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Behavior Adjustment Training for Aggressive or Fearful Dogs

A tan dog is aggressively baring its teeth

The Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) method by Grisha Stewart of Ahimsa Dog Training, is a great way to help your dog to be more comfortable with what he or she is fearful, anxious, or upset about.

Fearful dog being rewarded in aggressive dog training

How Does BAT Work

BAT uses desensitization together with a functional reward for calm behavior. Simply put, you begin at a distance where your dog can see what she is afraid of without reacting to it and when your dog shows calm body language, you move away from what she is afraid of as the reward. You can also add a ‘bonus’ reward of a treat or toy.

The Function Reward in Aggressive Dog Training

What is unique about BAT is the use of the ‘functional reward’. You can think of the functional reward as what your dog wants to happen at that moment. In the case of training an aggressive or fearful dog, what the dog generally wants is for the scary thing to be farther away. A good functional reward for your dog's calm behavior in the face of what he or she is afraid of can be retreating farther away from it. If you can teach your dog that calmness will make what scares her get farther away, you've empowered your dog while solving lots of misbehavior problems that come along with anxiety, such as barking and aggression.

Learn to Read Your Dog’s Body Language

While training aggressive or fearful dogs using BAT, it pays to be careful about how you desensitize and how you read your dog's body language. When desensitizing your dog, the most challenging aspect will be controlling the environment so that your dog doesn't end up ‘over threshold’, causing them to bark, lunge, etc. If you are working on training your aggressive dog to be calm when other dogs pass by, and you consistently get too close and your dog ends up barking, you will most likely be exacerbating the problem instead of solving it. What you want is to be close enough so that your dog notices the stimulus and is maybe a bit concerned about it, but not enough for them to react fearfully.

Nervous German Shepherd looking up

Get a Helper When Needed

It really helps in the aggressive dog training process to have someone assisting you so that you can have control over the stimulus, but sometimes you can also get exposure when training your dog's anxiety by ‘stalking’ a dog walking trail or other predictable place where people pass by as long as you have enough space to ‘escape’.

If your dog does end up barking or upset and you cannot wait for a moment of relative calmness before retreating, it is best to get away from the stimulus as quickly as you can and start over with a greater distance or lesser intensity.

A woman walks her dog in a park during winter

Getting to Know Your Dog Better

It takes a bit of practice to read your dog's body language for calmness in order to know when to reward by retreating. A great side effect of learning this skill however, is a better understanding of your dog. Grisha states that what you are looking for before retreating is “blinking, jaw loosening (being able to pant again), looking away, turning away, ground sniffing, air sniffing, tail carriage getting looser, friendly approach."

A Positive Approach to Dog Anxiety Training

In summary, BAT can be an effective and gentle approach to training aggressive dogs to be calm about what he or she is scared of. It’s also a way to help relieve your dog's discomfort instead of masking (or increasing) it using corrections. How long it takes for you to see progress will vary greatly, but many people report results pretty quickly, especially when compared to other dog anxiety training methods.

Are you interested in trying out BAT with your dog? Here are some resources:

Let us know what you think and happy training! Explore dog training aids from Pet Expertise today.

The Author:

Jess Rollins

Jess Rollins and Pet Expertise's Mission is to Help You to Maximize Your Dog's Potential!

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1 comment

  • This seems utterly impractical. You’re teaching your dog that the only way to handle fear is retreat. My dog reacts to cars passing as we walk on the sidewalk….in what way am I helping her by retreating?? What she needs is to learn that she doesn’t need to be afraid of passing cars. Very different outcome.

    PE Response: That’s a good point. I think the key is in this line: “What you want is to be close enough so that your dog notices the stimulus and is maybe a bit concerned about it, but not enough for her to react fearfully.” So when your dog notices passing cars but is keeping calm about it, you can say, “See, it’s OK. Let’s watch from a little further back, where you are comfortable, and see that nothing bad happens when cars go by.” It lets her experience the fear stimulus without having a fear response (barking, lunging, trembling, etc.). “It takes a bit of practice to read your dog’s body language for calmness in order to know when to reward by retreating.” So you aren’t retreating when you see that she is afraid, but when you see that she is handling the fear with calm body language.

    I do this myself with spiders. My reward for handling indoor spiders like a grownup is that I get to walk quickly away once I have.

    Gord

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