Why I don’t recommend training reactive dogs with CAT

Every so often chatter increases about different training protocols used to teach “reactive” dogs to stop barking, lunging, snarling, growling, and the like. This week, the chatter revolved around a method called Constructional Aggression Therapy, or “CAT” for short. (This is not a new method. It’s been around for a while, but it’s popped up a lot in my radar lately, so I wanted to talk about it with you.)

The basic gist of CAT is that you bring another dog close enough to the reactive dog to get him to bark, lunge, etc., and then wait for him to do something else, such as turn his head or sit down. As soon as he does that new behavior, the other dog moves away from him. He gets “rewarded” by the thing that is causing him distress moving away. That new behavior gets reinforced (in the same way he would if we had given him a piece of chicken or a toy), and over time, rather than bark, growl, lunge, etc., the dog learns to do the new behavior.

Seems like a nice easy way to package up this problem with a bow to get the dog to stop aggressing towards other dogs, right?

Well, it’s not quite so simple as that. Let’s take a look at why:

Why Do Dogs React?

In many cases, dogs give aggressive displays to other dogs (or people, or inflated Frosty the Snowman lawn ornaments, etc.) because they are scared. They perceive the “other” thing as a threat to them, and so they are trying to get that “other” to move away. They need space, and if they are in a crowded veterinary waiting room or they are tethered to a leash, they cannot move themselves away. “Flight” is not an option, so they turn to “fight.”

Rather than address the underlying fear, CAT stops the dog from doing the “bad” behaviors. But here’s the problem: These “bad” behaviors (barking, growling, bearing teeth, etc.) are actually GOOD! They are warning signals that dogs use to ask a perceived thread to BACK AWAY!!! If we teach a dog to stop doing these things, his only recourse to “save himself” might be to go directly to biting. (Check out my blog post “Why Did That Dog Growl?” for more info on this.)

The Trouble with CAT Training

All the behavior nerds in the room will have figured out by now that CAT works because it falls into the Negative Reinforcement (R-) consequence quadrant. The new behavior goes up (thus, “reinforcement”) because something the dog finds aversive goes away (thus, “negative”). In order for CAT to work, the dog has to be made uncomfortable, scared, distressed, etc., and he is then rewarded by the relief of that scary thing going away.

Electric shock collars work in the same way. You want your dog to come to you when you call him, so you say his name, and then you press the button which sends jolts of electricity to his neck. Once he comes back to you, you release the button, and voila, the pain goes away. The next time you call him to you, you press the button again, and release it when he returns. Over time, he figures out that heading back to you makes the pain go away, so he learns to do that as quickly as possible. Does is work? If done correctly and by a trained professional, sure. It works. Is it humane? I’m gonna argue a big NO!

Here’s another problem: studies have proven that aversive-based training methods can cause dogs to become distressed, and they can also cause dogs to become more aggressive. So, not only are we at risk of teaching the dog to silence his warning signals and potentially jump straight to biting, but we are also at risk of him becoming more afraid and, thus, feeling the need to defend himself even more (which brings us back to biting.)

The Better Solution: Desensitization and Counterconditioning

What if, rather than try to quiet the symptoms of the problem (the barking, growling, lunging, etc.), we, instead, focus on the root of them problem? While CAT gets at stopping the behaviors, Pavlovian conditioning actually changes the dog’s emotional state so that he or she no longer has to bark, growl, and lunge. Just like Ivan Pavlov’s dogs learned that the sound of a bell meant dinner was coming, we can teach dogs that the sight or sound of something previously scary can actually become something good. Trainers use a method called desensitization and counterconditioning (DSCC) to do this.

When we help dogs get over their fears, the “bad” behaviors go away. Don’t believe me? Come hang out with Emma the Beagle for five minutes. She used to bark, lunge, growl, snarl, snap, whimper, pace around, pee on furniture, chew the door frame, shake violently in the car, etc, etc, etc. But now, because of our friend Pavlov, Emma is a wagging, wiggly, joyful ball of love.

A Good Place to Start: Find your dog’s fear threshold

If your dog is exhibiting signs of fear (any kind… not just reactivity), the first thing to do is remind yourself that dogs have feelings too. Visit the Body Language Gallery on iSpeakDog to see what dogs who are distressed look like. Then observe your own pup and see if you can find the line between where she is cool, calm, and collected and where she shows those signs of distress. The goal is to keep her below that threshold line. If she’s not loose-bodied, relaxed, and able to play, she’s over her threshold. Give her some relief from things in life that scare her, and then work with a qualified trainer to help her overcome those fears.

I could never purposefully force Emma to remain somewhere scary and make her do a behavior before allowing her to get away. That’s how CAT works. That’s the biggest reason why I will never use that technique. I’ve made a commitment to Emma to help her feel safe, and because of it, she’s one brave and happy Beagle.

Say it with me: “Dogs have feelings too. It’s up to us to listen.”


6 comments on “Why I don’t recommend training reactive dogs with CAT

  1. Fiar enough. But different circumstances can need different approaches to a problem. I used what amounted to CAT, with my ‘readctive’ dog and ‘dogs behind fences’. on our walks we would be accosted by barking dogs behind the front fence of some properties. Moving away, only exacerbated the “other dog’s” barking and aggressive displays and did nothing to help my dog. So I began by asking her to “down stay” on the verge in front of the fence. As soon as the “other dog” desisted from barking, we would start to move away. If the dog recommenced barking, we would go back to the original stopping place and resume our “dog down, me just standing there”.
    Eventually we had all the dogs trained — they would come out when we approached, recognise us, so go back to their veranda/porch and lie down again 😉
    Worked a miracle and helped my dog over come her ‘fear aggression’.

    • Not all dogs who are reactive are doing it out of fear. One example is a dog who has barrier frustration. He or she might actually be really social and fine around other dogs, but the leash or the fence stands in their way from getting to someone else. The frustration builds and their behavior looks very much like fear-based aggression.

      I’m most concerned for the dogs who are scared–especially the dogs who are really scared. I think a lot of people don’t realize that their dog is suffering, and in those instances, CAT is cruel to me, and it can lead to the problems I described.

      But when a dog is only a little bit scared or not scared at all, teaching an operant behavior such as lying down or siting, can be affective. I’m glad all the pups did so well in your situation.

  2. i walk a big beautiful lab, when we’re walking if another dog is around he is a lunger. should i take treats and try to have him sit? i always just get yanked and keep moving, only a dog was loose and “came to see us” and my lunging dog pulled me to the ground and i got hurt. i would hate to not be able to walk him. 🙁

    • I know how stressful it can be when your dog gets out of hand on-leash. A really knowledgable trainer can help you with that. There are a variety of reasons why dogs react to other dogs–they’re scared, or they want to play, and the leash is holding them back from doing so, for example. Depending on the cause, a trainer can certainly help you both out so that your walks are safer and more enjoyable. The Academy for Dog Trainers is a good place to start. Here’s a link to the find-a-trainer page: https://academyfordogtrainers.com/find-a-trainer

  3. my dog (2 year old pit-mix) is a very fearful girl. This sounds crazy but sometimes when she passes gas it terrifies her, she runs to her crate and starts shaking uncontrollably. I sit and talk to her while still giving her space but it breaks my heart. When a dog is already in a fearful state, what is the best reaction I can give??

    • I know quite a few dogs who get scared when they toot! But it does sound like yours finds it exceedingly scary. Is she sound sensitive? That could be the cause. The best thing you can do is comfort her and give her space if she asks for it. Have you talked with her vet about anxiety medications and/or supplements? If not, I highly recommend doing so.

      We talk about Fear and Anxiety on iSpeakDog. Click on that link to get some more information, and let me know if you have follow up questions. Helping fraidy dogs fine their inner joy is a passion of mine. Don’t hesitate to reach out.

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