Do you have a dog that plays beautifully with their four-legged friends in the park, but on the leash they start frantically barking, lunging, and spinning?
It doesn’t make for a relaxing walk for either of you, and you might worry your dog is becoming aggressive.
You likely have a “frustrated greeter”, who is just desperate to say hello. They get over-aroused, and the barrier of the leash becomes too much for them.
While these dogs usually revert to calmer behavior once they say their hellos, allowing them to always charge up barking teaches them this behavior gets them what they want.
Approaching like this isn’t fair on the other dogs either. For some, it’s too much when a dog that’s so over-excited is in their space.
If they react aggressively, this could cause your dog to become fearful or aggressive back. Their reactive behavior could turn from pure excitement to something more challenging to deal with.
Working on encouraging calmer behavior around other dogs will help reduce stress levels all round.
What is BAT and How Can it Help with Frustrated Greetings?
Using traditional classic counter-conditioning is one option when working with frustrated greeters.
This involves rewarding your dog any time they look at the other dog without a reaction. You’re teaching them that calm behavior when they see other dogs means treats rain from the sky!
Behavior Adjustment Therapy (BAT), a form of operant conditioning, has been developed by professional dog trainer Grisha Stewart. It’s an alternative training technique that uses functional rewards for handling reactivity.
When creating BAT setups, you want to reward your dog for exhibiting uninterested or disengaging signals when they see other dogs.
For dogs feeling fearful, the functional reward they get for calm behavior is to move further away. With those that get excited to see other dogs, calm behavior results in them getting to move closer.
Grisha describes how “BAT teaches the dogs to have lower excitement around their triggers. It basically inserts a pause between stimulus and response, so they can do more thoughtful behavior.”
She provides a neat analogy, explaining that BAT lowers a dogs arousal levels much like meditation does for humans. It makes sense that a calm dog will likely make better choices.
It’s also worth noting that Grisha prefers to refer to “frustrated greetings,” rather than labeling the dog with the more commonly used term of “frustrated greeter”.
Why Stooge Dogs Are So Helpful
Heading straight to the busy park for training isn’t setting your dog up for success.
Grisha explains that “if you just rely on whatever dogs you meet on the street, the greeting may be rushed or the other dog may be too timid or overbearing.” She goes on to advise that “it really helps to start with Helper Dogs to lay the groundwork for polite greetings.”
A Certified BAT Instructor can provide further guidance on the subtleties of this training technique. They can sometimes even bring along calm dogs to create controlled initial setups.
Keep Your Dog Under Their Threshold
Whatever positive training technique you’re using, one of the key elements to success is to prevent your dog from tipping over their threshold.
Once your dog gets into a heightened state of arousal, trying to help them learn a new, more appropriate behavior isn’t going to happen.
Grisha explains that “you don’t have to start your walk with your dog all amped up”. Instead, she suggests you try “scattering some food around the garden or house for your dog to find before the walk, to take the edge off.”
The distance you start working from is also crucial. Expecting your dog to offer immediate calm behavior in close proximity to another dog is asking too much. Pick the spot where your dog can see the Stooge, but it’s at a sufficient distance not to trigger an over-excited reaction.
Rewarding Calm Behavior is the Key
The goal is to teach your dog that calm behavior around other dogs results in rewards. This might be yummy treats, a toy they love, or the opportunity to, ultimately, socialize with the other dog.
Timing is everything. Whenever your dog is offering calm behavior when they have another dog in their sights, you should immediately reward them. Whether they’re looking at you, sniffing the ground, sitting, or even just looking at the dog with no reaction – these are all examples of alternative behaviors you want to nurture.
Knowing When A Dog is Fearful
Dogs that bark and lunge when they see another pooch approaching aren’t always displaying frustrated greetings.
More commonly, fear is the driving force behind reactivity. If something is making your dog uncomfortable, then being trapped on the leash can heighten their anxiety. They react this way in an attempt to get away from the trigger.
Ideally, you don’t want to put your dog into a situation where they feel they have to react this way. Working with them at a distance that keeps them under their threshold is, again, important.
If you get too close all the time, you can unintentionally reinforce this behavior. You’ll likely end up having to move off in another direction, or the other dog owner might beat a hasty retreat.
In your dog’s mind, their behavior has resulted in the removal of the thing they’re uncomfortable with, so they’ll keep doing it. You aren’t going to get a chance to change their response to a positive one.
It can sometimes be a challenge to understand what your dog is trying to tell you. Handling things yourself is often stressful. If you’re struggling, consider reaching out to a qualified behaviorist.
They can help you understand the subtleties of dog body language, create controlled setups, and tweak your training technique along the way.
If you want to understand more about training using BAT, you can read Grisha’s book “Behavior Adjustment Training 2.0: New Practical Techniques for Fear, Frustration, and Aggression in Dogs”.
Need some help training your dog? While you may not be able to attend in-person training classes during COVID-19, we are here to help you virtually through AKC GoodDog! Helpline. This live telephone service connects you with a professional trainer who will offer unlimited, individualized advice on everything from behavioral issues to CGC prep to getting started in dog sports.