Written by Carly Loyer, CBATI
Any trainer that’s taught puppy classes has seen what a broad range of confidence and sociability 8 week old puppies can display, from the happy-go-lucky, “everyone’s my VERY best friend and we should all chew on each other” bruisers, to the puppies who seem traumatized by the hint that another dog or person might interact with them. Those wallflower puppies are in dire need of socialization and confidence building, but they are also at the highest risk for a long-term setback if a negative experience occurs.
With that in mind, I’ve been incorporating more and more BAT-like exposure into Puppy Kindergarten, with some excellent results. In this article, I’ll talk about the pros and cons of two different approaches to puppy socialization: “Super Involved Jolly Time”, and BAT-like levels of interference, both of which I believe are important and useful for owners and trainers alike.
When I say “Super Involved Jolly Time” I’m talking about the concentrated effort on the part of the dog’s handler to create a positive experience for a skeptical puppy. This may be done with treats, toys, play time, or “happy talk” (you know – that high pitched, SUPER enthusiastic squeek kind of sound that can be so effective at spurring enthusiasm) being used to both elicit and reward brave behavior. In the chart at the bottom, this is labeled as "Active Encouragement."
Contrast this with BAT-like exposure, in which the handler sets the stage for success and then takes a back seat. The handler makes a concentrated effort not to try to directly influence the puppy’s emotional state except by creating an environment the puppy can safely explore at his own pace. For example, in a recent puppy class I had one puppy’s owners unclip her leash and just sit, or quietly follow her around as she explored. They were encouraged to lean down and love on her should she check in, but their job was not to try to get her attention or reward her for being brave or encourage her to go exploring. They just followed her.
While I consider both of these general tactics humane and positive, they require very different mindsets from the dog’s handler. Which technique I choose depends on the situation (though I increasingly default to the BAT-like exposure). There are a few distinct benefits from the super involved socialization tactic. Owners feel like they’re “really doing something” and are heavily reinforced for engaging with their puppy when the puppy makes progress. This type of work can also create an explosively happy anticipation of the situations in which it was used, and when it’s successful, it can help a dog switch gears from fearful to enthusiastic very quickly.
However, there are some downsides to relying solely on this type of training. One of the biggest challenges with this tactic is handler ability. Helping owners know when to click and treat is challenging enough when the behavior in question is a sit. When it comes to timing and delivery for social interactions, there’s a whole new level of complication.
Think of a puppy that’s fearful with other dogs. During play time, should the owner click when the puppy is playing with another dog, or will that just interrupt the positive social interaction? (The answer of course is “yes” to both, depending on the circumstances.) When treating during a play time, how do you deal with other puppy noses coming in for the goods? What if you trigger resource guarding?
While many trainers may have the experience to know when to click and when to let it ride, or know how and where and when to treat, I find that it’s nigh impossible to convey this information effectively to owners in the moment while supervising 9 puppies in a play time. That can lead to imperfect timing of markers and reinforcers which is confusing at best and anxiety- or fight-provoking at worst.
An additional downside to actively training during socialization is the fact that we can sometimes convince our puppies to put themselves into situations for which they aren’t quite ready, creating conflicting emotions about the circumstances we’re trying to counter-condition. If I lure a puppy out into the play area using a toy or treats, they may immediately be greeted by three other socially enthusiastic-but-not-skilled puppies. In that situation, even if I prevent the other three puppies from coming all the way up for a hello, it is likely that just the risk of a social interaction induced some fear in the puppy I was luring. In the future, she may trust the treats and me less, and be more cautious about even approaching a social situation for fear that it will be overwhelming.
This is where I think BAT-type training is ideal. The goal with the newest version of BAT is to focus on 'antecedent arrangements': the handler’s number one priority is to set up and be sufficiently aware of the environment to avoid unpleasant surprises that will set the dog over threshold. This allows dogs to explore at their own pace. The dog then has a chance to learn naturally that he is safe to explore and that other puppies, people, etc. are actually fun. In formal BAT set ups, this is achieved through careful location selection, identification and planning of escape routes, and an emphasis on gentle, non-intrusive leash skills to prevent the dog from getting closer to their triggers when their arousal starts to increase.
In puppy classes at Ahimsa Dog Training in Seattle, we use tethers, fences, and baby gates to manage the environment so that fearful puppies have maximal freedom and require minimal intervention from their owners or the trainer. This applies the BAT philosophy of minimal intrusion by the handler and maximal empowerment and success for the learner. More on that later.
In the case of the puppy I mentioned earlier, she spent the first session sitting in her dad’s lap, watching and learning, venturing out a couple of times at the end of class to eat some treats we’d tossed around her space, then immediately returning to her safe zone. By the end of the second class, she was actively soliciting play from a few select (and leashed) puppies. I don’t think we’d have had the same progress with her using more invasive training. Here’s why:
By taking treats all but completely out of the situation, I have seen that dogs focus on and learn about the environment more effectively. I think that when it comes to social fears, knowing how people and dogs move and react is a major benefit for the shy puppy. Surprises are our worst enemy, and if a puppy’s been paying more attention to the treats than to the trigger, any shift in the situation can come as a big shock.
Additionally, owners are now solely a “safe zone.” They are no longer putting pressure (however mild and treat-driven, there is still some pressure) on their puppies to engage in what the puppy would deem risky activities. I think this makes them far more reliable from the dog’s perspective. Finally, by giving the dog almost complete control over their proximity to their trigger, you build confidence and reduce the risk of a puppy trying out secondary defense mechanisms (growling, snarling, etc.) since they have the ability to get out of dodge at any time, simply by walking away. From personal experience, it seems to me that even off-leash, some dogs are so food motivated that they don’t leave a stressful situation if there’s a chance of food, so they end up getting into or staying in social situations that are way over their heads.
So how do you implement this in puppy class? Barriers! At Ahimsa, we have “stations” for each dog, which consist of a bungee tether for their harnesses (so dogs don’t lunge to the end of a regular leash and get a harsh correction) and a portable fence on either side separating a dog from its neighbors. We also have additional gates that can be place across the front of a station so the puppy is completely enclosed.
For very shy puppies, I usually allow them to be completely off-leash and explore the space while the rest of the class is doing training activities. If at any point their meanderings lead to frustration in the other puppies, we may gate them off or return them to their station. For puppies with snarkier behavior, they are either off-leash in an enclosed station, or wandering around on leash with the owner using BAT leash skills when necessary. During play times, puppies who need some extra protection may have their own zone where they can sniff other puppies through the fence, or they may be paired with another like-minded or very relaxed partner while the owners and trainer keep a close eye on their arousal levels.
The final question is how to choose which type of training for a given situation. This depends in large part on the environment – when I can safely micromanage the environment to avoid flooding a puppy, I usually choose BAT. But given how uncontrollable most of the world is, I also introduce owners to the more interactive training style, especially when we’re doing obstacle courses or introducing strange noises. As Grisha has said:
Good socialization really comes down to micromanaging the situation versus micromanaging the dog. Whenever you can set the dog up for success just by changing the environment, do it. That option empowers our dogs by giving their behavior realistic consequences. Micromanaging the dog just empowers us.
One other important factor to consider when choosing is your experience – you may have a pretty good idea when BAT is going to be the best option for a puppy versus when they might benefit from a little extra intervention. Overall, as I’ve said, both of these styles are important. It’s mostly a matter of when it’s safe to allow the puppy to fully control their exploration pattern. Using Grisha’s analogy of the ocean, whenever you can arrange the situation so that the puppy can stay ‘on the beach’ on her own, do that. If that’s impossible or unlikely, then use more treats and interactive training.