Constructional Aggression Treatment (CAT)

Constructional aggression treatment (CAT) was presented by Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz and Kellie Snider, M.S. in 2007 at the University of North Texas as a new approach (treatment) to dog aggression-related issues. However, even though tests and studies have been done and results gathered on almost 100 dogs, (by Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz) that show great encouraging progress; the approach didn’t sit very well among all dog experts.

Even today, despite the great results and benefits being reported from all over the world, using constructional aggression treatment (CAT), there are still skeptics out there. This is primarily based on their own inability to grasp and accept new ways and ideas (holding onto certain types of approaches almost religiously) or due to the fact that they have tried the approach themselves with dogs that weren’t good candidates or even because the whole operation wasn’t properly organized in the first place.

So what is constructional aggression treatment (CAT) all about?

Constructional Aggression Treatment is a rather different approach than desensitizing and counter conditioning which is based on a counter conditioning dog behavior therapy technique.

Classical conditioning (pairing a certain stimulus with a primary reinforcer, food for example, in order to produce a certain response) is the main driving force for counter conditioning techniques and as mentioned on the page about desensitizing and counter conditioning the basis of the exercise is to:

  • introduce the trigger at the sub-threshold distance (the distance from which the dog doesn’t show signs of reacting or stress) and pair the trigger with food (classical conditioning) in order for your dog to start changing the emotional response from a fearful/aggressive response to a “looking forward to” type of attitude.

This whole process of changing the dog’s emotional response through counter conditioning is known as conditioned emotional response (CER).

On the other hand, Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz and Kellie Snider, M.S. proposed a theory which it is not all about classical conditioning but includes operant conditioning as well (you can learn more about operant conditioning in corrections in dog training). They agreed that a dog’s aggressive response is initially classically conditioned by the presence of a stimulus (trigger) but what happens after that and how the dog resolves the conflict and the impact that he creates on the environment, actually goes under the field of operant conditioning.

They suggest that the existence of so called “functional rewards” for example, the trigger leaving (you can find out more about functional rewards on the behavior adjustment training (BAT) page) is what drives and encourages a dog’s aggression to persist and escalate. Dogs simply learn to deal with the uncomfortable situations by performing aggressive reactions.

Constructional Aggression Treatment uses the simple formula which states that the “behavior that is reinforced will increase” for example:

  • you stop reinforcing your dog’s aggressive reaction by removing the reward (functional reward: the trigger is leaving)
  • you instead reinforce the dog’s positive behavior (like calming signals, turning his head, etc) by offering the reward (the same functional reward: the trigger is leaving)

By performing this approach, the dog’s response should change including the overall dog behavior and emotional state as well. This is the basic concept of Constructional Aggression Treatment (CAT).

This work later became one of the foundations for behavior adjustment training (BAT) therefore you may notice some similarities with the two.

How does Constructional Aggression Treatment work?

Constructional aggression treatment (CAT) has the basics of exposing a dog to a trigger in a sub-threshold level, waiting for the dog to offer an alternative behavior and then rewarding the dog by removing the trigger.

Exercises are to be set up in the environment where the dog displays certain reactions (or a similar environment). The reason for this is to address the trigger itself as well as the secondary environmental signals or setups that may be a part of the classically conditioned aggressive reaction. Often we have dogs that are, for example, aggressive to other dogs in certain situations but that outside of that specific environment they tend not to react aggressively to the presence of another dog.

The handler’s job is minimal, he is not to interact with his dog, nor to mark any specific moments or offer a reward. The decoy (helper) on the other hand does the work. The helper’s job is to present the trigger (in most cases, this is the human himself or another handler accompanying a decoy dog) at the sub-threshold distance where the “aggressive” dog will start to show the first signs of stress (like changes in breathing patterns, body stiffness, nervousness, etc.).

At that point, the decoy will stop and will remain at that spot until the dog’s signs of stress are gone (normally the dog starts offering alternative behaviours, like looking around, shifting body posture, sniffing the ground, etc.). When that happens, the decoy will automatically turn around and leave. By doing this he is actually “rewarding” the aggressive dog with the removal of the trigger in correspondence to the dog’s changed behavior.

Once the “level” is cleared and the dog has immediately offered an alternative response instead of the aggression, the decoy will then shorten the distance in his next attempt, moving the sub-threshold distance closer to the dog. How quickly you can progress with Constructional Aggression Treatment depends on the dog and his level of reactions. The goal is to keep the dog’s reactions at their lowest level at all times.

Often (especially when you approach closer to an aggressive dog) it will happen that the dog will display the aggressive reaction when the decoy turns around to leave. If this happens, the decoy has to turn back and stop at the last distance level and again wait for the dog’s reaction to change before attempting to leave again. Therefore, this process of “leaving” may take a few attempts. It is crucial when this happens to wait for the dog to display signals other than stress/aggression responses in order for us to “reward” him by removing the trigger. If you leave while the dog is still reacting, then you are rewarding that behavior.

The Switchover Point

This is the point in the rehabilitation process that will occur if everything was done right. At some point during the process, the “aggressive” dog will hit the point in which his reaction to the decoy will change completely and the dog will actually start offering friendly/playful signals instead.

When this occurs, the decoy can continue advancing in small increments until they actually physically interact with the dog. This part of the exercise (when the “aggressive” dog actually meets the decoy in a friendly manner) is the goal of this whole Constructional Aggression Treatment exercise.

The background of Constructional Aggression Treatment (CAT)

The whole idea of the “aggressive” reaction and the full package that goes with that is considered to be a conditioned reaction, which means that in certain situations/environments the presence of a trigger will “activate” the dog’s response in which case the trigger either goes away, or ends up being removed. In other words, the “aggressive” dog is being reinforced/rewarded for the action of showing “aggression”.

In order to change this, the dog is simply exposed to the trigger until he calms down, and then the action of calming down is rewarded by the removal of the trigger.

Eventually the dog changes his approach, and the overall emotional state changes as well. This is the moment when the dog actually switches his reaction to the trigger and starts to enjoy the presence of it.

Pros and Cons and Other Information about Constructional Aggression Treatment (CAT)

As with any other approach to dog training, there are positive and negative things about the constructional aggression treatment (CAT).

  • First of all, this is not the technique that I would recommend for anyone to attempt to accomplish by themselves, without the assistance of a professional. Reading and learning is one thing, having “hands on” experience is a whole different thing.
  • It is recommended by the founders of this technique, that it be completed in as few sessions as possible. The best scenario would be to reach the “switchover” point within the first session. Now in saying that, there is difference between dogs, their reactions, and their persistence, etc. All of this can result in a more time consuming length of the exercise that can take several hours. In this case, you need to have a few decoy dogs and helpers available in order to exchange them.
  • One of the recommendations from Kellie Snider, M.S. is to allow a three day period in which the dog will go through the constructional aggression treatment process and have an exposure to various different decoys.
  • It is easy for inexperienced dog trainers to make mistakes in the process by moving through the levels at the wrong timing, distance, etc. It is imperative to have a full understanding of a dog’s temperament and body language, understanding of the environmental influence and the overall situation, in order to apply the right course of treatment for each dog individually, otherwise the outcome may be even worse than the dog’s present state.

    The last state of the exercise when the dog actually comes in contact with a decoy is the critical part of the exercise (just like any other aggression therapy treatment), therefore I strongly suggest that you do this whole process with an expert to lower the possibilities of any incidents to a minimum.

  • This is considered to be a stressful process for both the “aggressive” dog, as well as for the decoy dogs, if you are working on a dog to dog aggression issue, so you need to have a certain number of decoy dogs to exchange in order to lower the amount of stress in which the decoy dogs are subjected to by being exposed to unfriendly and threatening signals from the other dog.

Keep in mind that not every dog is a good candidate to be a decoy dog. You need a stable dog that can withstand stress related situations. Also, be aware that it is always possible for any of the decoy dogs to “react” to the threatening signals that he is receiving; therefore make sure that the decoy dogs have a “high-threshold” (dogs with high-threshold response need a bigger amount of signals in order to react).

Having the wrong dog as a decoy dog, one who will react to an “aggressive” dog’s signals and “accept the invitation” is undesirable and may jeopardize the whole process.

You also have to consider the male/female issue. In many cases, a male dog will not display aggressive responses to a female and vice versa, so you may plan the last steps of the exercise to be covered with a decoy dog of the opposite sex as this may help the “aggressive” dog to naturally react more calmly. This approach can be used in some situations and some dogs where it will help the initial process go faster.

Even though it is a complicated technique that requires time, organization and the presence of helpers (decoys), it is not more complicated nor more time/resource demanding than other dog behaviour related treatments. What counts at the end is that it works. If everything is done right, within a few days your worst nightmare behaviors can be behind you.

One of the biggest obstacles to constructional aggression treatment (CAT) is the fact that the core of the exercise is based on a negative reinforcement. In short, the dog is exposed to a stressful presence of a trigger (this falls into the negative reinforcement quadrant of operant conditioning) and the stressful situation is removed once the dog shows the wanted response. In other words, the dog learns to “shut off” the unpleasant situation by offering a certain behavior.

This approach has clashed with some circles of so-called dog trainers and dog experts who claim that anything other than “positive reinforcement” techniques or approaches are considered to be cruel and that animals can’t learn while exposed to stressful situations.

The truth is different; in the animal world, operant conditioning (you can find out more about operant conditioning in correction in dog training) is happening constantly. Animals tend to do what is pleasant and tend to avoid or to react to the unpleasant events. In some cases positive and negative reinforcement are exchanged in such a speed and fashion that everything is done before we can even say the words themselves, or label the actions.

Animals (including humans) do learn through negative reinforcement as that is a normal, natural way of learning. That is the primary reason why we have hazard/avoidance behaviors, fears and pain.

The important thing is to know when and how you can apply it in a way that will benefit your dog and in a way that the obstacle will be removed with as little stress as possible.

Can you avoid stress?

Think of it from this point of view; if you were to learn how to swim, no matter how much you prepare yourself, and no matter what approach you are using, you won’t be able to completely undo or remove the stress of that first swim. What happens after that moment is important. The reward of swimming and the confidence boost after learning that you conquered the situation/environment is much greater than all of the planning and the approach to the stressful situation of swimming was in the first place.

No matter which therapy approach we are using in dealing with dog behavior issues, it is impossible to avoid stress (negative reinforcement, in this case). Even widely accepted desensitizing and counter conditioning relies on the fact that the dog is exposed to the “trigger” at the “sub-threshold” level. You can’t avoid stress, but the goal in every approach is to use it in a controllable way to reach the wanted goal as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Constructional Aggression Treatment can be an effective tool in creating a plan for your dog’s rehabilitation, however, there are many critical elements involved in its success, therefore; this technique should never be used without the supervision and guidance of a professional.

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