically offered every polite signal in the Doggie Language book until Boogie relaxed. Everything was cool. Both dogs got to greet nose to nose.
We passed this yard again and this time the puppy (slightly larger than before) was lying down on the porch far away from the fence.
Boogie stopped at the fence and looked at the puppy. He would not move. Puppy stayed on the porch.
And I didn’t move Boogie because I felt that things would be OK with the fence there, and I knew that the puppy was super friendly and polite.
Boogie waited. I couldn’t see the puppy from where I was… but in a little while, the puppy was at the fence, wiggling AWAY from Boogie. Totally non-confrontational. Sitting and looking at me sweetly. Boogie turned his head away from the puppy and then I let both dogs sniff nose-to-nose through the fence. Puppy sat again, ears soft, body soft, all curvy and wiggly. Boogie’s body relaxed. I could see him soften then turn away. I gave both dogs a treat. Boogie looked at me as if to say “Puppy is cool. Let’s go”.
And on that peaceful note, we went home. 4 dog incidents. 3 good, 1 bad. Actually it should be 4/4 because the frenchie started it. That’s a good score, ok?
I was sort of struggling with the idea in BAT that “distance from the trigger” is reinforcing because it was often hard for me to tell if the retreat is really about “getting away from the trigger” (negative reinforcement) or simply “getting to move towards better things” (positive reinforcement). Most of the time I feel that Boogie wants to move away because he wants to move, not because he is trying to escape from the dog/person. And if there is no -R, then is Boogie really learning to cope with triggers? Or is he just doing what he wants to do anyway? How exactly am I marking and rewarding? Also, if there is no food, then how do we know what exactly is reinforcing to the dog and is it enough?
My experiences from yesterday remind me of a Dr Susan Friedman quote:
Control (over one’s environment ) is a primary reinforcer. To deprive an animal of control is akin to depriving them of water, food.
To the greatest extent possible all animals should be empowered to exercise personal control over significant environmental events.
I am starting to wonder if the Functional Reward in BAT has more to do with “control” or “agency” rather than “distance” per se. I am speaking about Boogie of course. I don’t know about other dogs.
Just this morning, we checked out a strange dog (sniffing around in bushes, on leash, next to his owner) from about 10 feet away. I noted that the other dog was calm and polite so I knew everything was safe. When Boogie was done looking at the dog – yes, I waited until he was totally done getting his information – we both very undramatically walked past that dog in a wide arc (as we usually do with dogs) and kept on moving. There were no reactivity or over-threshold signs whatsoever. Only genuine curiosity and disengagement. It was kinda wonderful.
ONE FINAL SCENARIO: HUMANS IN OUR TERRITORY
Later yesterday, Boogie and I stepped out of my apartment and there were two people in the front yard. Thanks to having done BAT set-ups in this location, Boogie would usually Stop, Look, then Turn to look at me and we would jog back towards the apartment, I give him a treat, before moving out again. (I stopped using a verbal marker when Boogie started being able to disengage and move away by himself)
Yesterday however, he Stopped, Looked at the two people in the front yard, looked at me, and turned 180 degrees away towards the back exit. He didn’t care about a treat. He wanted to leave via the back way instead. Of course I can’t read Boogie’s mind but my guess was that he was saying to me “Let’s not do the back and forth thing this time, Mom. Let’s just go THIS WAY. Path is clear”.
“Thank you, Boogie!” and I gave him a treat.
So I think what I personally take away from these experiences and the BAT seminar are what Susan Friedman said about Control as a primary reinforcer, and I see that when a reactive dog feels he has control over his environment and can move where he wants to move, this can be a powerful reinforcer for non-reactive behaviors. Classical Counter Conditioning is happening at the same time too, right?
I have always felt that Boogie is cool if he has time and space to process things. Grisha has reminded me a couple of times that when Boogie is done looking at the trigger, and does not want to go back and look at the trigger again, I shouldn’t ask him to (not even if I ask him really nicely). The whole experience should remain the DOG’S CHOICE and be completely non-aversive.
On a final note, to people reading this blog, I don’t want to give the impression that we should phase food rewards out of training. I know some people are concerned about this no-food thing, with regards to the fate of “Positive Reinforcement Dog Training” in the broader public context, where old-fashioned punishment-based food-hating trainers still dominate the media. What I am learning now is how to use food rewards with more awareness and sensitivity towards what Boogie is feeling and not rushing things.
Patricia McConnell: https://www.patriciamcconnell.com/theotherendoftheleash/tag/bat
Click here for some Susan Friedman quotes I collected via Twitter
NEXT: I still have notes from January’s Clicker Expo that I need to share. Coming soon!