Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Pat Miller Seminar: Two Ways of Treating Aggression (and Reactivity)

My last entry on the seminar was quite awhile ago, but I really did want to say more about it! Since this blog is about reactive dogs, I wanted to share what Pat said about them.

Pat says that almost all aggression and/or reactivity is based on some sort of stress, whether it’s because someone is threatening the dog’s territory or resource, or because the dog is scared or unsure. Since it’s based in emotions, most people choose to treat it classically, but in recent years, some people are adding operant components to the treatment. Let’s analyze the two, shall we?

Classical Conditioning
Since aggression is based on stress, it makes sense to treat that underlying emotion. If, for example, the dog displays aggressive behaviors when he sees a big scary dog, we need to teach him that bog scary dogs actually aren’t scary. In fact, they’re awesome! We do this by pairing something awesome (usually high value treats) with the sight of the big scary dog.

In order to do this effectively, we must keep the dog calm enough that he can see the trigger and eat the tasty treat. If he displays aggressive behaviors, we need to reduce the stimulus (usually by moving further away) and increasing the value of the treat. Pat recommends working with a single stimulus, at the same intensity, for 20 minutes or longer before switching to a new trigger or a new level of intensity. This helps the dog learn that seeing a big scary dog is actually a predictor of good things.

Sometimes, detractors will say that this is foolish, as we are simply bribing our dogs. Done correctly, this is not the case. We aren’t trying to prevent a reaction or distract the dog. We aren’t holding the treat out as a lure. Instead, we are allowing the dog to form a new association.

Operant Conditioning
Over the past ten years or so, various trainers have been coming up with ways to treat aggression in an operant, yet still “positive” manner. Pat talked about one of the first of these methods: CAT, short for Constructional Aggression Treatment, and showed a video of her doing CAT with a dog named Juni. I’d seen the video before, at the last seminar I saw with Pat, and I have to admit: I didn’t like the procedure then.

To do CAT, you stand with your dog (or you tether him), and bring a trigger to his threshold. You don’t go over the threshold, you simply bring him to the point of noticing, but not reacting. When the dog offers a socially appropriate behavior, or when the dog reduces the intensity of his aggressive behavior, the trigger retreats. Basically, you’re shaping calmer behavior, with the ultimate goal of “switch over,” which means the dog begins to offer affiliative behavior.

The reason I objected to CAT before was because it upset me when the dog did go over-threshold (and anyone working with a reactive dog knows that despite your best efforts, it happens). I didn’t like that the handler ignored her dog while he was upset, either. I also thought it looked like it could be flooding. On seeing the video a second time, though, I concluded that it probably wasn’t. To truly be considered flooding, the dog must be exposed to the stimulus at full intensity, and that exposure must remain until learned helplessness occurs. In other words, the dog would have to shut down emotionally. However, this is not what happens in CAT; it’s a highly regulated level of intensity, and the dog’s behavior controls whether the stimulus remains or not.

CAT is not without its critics, and there are even offshoots of the procedure attempting to make it more positive. Still, I’m no longer opposed to it like it was. Although I don’t think it should be the starting place for treating aggression, it is a useful tool for some dogs.

That, and… during the seminar, I found myself wondering: is this what I did with Maisy? I know that my plan wasn’t exactly CAT, as I did counter classical conditioning along with it, but when I did misjudge a threshold and she went over, I simply ignored it, and waited for a moderate duration (ten to twenty seconds) of calm, appropriate behavior before I rewarded her with attention or treats.

It worked, and it worked quite quickly. It did cause some stress and confusion in the short run, so I suppose that it was part of that 1% of the time where I’m not strictly “positive,” but Maisy quickly reached “switch over,” and has been pretty amazing ever since then. She seems far less stressed and much more interested in social interactions.

Anyway, I really enjoyed hearing Pat speak about aggression again. It’s amazing how much a year’s worth of reading and experience and, well, growth, allows you to take new things away from familiar ground.


Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

I have mixed feelings on CAT but overall I think I like it. Yes you're technically using an aversive since the dog feels the relief of the trigger moving away. But I like that it can work extremely quickly and supposedly there is a crossover where the dog really starts to want interaction with what used to be a trigger. Usually when you're just using classical conditioning you don't see that crossover. If you are interested, I have a dvd of a seminar Dr. Jesus Rosales did on it that you can borrow.

Crystal said...

I feel the same way about CAT- or at least what I know about it. It's not my first choice (and in fact, Pat agrees with that- it's not her first choice, either), but I can see where there might be times where it would be useful.

I'd love to borrow that DVD sometime- thanks so much for the offer! I'd like to learn more about it from the source.

M.T. said...

Hmmmm, very interesting, first time i've heard of CAT (or maybe i have but didn't realize it was CAT that i was reading about at the time).

How do you determine what's a dog's threshold, though?

Sam said...

Very interesting. I've heard a bit about CAT, but not enough to really understand it. All the articles I read kind of made my head spin.

Your blog is such a wealth of info.. I didn't get a chance to comment, but I'm really starting to put those performance dog exercises you posted to use. Thank you so much for posts like these, targeting all different kinds of aspects of dog ownership!

Crystal said...

Sam, thanks so much for the compliment. I just post about what's important to me and my dog, or what's interesting to me. I'm always so glad when someone else says it's interesting to them, too.

MT, as for thresholds... that's a really good question, and one I'm tempted to explore in greater depth. Basically, I think of the threshold as the point at which the dog notices a trigger without reacting. So, for Maisy, it would be stiffening, staring, initiating a game of Look at That, a high, still tail... She goes over threshold when she lunges and barks or growls.

Anonymous said...

I like BAT way more than CAT. I've been assisting my friend as she implements BAT with some of her clients, and we're seeing great results.

Anonymous said...

OMG Blogspot finally let me leave a comment! I've always been getting various error messages until now. ><

Crystal said...

I don't have any practical experience with either CAT or BAT, and have only seen bits of a CAT video. I think I have a slight preference for BAT, because it seems like the dog being able to leave vs. the trigger leaving would be more reinforcing... Other than that, though, they don't seem that different?

I'm glad you could finally comment! Error messages are frustrating.

Anonymous said...

The main difference is, yes, that the dog is usually the one moving closer and farther rather than the trigger. It may seem a like a small detail, but it makes a huge difference to the dog. What I've seen reported on the BAT mailing list, and makes perfect sense based on the way my boss talks about dog behavior, is that (1) the physical movement itself is great for the dog, as a destressor and to keep them thinking and not reacting, and (2) it allows the dog to learn that he has a choice, and he can make the decision on his own to simply move away from the trigger rather than reacting. With CAT, the dog is stuck waiting for the environment to change in the way that he would like it to. With BAT, it's clearer that he is in control. It's also easier to combine just the distance reward with other goodies like running on its own, a chase game (chasing the owner away from the trigger), chasing a toy or food, etc.

There's a slightly different philosophy and set of practices that's building up around BAT. The primary one is that in CAT, if the dog goes over threshhold, you simply wait him out. With BAT, you remove him from the situation, let him calm down, and then try again with easier triggers.

It's also easier to implement on the go. For example, if you find yourself walking half a block behind a couple of with a child, and your dog is reactive toward children, you can do an impromptu BAT session by following them at that distance until your dog offers a calming signal or some other behavior, then mark it and reward by turning to walk back the other direction. Or if you know that your neighbors have an outdoor dog, you can do a little BAT session out on the sidewalk.

Crystal said...

Wow, thanks for the great explanation! Here's the thing I don't understand: if the dog goes over threshold in BAT and you remove him, isn't that basically the same thing as leaving as a reinforcer? If you're leaving in both circumstances, how does the dog learn which behavior is appropriate?

Anonymous said...

I was on grisha stewart's BAT seminar last summer and it was great. Just to clarify your question about allowiing dog to move away from trigger when he goes over threshold, "how does the dog learn which behaviour is appropriate"
First of all whilst it's true that a dog moving away from a trigger afer reacting over threshold could cause that behaviour, but hopefully this does not happen very often as the goal is always to work way below the dog's threshold by organising carefull set ups and micro managing the environment in the learning stages outside of the setups.
So how does the dog know which behaviour is appropraiate?.. the dog is always marked when he offers an appropriate behaviour with "yes" or a click. Grisha uses the clicker when she is using bonus rewards of food and the "yes" when the reward is simply moving away from the trigger which in itself becomes highly reinforcing for the dog.
The idea is to teach the reactive dog that they can choose to move away from the trigger and earn the same functional reward (increasing distance)
Grisha says "Having control over one's own safety creates learned optimism, the opposite of learned helplessness"
Stage 1. student dog is clicked for looking at the trigger from a distance and the reward is move away and bonus reward of food.
stage2: The student dog sees the trigger from a distance and the handler waits for a "cut off signal" (sniffing the ground moving the head away from trigger, yawning etc) any of these behaviours are clicked and the reward is move away in a jolly way with a cue "lets go" adn then given the bonus reward of a treat.
stage3: The student dog sees the trigger from a distance, the handler wiats for the dog to choose an appropriate behviour and marks that with "yes" and moves away.
From the demeaner of the dog when they move away you can see that it is a big reward.
The idea is to move away from using food in the set ups as the dog seems to learn faster without the food. sometimes the food can be a distraction.
Hope this helps. Grisha's book on behaviour adjustment is excellent it's all very clearly explained in a very sysematic way.
All the best,

Anonymous said...

a correction to my earlier post, sorry about that : )

First of all whilst it's true that a dog moving away from a trigger afer going ove threshold and reacting, could cause that reactive behaviour to be reinforced, but hopefully this does not happen very often as the goal is always to work way below the dog's threshold by organising carefull set ups and micro managing the environment in the learning stages outside of the setups.