Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Roxie Goes to BAT

A friend of mine told me that once in a while, she pines for a dog. She misses having one, and she wants her young son to experience the same joys she did growing up with a canine buddy.

Then she thinks of my dog Roxie. And just like that, she said, she's cured.

Mitch and I joke that Roxie has been more work and worry than all our other dogs combined. It's one of those jokes that's not really funny, because it's true. I'll be honest: the first few weeks after we brought Roxie home, I didn't love her. Worse: I wasn't sure I even liked her. This dog, with all her unexpected issues, wasn't what I'd envisioned. She wasn't what I'd wanted. I was prepared for training; I wasn't prepared for an unpredictable, socially embarrassing, hugely stressful project. And I hadn't the slightest clue how to make things better.

Enter dog trainer and overwhelming force for good, Allison. When she told us Roxie has leash reactivity, we asked: Is there anything we can do for that? What we really meant was: Are we ever going to get our lives back? 

Allison is a pro with people as well as dogs. I'm sure she noted the glaze of desperation in our eyes, the edge of hysteria in our voices.

We can help her, she told us. And then she introduced us to BAT.

BAT--Behavior Adjustment Training--was developed by Grisha Stewart of Ahimsa Dog Training in Seattle, WA. The premise is pretty simple. A reactive dog like Roxie gets anxious approaching other dogs on leash.  Barking and lunging makes the other dog go away, which eases her fear.* What BAT does is teach the dog a different behavior to get the same result.

It didn't take Roxie long to learn that if she simply looked away from the other dog, we immediately retreated out of sight. Not only did she get the same reward--the source of her anxiety disappearing--but by staying calm, she also earned highly delectable treats.** Now, Roxie may have issues, but she ain't dumb. And she luuurves her treats. She improved so fast, we became BAT junkies. On our daily walks, instead of avoiding other dogs, I actually started seeking them out so that we could practice. The first time Roxie successfully passed another dog across the street without barking, I about busted with pride. The way I bragged about her later, you'd think my dog had single-handedly saved a small village from ravening werewolves.

Because by then--and we're talking only weeks, not months--Roxie had truly become my dog. BAT is a dance of trust between canine and human. In learning the steps to that dance, I stopped seeing Roxie as a bundle of problems and instead started appreciating how smart she is. How sweet, how much she wants to please. How fun she is to play with, and how finely attuned she is to my smallest move.

Even more importantly, I let go of the dog of my imagination. The dog we might have had instead, the easy dog with no issues. How unfair to living breathing Roxie, to compare her to that dog. So I opened the door and I let that imaginary perfect dog run away. If you're lucky, maybe you'll find him.

Of course it hasn't been all kibble and biscuits. Sometimes it seems for every step forward, we slide half a step back. We joke (another not-so-funny ha-ha) that someone gave Roxie a list of dog vices, and she's diligently working her way through every single one. Digging: check. Cat-harassing: check. Random senseless destruction: check. (Exhibit A, below). We still have frustrations and not-so-great days.

But on our 2-mile morning runs, her going ballistic is a thing of the past. Other dogs are met with an interested look, then she turns to me for praise and a treat. Her fearfulness and anxiety are hugely diminished. Instead, she meets the world head-on, ears up and eager. Watching her bloom into confidence has been worth every hour of BAT, every class, every training walk. In the past year, Roxie has discovered that she's braver than she knew. That there's nothing to be afraid of. And that a dog's life is actually pretty fun.

Especially when feather pillows are involved.

For more information on BAT and other positive, reward-based training methods, visit Grisha Stewart's website. Next up for Roxie, her hardest challenge yet: group walks with other leash-reactive dogs. It'll be an adventure!

*A leash-reactive dog looks like he'll rip other dogs to pieces if given the chance. But in most dogs, the behavior is caused by anxiety, not aggression. Like Roxie, many of these dogs are darlings off-leash.

**Key for Roxie was finding a treat she couldn't resist. For her, that's chicken. She only gets it when she responds calmly to other dogs on our walks; we never use it for anything else. That keeps it super-special. And surprisingly economical. Some processed treats at the pet stores are $7 to $15 for just half a pound...or less! In our area, chicken tenders run about $7.50 for 2-1/2 lbs. Microwave 3 frozen tenders for 5-6 minutes until fully cooked, then dice into pea-sized bits. Voila! A treat worth being brave for.


Melissa Amateis said...

Oh. My. GOODNESS. And I see there's not one little bit of guilt in Roxie's oh so adorable face! That video was HILARIOUS. She really did a number on that pillow!

I'm so glad that Roxie went to such patient, loving owners as you. I know it hasn't all been roses, but you've shown her love and dedication while others would have chucked her out the door and into a bad situation. So here's a big WELL DONE to you and your sweetie for doing such a wonderful job. She is a beautiful dog and is very lucky to have you!

Christine Fletcher said...

No guilt at all! When I first walked in the room, she was still on the bed and when she saw me, she wagged her tail as if to say, "So much fun, Mom!" The dogs were in there for only 15 minutes. WITH chew toys. She'd never shown interest in pillows before... *sigh*

It's been a long road but she's taught us SO much. And I can't bear to think she may have ended up in someone's yard wearing a shock collar to keep her from barking, and never being walked because of her leash reactivity. I think we're lucky to have found each other! :)

Ruth Gundle said...

Christine, I know exactly what you are talking about, having made this same journey with Yofi (your patient!). Can't praise Caroline Spark enough, a dog behaviorist genius, who, in addition to showing us the way out of leash rage, helped us to see that Yofi needed "intellectual stimulation" in order not to be bored. By this she meant learning new things constantly ("tricks"), daily games and daily "hunts" for treats. Sometimes it's a house hunt, sometimes it's how to figure out how to get the treat out of nested boxes or whatever. But something every day that requires him to use his excellent brain. We did dog agility for two years. Roxie looks like she could be a brainiac too....

Christine Fletcher said...

Ruth, I love the idea of constant brain wonder Yofi is such an accomplished dog! Roxie is a smart cookie too, and I plan to train her a ton of new tricks this year...should be fun.

Sally Nemeth said...

I'd like to thank you for opening your door and letting the issue-free dog out to roam, because he ended up at our house. Garcia is the easiest damn dog I've ever had. My dearest departed Dixie dog, however, would have given your Roxie a run for her money. And I loved her more than I could ever imagine. It's the ones you gotta work for who become so precious.

Christine Fletcher said...

Maybe Dixie was the one who sent you Garcia? :) Whoever aimed him your way, you're both awfully lucky.

But it's true: the challenges are what really bond us. Naughty as she is, I wouldn't give up Roxie now for all the tea in China.

Lisa Nowak said...

Wow. Your bed looks like a chicken massacre.

I'm glad you found a training method that helped Roxie's leash-reactivity.

Christine Fletcher said...

HA! Love that image, Lisa. At least it was a dry carnage; no blood or guts. :)

Walter Rowntree said...

This is an absolutely fantastic story! The bigger the problem the greater the reward and feeling of accomplishment when successfully treating it. Congratulations to you and Roxie both!