Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Healing Power of C.A.T

Constructional Aggression Treatment or CAT, as its known, was developed by Jesus Rosales-Ruiz, PhD and Kellie Snider. Their general guideline was that aggressive behavior is learned, not innate, and responds to changes in its consequences.

I watched the 8 hour seminar DVD about a year ago and was really interested in the procedure.  I started reading as much as I could about it, and asked many trainers opinion on it.  I was lucky enough to speak to Dr Ian Dunbar about it briefly at a seminar, and he expressed some interest in it, but not the excited response I had expected.  Many other trainers in my area also were interested in the procedure, but also didn't seem to gravitate to it the way I had.  A blog post written by Jean Donaldson (who I love) actually blasted the CAT Procedure for being too stressful on dogs and based on negative reinforcement (

Why was I the only one that seemed to really be excited with this procedure?

What is CAT?

The basis of CAT works like this: The assumption is that aggression is used and reinforced by making a provoking stimulus go away / retreat.  Thus the behavior is kept strong and reinforced because their aggressive act causes the stimulus to flee. In using CAT, you must have full control over the provoking stimulus and then introduce it to the subject animal.  Instead of the provoking stimulus retreating because of an aggressive act, you require the aggressor to display a non-aggressive act or relaxation display, then you reward with the retreat of the provoking stimulus.  The idea is that you "Shape" a variety of non aggressive behaviors, each rewarded with a retreat of the provoking stimulus. If any aggressive displays are shown, the stimulus remains in position, then retreats only when a non-aggressive action is displayed. As more non-aggressive postures and behaviors are shown, the distance between the two is decreased until interaction is possible.

Unfair Criticism of CAT

Many things I read and people I spoke to suggest that CAT causes too much stress. In searching the Internet I found almost no videos of people doing CAT with dogs (There seems to be quite a bit with horses and people however).  The only real video of CAT in action is on the DVD itself, however its wrought with problems.  The live demo on in the video at the end involves dog-dog aggression.  The aggressive dog constantly goes 'over threshold' in that the target is brought too close to the aggressive dog, causing him to react.  The person handling the target dog is an older lady who, despite the verbal instruction from Dr Rosales-Ruiz, has awful timing and distance management.

As most things in dog training, good timing is the difference between solid training, and total futility.

In fact, this demo was so bad that it prompted someone involved in it to rewrite CAT with small changes and market it as their own method (The person holding the aggressive dog in the video was a trainer who went on to develop a procedure called BAT, which has much more internet presence than CAT). The BAT procedure involves moving the aggressive dog in and out instead of a the target dog, and using food rewards and bridging reinforcement, which isn't present in CAT.

Is CAT stressful?

In my experience in using it, no.  What is critical is the distance at which you start, and how quickly you close the distance between the aggressor and stimulus.  What is also critical is that you shape many different behaviors with your retreats.  I almost always start with a look away.  I want the aggressive dog to be rewarded for breaking eye contact.  I usually reward this many times before I worry about rewarding any other behaviors.  I like to also reward sniffing, tail wags, and body relaxation.

Why is CAT more effective than other methods?

One aspect I love about CAT is that not only are you shaping and rewarding different, pro social behavior, but you are also working on systematic desensitization at the same time.  By moving the stimulus closer and closer at distances they can cope with, you also operate on this procedure as well.

In CAT, once the two subjects are close enough, the creators of CAT refer to this as a "Switch-over" where the two dogs (in the case of dog-dog aggression) can start to peacefully interact.  Many mistakes can be made here if the meetings are allow to go too long.  Its critical you continue to break off contact and reward with distance, even if the two dogs are interacting peacefully.

By shaping the different, pro social behaviors, you are giving the dog the tools in order to achieve this interaction by promoting the behaviors they need in order to signal and interact peacefully. For dogs that have no dog 'language' this can be very valuable.

Food Use

In the CAT procedure, there is no use of food. (BAT however does use food).  I however tend to do a bit of both.  I have very strict criteria for using food when doing the CAT procedure.  One is that the dog cannot be too interested in bugging the owner for food.  If the dog is too excited that the owner has food, it is removed.

The second is that it is used in very limited amounts and usually only for what I would consider important moments in the procedure. One example might be the first time he looks away, or the first time a pro social action is shown, like a friendly tail wag. These are rewarded with distance and then a food 'jackpot'.

On the fly

One problem with CAT is its very hard to use in the real world.  In this case I usually advise my clients to use food for counter conditioning by clicking and rewarding the dog for any looks at the target, but still rewarding with distance when possible.  In the DVD it was advised not to do this by 'mixing' procedures, however I think its a fair alternative while still working through formal CAT sessions when you encounter stimulus outside the training arena.

Final thoughts

Unfortunately I do not have my own training facility, and thus all my CAT sessions are done outside in public places.  I haven't been able to get any video of the procedure, and they are often interrupted by distractions in our training area.  I hope to do more CAT sessions in a closed off training building soon, along with video.  I have had great results with this procedure, and many people report their aggressive dog doing things they never thought possible.  I would encourage the makers of the procedure to

1) Take much more video and get it in accessible places such as YouTube.
2) Promote more the critical importance of correct distance and not having any aggressive reaction during treatment at all
3) Include more discussion about how this process promotes Systematic desensitization.
4) Redo the live demonstration on the next DVD or forget about live demos since these tend to not go well since when focusing on talking to the audience while trying to perform the procedure you can goof up your timing.


  1. Hi Tristan, this is the first fair evaluation of CAT I have found. I too recently watched the DVDs and agree that the demo was a mistake on many levels, and it did the method a disservice. I have not started to use CAT fully yet, but would love to hear more about your experiences if you were happy to share them.

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