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?
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.
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.