Constructional Aggression Treatment, a behavior modification method by Dr. Jesus Rosales- Ruiz and Kellie Snider, is a different approach compared to the popular dog desensitization and counterconditioning techniques. Rather, CAT is not all about counterconditioning, but more tailored towards the Operant component of behavior. The theory here is that yes, the dog is sing giddily to the trigger that elicits aggression, but the matter in which the dog resolves the conflict falls under operant conditioning.
In other words, in CAT, the dog‘s outward manifestations of aggression are primarily addressed. The foundation of this method is that “behavior that is reinforced will increase.” In other words, in the case of a dog fearful of the mailman, the dog’s lunging and barking is
reinforced by the mailman leaving. In this case, the mailman leaving becomes a functional reward (a reward the dog attains as a result of a certain action in a specific situation), as the dog’s behavior is reinforced. The dog thinks “every time I bark, I make the mailman leave, so I’ll continue barking as it’s elective.” In CAT, the functional reward is only removed once the dog calms down. Confused? Let’s look at an example below.
An Example of CAT (Constructional Aggression Treatment)
So how does CAT exactly work? I used CAT a while back, when I first started offering behavior consultations. This is how it was 1aught to me years ago, but now it looks like there has been some progress and more guidelines for keeping the dog better under threshold are being implemented. I no longer use this method and will explain why in the next paragraphs. Anyhow, here is how I applied it. For privacy reasons, I will use fictional names of dogs and owners. This was a real case I worked on.
Case Study: Misty the Barking Mad Dobie
When Mary called me she had to leave on vacation and was worried about finding a good petsitter who wasn’t afraid of her dog. Her dog was a Doberman mix called Misty. Apparendy, this dog had issues of trying to attack guests who came over to her house. The pooch didn’t have a bite history, but the behavior was scary as she used to bare her pearly whites, growl, bark and lunge.
When I first visited, I was indeed greeted with that scary display. The dog was leashed and at a distance. I started applying CAT immediately. As I showed up by the door, Misty barked at the top of her lungs, but I didn’t leave. I just stood there and pretended I was a statue. This sure was something unusual for her since she was used to people running away. This made her bark even more due to how dog behavior works. In other words, Misty started barking louder and more aggressively because she was likely reasoning “hey! Usually people leave when they see me act like this, what*s up with you? I’ll increase my barking behavior in hopes that you finally get my message… bark, bark, bark!” In behavioral science this is known as an extinction burst and it’s totally normal behavior.
After several minutes, Misty started realizing her method didn’t work — at least not with me! This was an important moment to capture and cherish so I had my feet ready to leave. The moment she took a breath and stopped barking, I calmly left as fast as I could. After a few minutes, we repeated the whole scene again. Of course, she barked again when I showed up again and again, and as before I always waited for her to catch her breath and stop barking to make a quick about turn and leave. After several repetitions, it was starting to click in Misty’s mind that Parking no longer worked in sending me away, and after several repetitions, she started realizing instead that
being quiet and calm made me immediately leave.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Using CAT
As seen, in CAT the dog is exposed to the trigger, and the trigger is removed only when the dog offers an altemate, more acceplable behavior. ldeally, to prevent excessive stress, the trigger should be presented sub-threshold. In the case of Misty, I was at the door rather than inside the home, where according to the owner, the behavior really tended to escaïate. Nowadays, and with more experience, I would have worked much more under threshold, to the point where she wasn’t barking but showing just the very first Signs of stress that were barely perceptible to an inexperienced eye. Perhaps I would have stayed behind the door instead of at the doorstep, or staY iFl the yard and have her see me from the window — however, this may have been impractical in many ways. However, it’s also true that nowadays, I would have most likely used a different approach. Let‘s look at some advantages and disadvantages of this method.
There is no need to use treats. The functional reward of the tñgger being removed provides reinforcement for behaviors.
The owner’s job is minimal since he/she doesn’t have to do much. No need to mark behaviors or give praise or rewards, just hang on the leash.
The process is quite quick, with results often seen in the first few sessions.
The trainer must be well-versed in reading the dog, working under threshold and recognizing §jgns of stress and calming signals.
The trainer must be knowledgeable in knowing when to progress and how quickly to do so. This is something that should only be done by professionals familiar with this method. It requires a hands-on approach, not something that can be accomplished by reading an article. Do not try this at home!
To help the dog ganefattzg, this method requires different decoys under the form of people or dogs depending on what triggers the dog.
As with other fast methods, there are rioks that the results are not as reliable as slower metnods.
As the trainer gets closer to the dog, there are rishs for incidents if CAT is not performed correctly.Safety is paramount. An extinction burst may lead to a dog trying to bite rather than barking louder!
There is an inevitable level of stress in this process. If you are using decoy dogs, stress can occur both in the aggressive dog and the decoy dog. It’s important to have several decoy dogs that have a high threshold to ensure they are not exposed to prolonged stress. Not all dogs are good candidates for being decoys. The wrong type o1 decoy may jeopardize the whole process and swipe away any history of improvements.
If done incorrectly with the dog over threshold, the dog rehearses the aggressive behavior. Fear is known for producing adrenaline, whereas, anger causes the secretion of adrenaline and another hormone known as noradrenaline, explains James O’ Heare in his book the Canine Aggression Workbook.” This chemical bath can be quite addicting, which is also a contributing factor as to why you see aggressive behaviors repeat over and over.
This training method is based on negative reinforcement. To learn about this, read about the four quadrants of dog training at the end of this article.. Basically, the dog’s behavior is reinforced by the remova! of the trigger. The dog learns that the trigger is removed (that‘s what the “negative” means) when he behaves a certain way, and therefore that behavior reinforces and repeats more and more.
This training method remains a subject of controversy. There are several trainers who believe that dogs cannot team when under stress. On the other hand, some trainers claim that dogs can learn quite well under stress, especially when it comes to rehearsing avoidance behaviors. The question is: Is there a way to totally avoid stress when performing behavior modification? This question remains a hot subject of debate among many trainers/behavior consultants.