Updated: Nov 23
Effective, empowering, humane …and controversial.
When it comes to addressing behavior issues in dogs, especially with so many of them living with the effects of past experiences, the need for a sensitive, humane, and trauma-informed approach cannot be overstated.
One remarkable method that aligns with this thinking is Behavior Adjustment Training, often referred to as BAT.
It is humane. Powerful. Empowering.
This article will delve into what Behavior Adjustment Training is and why it is a powerful, trauma-informed, and humane system that supports your dog's emotional well-being.
We will also tackle the controversies surrounding its protocols.
Understanding Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT)
Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) is a force-free dog training method developed by Grisha Stewart, a renowned dog trainer and behavior consultant.
At its core, BAT focuses on empowering dogs to make healthy choices and learn to navigate challenging situations with increased confidence. It is a non-confrontational, compassionate approach that aims to address behavior problems, including aggression, fear, frustration, and reactivity.
BAT: Some Key Things to Know
To truly comprehend the value of BAT, it's essential to understand some of its core principles:
Empowerment: BAT empowers dogs by allowing them to make free choices within safe boundaries. This sense of control with regards to their feelings of safety is pivotal in reducing fear and anxiety.
Emotional Boundaries: A significant aspect of BAT is the respect for a dog's emotional state. It acknowledges the dog's unique experiences, allowing them to heal at their own pace. This is particularly important when dealing with dogs living with the effects of trauma.
Reinforcing Calm(er) Behavior: BAT emphasizes reinforcing calm, exploratory, and pro-social behaviors. Instead of punitive measures, it rewards the dog for making good choices independently.
Counterconditioning and Desensitization: BAT incorporates desensitization and counterconditioning techniques in the form of special training sessions called BAT Walks and BAT Setups. These help change the dog's emotional response to triggers that cause unwanted behaviors. Gradual exposure and working under the dog's emotional "threshold" are key components.
Functional Rewards: BAT favors functional rewards to reinforce desired behaviors. Functional rewards are practical real life rewards that are directly related to the behavior being targeted. For example in a BAT Setup we may arrange it so that a dog naturally moves to investigate something interesting we set up nearby after moving attention away from the "trigger". The sniffing at the interesting spot rewards the dog for disengaging with the trigger.
Safety and Management: Safety is a priority in BAT. Handlers use specialized handling skills and equipment to ensure the safety of the dog and others. This controlled environment minimizes the risk of unwanted confrontations.
BAT as a Trauma-Informed Approach
Behavior Adjustment Training's trauma-informed nature is evident in its recognition of a dog's emotional boundaries and its approach to gradual desensitization and counterconditioning - where it is the dog that sets the pace. Not the humans.
Dogs living with the effects of trauma often have fragile emotional boundaries. BAT's non-intrusive approach ensures that these boundaries are respected. Dogs are allowed to heal and regain confidence at their own pace.
Trauma can make dogs feel helpless and out of control. BAT empowers them to make choices, offering a sense of agency and self-esteem. This is a crucial step in their recovery as they begin to stretch out and explore to build confidence. The humans involved in the process use specialized handling and management practices to ensure that the training environments are safe and conducive to the dog's natural behaviors.
Through careful setup an instructor can ensure that healthy choices are both easy and reinforcing for the dog to make.
Dogs living with trauma are often hypersensitive to triggers. BAT's protocols are trigger-specific and a gradual desensitization approach ensures they are not overwhelmed during training sessions.
BAT excels at reconditioning emotional responses, which is vital for dogs with trauma. It gradually transforms negative associations into neutral or even positive ones, promoting healing. The dog slowly learns that social and exploratory behaviors are safe and rewarding.
Before BAT Walks or BAT Setups even take place the student is coached through a period of building emotional resilience and a more secure bond with their dog. This along with a "stress vacation" at the start of a BAT program prepares the dog for eventual exposure.
While BAT has gained popularity and acclaim for its gentle approach to dog training (I often refer to it as Gentle Parenting for Dogs), there are some controversies and criticisms associated with the method, especially in its early years.
Individual Variability: Some experts suggest that BAT may not be suitable for all dogs or may need to be adapted significantly based on the individual dog's temperament, history, and specific issues. This can make it less accessible for dog owners who are seeking a one-size-fits-all solution.
Frankly, I could not agree more. BAT is not right for every dog or every issue.
I personally use the BAT Walk and Setup protocols for trauma-informed and trigger-specific behavior issues on the more serious end of the spectrum.
I use other protocols for some issue with predatory behaviors being one example.
That being said the relationship work, emotional resilience building, and handling skills are broadly useful.
Competence of Trainers: A significant concern is the competence of the trainers and handlers applying BAT. It's essential that trainers using BAT are highly skilled and knowledgeable about dog behavior, body language, and the nuanced application of the method.
While BAT is very effective it is not usually a method that can be approached casually. In most cases use of BAT with serious behavior issues would greatly benefit (if not require) working with a certified BAT instructor.
To become a certified BAT instructor requires a serious training and behavior foundation plus a minimum of six months of schooling and hundreds of hours of courses and practice.
Trainers and owners applying BAT without proper education may have trouble with the nuances.
As such is can sometimes be difficult to find certified practitioners in some areas making accessibility an issue for some.
Use of Negative Reinforcement: BAT has been heavily criticized for its reliance on the concept of "negative reinforcement" which is the removal of an aversive stimulus to reward a behavior. In the early days of BAT (what we call BAT 1.0) a dog would be led towards a trigger by the trainer and then, after a desired behavior was performed, would be led back away as a reward.
I am not going to get into the justification used at the time because it is moot. This concept has been removed from BAT (we now use what is called BAT 3.0 - the protocols are always evolving) and dogs are no longer led towards triggers.
While exposure therapy via BAT Setups is still done, the dog only steps closer to the trigger if they choose to.
Trainers will still reward a desired behavior by leading the dog away from the trigger (we call it Mark & Move) but now this is only done to gain distance if the dog is too close, or to avoid problems on BAT Walks.
Time-Intensive Nature: BAT often requires more time and patience compared to other training methods. This can be a problem for some dog owners who may be looking for quick fixes or who have limited time to devote to training.
Much of the extra time is due to the period at the beginning of a BAT program where relationship work and foundation-skills building comes before any type of exposure training. Of course one of the benefits of this approach is that students typically leave BAT programs rather self-sufficient.
The careful and incremental nature of BAT can be seen as a drawback for those seeking faster results. As a trauma-informed approach BAT favors emotional safety over the fast suppression of unwanted behavior.
By meeting the dog's needs, building their sense of emotional safety, and allowing them to heal on their own time BAT creates long lasting change in ways that respect the animal's experience and individuality. Dogs living with the effects of trauma deserve it.
Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) is a transformative, trauma-informed, and humane approach for dogs dealing with aggression, fear, frustration, and reactivity.
It embodies principles that respect emotional boundaries, promote empowerment, and prioritize safety and wellbeing. If you're seeking a compassionate and effective approach to support your dog's emotional well-being in addition to their behavior, consider BAT as a powerful tool on their journey to a happier and healthier life.
Robin Wong is a certified dog trainer, a graduate of the prestigious Victoria Stilwell Academy, and a Certified Behavior Adjustment Training Instructor (Knowledge Assessed). He founded Holy Sit to provide trauma-informed behavior work and positive dog training in London Ont.