As I mentioned last week, my trainer Crystal suggested that Frankie and I try Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) — not only because it’s a good technique but because it’s a good fit with Frankie’s diabetes. That is, although the technique can include food rewards, it doesn’t rely on them.

I wanted to learn more about what exactly Frankie and I were getting into. Because Grisha Stewart, BAT’s creator, has a lot on her plate at the moment, her fellow trainer and BAT expert Irith Bloom agreed to fill in and answer my many questions. This is the first part of my interview with Irith; there will be at least two more installments.


1. Could you briefly describe the theory behind BAT?

To quote Grisha Stewart, “BAT uses functional and bonus rewards, combined with clicker training and systematic desensitization, to help dogs make better choices in an error-free way.”

In plainer English: Animals, like people, try to control their environment using a variety of behaviors.  They generally decide which behaviors to use based on what has worked before. For example, some animals have learned that aggressive behavior makes scary things move away from them, so when faced with a scary thing, they act aggressive.

The goal of BAT is to teach the animal a set of more acceptable tools for dealing with situations they find stressful, and to which they currently respond in a way we humans don’t particularly like.

What kind of techniques does BAT use?

BAT includes a few different techniques but the most important one involves artificially created situations (setups) where the trainer can control how stressful the situation is for the animal.  In these setups, we train just at the edge of the animal’s comfort zone, and wait for the animal to offer an acceptable behavior, instead of the one we don’t like.  When the animal offers an acceptable behavior, we “mark” that behavior with a clicker or other marker — we tell the animal “that’s it!” in one way or another — and then give the animal whatever it was the animal wanted in the first place.

Here’s an example of how a setup might work:

Fido is scared of men wearing hats.  Whenever Fido sees a man wearing a hat, he starts barking and lunging.  When he does this, the man with the hat usually backs away, and Fido’s owner also tends to pull him away. End result?  Fido winds up farther away from the man with the hat.

In working with Fido, I would bring in a friendly male volunteer who is wearing a hat (the decoy).  I would figure out how far apart Fido and the man must be for Fido to notice the man, without being so stressed that he starts barking and lunging.  I would then begin with Fido and the man at that distance and wait for Fido to offer  an acceptable behavior ([Note: I’ll be defining and giving examples of acceptable behaviors next week]).  As soon as I saw that acceptable behavior, I would mark it and have Fido’s owner move Fido away from the man with the hat.

I’ve shown Fido that acceptable behavior gets him what he wants (or at least, what I think Fido wants).  Assuming Fido wants distance from the man with the hat, Fido will be likely to offer the same behavior again to see if it results in increased distance a second time.  (Note that if Fido doesn’t start to offer the acceptable behavior more promptly after a few repeats, I would begin to wonder if I had misdiagnosed what Fido wants, and review the situation to figure out what Fido might want instead.)

We would repeat this exercise until we got a variety of acceptable responses from Fido, and then gradually decrease the distance to the man with the hat.  Variations might include having the man walk away in response to acceptable behavior (instead of Fido walking away), or having the man speak to or reach towards Fido rather than standing still.

Note that we would only practice one variation at a time, and each at a very safe distance before the distance was decreased with that new variation. Once Fido was relaxed even up close with the decoy doing strange things, the next step would be to get another friendly male volunteer, put him in a hat, and start all over again with that new decoy.

After going through BAT training with two or three different decoys, most dogs begin to offer acceptable behaviors fairly quickly even when encountering a completely new decoy for the first time. For some animals, one decoy is enough to establish a new set of behaviors (though this is rare).  For other animals, more different decoys are required.  The number of decoys required depends on a variety of factors, including the animal’s inherent personality, how deep-seated the anxiety is, and how carefully the training is managed.

Being careful not to add too much difficulty at any one time can prevent the wrong kind of responses.  When we do everything in a slow, careful way, we can achieve “error-free” learning where the animal never again has an over-the-top response to the trigger.

Irith Bloom is the owner of The Sophisticated Dog, a pet training business offering services to clients on the Westside of Los Angeles.  She specializes in clicker training and other pet-friendly methods of animal training and behavior modification.  Irith is a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner) and a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT). You can see more of her writing on her Sophisticated Dog website, on  Karen Pryor Clickertraining’s website and on

12 thoughts on “Training Tuesday: Batboy begins”

  1. I am new to having a fearful dog. And have just started reading up and getting advice on how I could help her to be less fearful.

    This BAT method makes a lot of sense. What I like about it is that it taps directly into the need of the dog. What would Viva (our fearful dog) like best when meating a fear. A treat? Or just walk away? The reward of walking away would be more rewarding for her. Both methods would do the trick. But giving the desired reward in stead of the treat would logically make more sense, and would allow Viva to move forward faster. As she gets exactly what she wants. And don’t has to make that second decision if she would like to have a treat in stead of what she really would want.

    What I also like about BAT is that it lets you search and investigate deeper what is the trigger and what is it your dog really wants. No treat shortcuts allowed 🙂 In the end you will know your dog much better, and your dog will feel more a sense of teamwork, then being trained or desensitized. That in itself is already strengthening the relationship that it would seem to be easier to tackle new situations.

    Looking forward to the next part already!

    1. As you’ll see, it’s not necessarily an either/or choice between the treat and the thing the dog wants… but you’ll have to wait for the next installment. Even more exciting about the next installments: the way that BAT gets you to observe your dog’s body language. I’m getting more fluent in Frankie than I ever thought possible!

  2. I’m so excited to read more about BAT. Even with my experience in behavior modification with Lilly, I’m not sure I quite get it.

    For example, we used a similar strategy (I think) a couple years ago, and somehow Lilly learned that doing X earned her the chance to move away from scary thing (in this case the agility training field) sooner. So, rather than moving closer over time, she would throw behaviors at me at greater distances. We made no progress.

    1. I obviously can’t see exactly what you did with Lilly, but given your description above, I would suggest you set up a “flag” of some sort – a cone, your car keys, or something else that will be clearly visible – at whatever distance Lilly can handle, and walk up to it matter-of-factly. Stop at the flag, and wait for Lilly to offer an acceptable behavior. Then mark (click say “yes!” etc.), turn, and walk away a few yards. When you walk away, be sure the leash is loose. If Lilly has a cued “turn and go” behavior, feel free to use it.

      Wait a few seconds, and then walk back up to the flag again. Again, wait for Lilly to offer an acceptable behavior. Assuming she offers one really quickly, which seems likely, don’t mark the first behavior she offers. Instead, wait another moment and see if you can get a second, different acceptable behavior and mark that one (and then walk away).

      Bear in mind that I am not there, so all this advice must be taken with a grain of salt, but I would work at the same distance for about five to ten repeats, and then take a longer break. After the longer break, move (or get an assistant to move) the marker a few inches closer and go through the same process again at the closer distance. Accept anything good for the first repeat or two after you change the distance. If Lilly is offering acceptable behaviors very quickly, hold out for variety in the acceptable behaviors in the later repeats. As always, take a few seconds breaks between repeats, and give Lilly praise, treats, petting, or the opportunity to play with a toy at a safe distance between sets.

      When Lilly is offering a variety of behaviors at a given distance, it’s time to move closer and get a similar variety at a closer distance. Every once in a while, stop far short of the marker, so Lilly gets an easy repeat, and if you see Lilly is getting really stressed, take a long break or stop for the day.

      Dogs usually start to get fatigued after about 45 minutes of BAT (though some are OK for longer periods, and for some 45 minutes is too long). I would keep your first session shorter than 45 minutes, if anything. Less is often more in training, as you know.

      In case you’ve read the other comments… As Edie mentioned, we will be discussing bonus treats in the next installment, but the goal in BAT is to use bonus treats sparingly, and I generally don’t recommend using them in setups.

      I hope that helps! Do let me know if I can clarify anything.

      Irith (Eereet)

      1. Thanks for the ideas. I really appreciate it. She hasn’t been to a real agility field in several years, so I probably won’t give this a try until we are ready to try a new agility trainer (who is better keyed into Lilly’s fear issues). I had hoped that would be this summer, but it’s slipping away.

        1. One thing you might want to do between now and whenever you find a new instructor is practice a cheerful turning away and leaving behavior, which will serve you really well once you try the training. Also, you could try to isolate stressors. For example, find an open field without agility equipment and do BAT there. If you have access to agility equipment, put a single piece of equipment somewhere and do BAT with just that, etc. At any rate, best of luck, and feel free to contact me at any time for assistance.

          By the way, I would like to thank you publicly for making MP3s of the Dr. Overall’s RP available on your blog. Thank you!

          Irith (Eereet)

  3. I am so excited about this series – I’m with Kenzo, I can’t wait for the next one! We all get a front row seat:) We’ve had the fearful/aggressives come through the shelter, dogs who want to attack men in general, men in leather coats, toes that move in the night–the value of the very close reading of body language that is developed is incredibly useful and serves the dog and their person for a lifetime. Huh, I can learn something I’ve really wanted to get into while reading one of my favorite blogs – I feel so…efficient – thanks! ;-D

  4. I have a dog-aggressive dog (Frisbee), and after Grisha’s great discussion about BAT on #dogtalk, I tried a few of the techniques, but without someone showing me, I’m not sure Frisbee changed anything in his behavior. I think I need to sign up for the web training, as it’s difficult to know what to do w/o seeing it. This is a great series, Edie and Irith–can’t wait for the next one.

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