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Basics of RAT (Relationship Assessment Tool)

My experience is that things are often far more simple in some ways than they seem.

I’m aware of some of the behavior questionnaires that many professional trainers use with clients. Now as I ripen into a full bodied grey mare, years of careful observation have led me to conclude that while there are many interesting details to be discovered thru such lengthy questioning, rarely do any of the questionnaires get to the roots. Despite all the information, somehow, the foundation issues – those that form the very nature of the dog/human relationship – are not addressed directly.

Without a grasp of what is fundamentally wrong between the dog and the handler, any attempt to shift the behavior of either or both may be unnecessarily long winded, ineffective, or complicated by virtue of trying to address each “symptom” rather than the underlying foundation problems which produce those “symptoms.”

While dog behavior and dog/human relationships are without question complex phenomena, paring it all down to the core issues has proven extremely valuable for me and for my clients.  And it’s fast – I can often make accurate assessments in a short period (said accuracy reflected in the positive changes in the dogs and handlers when my recommendations based on that rapid assessment are followed).

I make a practice of watching every interaction between dog and handler, and consider all that I see to be valuable information.  What I am assessing is a small handful of key points that quickly define the foundation for dog/handler interactions. I’ve learned to trust these key points as important guides to genuine patterns of behavior and interactions.  Other details serve to help me fine tune what changes need to be made.

Here’s the blessing of working at a foundation level: you can build a really strong relationship between handler and dog if you address the fundamental issues. If the foundation has holes, sooner or later either the dog or handler will step into those holes, and problems result. The greater the pressure that the dog or handler or their relationship must sustain and/or the weaker the foundation, the more intense the problems.  Repair & strengthen the foundation, and the “symptoms” of those holes either disappear or become surprisingly easy to address.  This is why many handlers and dogs are failed by well meaning trainers and classes – the dogs often learn a lot of “stuff” but the foundation issues remain unaddressed.

My Relationship Assessment Tool (RAT) is the formalized approach I take to assessing foundation issues. These key points stand alone regardless of age, breed, history, experience, genetics, instinct, socialization, etc. This brief list offers an idea of what can be assessed within 5 minutes for any handler & dog.

  • Connection:  Do the dog and handler appear to be engaged in a mutually respectful and attentive conversation, to be “together”?
  • Check-in: Does the handler frequently check-in with the dog?   Does the dog check-in with the owner without being prompted or lured??  Does mutual check-in exist?
  •  Arousal:  In particular, I’m concerned with volatility (how readily aroused the dog may be); resilience (how quickly the dog can resolve to a normal relaxed state); the handler’s ability to monitor arousal levels and assist in maintaining or restoring appropriate arousal levels.
  • Orchestration:  Is the handler pro-active or reactive?
  • Directability Does the handler actively direct the dog in a meaningful way appropriate to the situation? Does the dog accept direction, or seek direction?
  • Accommodation:  Does the dog accommodate the handler, or does the handler accommodate the dog?
  • Use of Space  The use of space between social animals is always informative.
  • Pulling:  Is the dog pulling on lead?  Is the handler pulling?
  • Equipment usage & dependence:  The choice of and use of equipment can be telling.

Constructing a simple scenario (or 2 or 3) to elicit patterns of behavior is not difficult. What you can learn about the dog and client is invaluable.  The “therefore what” that must follow the RAT evaluation is the art of dog training. RAT helps define what foundation elements are in need of being established, repaired or strengthened in order for the dog/human relationship to thrive.

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“Basics of RAT (Relationship Assessment Tool)” by Suzanne Clothier