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Changing Dog Behavior Through CAT (Constructional Aggression Treatment)

Updated on August 22, 2013
Constructional Aggression Treatment in Dog Behavior Modification
Constructional Aggression Treatment in Dog Behavior Modification | Source

In a previous hub published last week, we discussed LAT (Look at that) a powerful method for changing behavior in dogs. This week, we'll discuss CAT, an acronym standing for "Constructional Aggression treatment. While LAT was first introduced by Leslie McDevitt, a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and Certified Professional Dog Trainer, CAT was first introduced by Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz and Kellie Snider, M.S. in 2007.

Constructional Aggression Treatment is a different approach compared to the popular dog desensitization and counterconditioning techniques. Rather, CAT is not all about counterconditioning, but more tailored towards the operant component of behavior. The theory here is that yes, the dog is classically conditioned to the trigger that elicits aggression, but the matter in which the dog resolves the conflict falls under operant conditioning.

In other words, in CAT the dog's outward manifestations of aggression are primarily addressed, the foundation of this method is that "behavior that is reinforced will increase." In other words, in the case of a dog fearful of the mailman, the dog's lunging and barking is reinforced by the mailman leaving. In this case, the mailman leaving becomes a functional reward as the dog's behavior is reinforced. The dog thinks "every time I bark, I make the mailman leave, so I'll continue barking as it's effective." In CAT, the functional reward is only removed once the dog is displaying dog calming signals. Confused? Let's look at an example below.


An Example of CAT (Constructional Aggression Treatment)

So how does CAT exactly work? I used CAT a while back, when I first started offering my first behavior consultations. This is how it was taught to me years ago, but now it looks like there has been some progress and more guidelines for keeping the dog better under threshold are being implemented. I no longer use this method and will explain why in the next paragraphs. Anyhow, here is how I applied it. For privacy reasons, I will use fictional names of dogs and owners. This was a real case I worked on.

Case Study: Misty the Barking Mad Dobie

When Mary called me she had to leave on vacation and was worried about finding a good pet sitter that wasn't afraid of her dog. Her dog was a dobie mix called Misty. Apparently, this dog had issues of trying to attack guests who came over her house. The pooch didn't have a bite history, but the behavior was scary as she used to bare her pearly whites, growl, bark and lunge.

When I first visited, I was indeed greeted with that scary display. The dog was leashed and at a distance. I started applying CAT immediately. As I showed up by the door, Misty barked on top of her lungs, but I didn't leave. I just stood there and pretended I was a statue. This sure was something unusual for her since she was used to people running away. This made her bark even more due to how dog behavior works. In other words, Misty started barking louder and more aggressively because she was likely reasoning "Hey! Usually people leave when they see me act like this, what's up with you? I'll increase my barking behavior, in hopes that you finally get my message... bark, bark, bark!" This is called in behavioral science an "extinction burst" and it's totally normal behavior.

After several minutes, Misty started realizing her method didn't work. -at least not with me!- This was an important moment to capture and cherish so I had my feet ready to leave. The moment she took a breath and stopped barking, I left as fast as I could. After a few minutes, we repeated the whole scene again. Of course, she barked again when I showed up again and again, and as before I always waited for her to catch her breath and stop barking to make a quick about turn and leave. After several repetitions, it was starting to click in Misty's mind that barking no longer worked in sending me away. And after several repetitions, she started realizing instead that being quiet and calmer made me immediately leave.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Using CAT

As seen, in CAT the dog is exposed to the trigger and the trigger is removed only when the dog offers an alternate behavior. Only once this alternate behavior is offered, the trigger is removed. Ideally, to prevent excessive stress, the trigger should be presented sub-threshold. In the case of Misty, I was at the door rather than inside the home, where the behavior according to the owner really escalated. Nowadays, and with more experience, I would have worked much more sub-threshold to the point where she wasn't barking but showing the very first signs of stress that were barely perceptible to an inexperienced eye. Perhaps, I would have stayed behind the door instead of at the door step or in the yard and have her see me from the window, however, this may have been impractical in many ways. However, it's also true that nowadays, I would have most likely used a different approach. Let's look at some advantages or disadvantages of this method.


  • There is no need to use treats. The functional reward provides reinforcement for behaviors.
  • The owner's job is minimal since he/she doesn't have to do much. No need to mark behaviors or give praise or rewards. Just hang on the leash.
  • The process is quite quick, with results often seen in the first few sessions.


  • The trainer must be well-versed in reading the dog, working sub-threshold and recognizing signs of stress and calming signals.
  • The trainer must be knowledgeable in knowing when to progress and how quickly in the process. This is something that should only be done by professionals familiar with this method. It requires a hands on approach, not something that can be accomplished by reading an article. Do not try this at home!
  • To help the dog generalize, this method requires different decoys under the form of people or dogs depending on what triggers the dog.
  • As with other fast methods, there are risks that the results are not reliable as with slower methods.
  • As the trainer gets closer to the dog, there are risks for incidents if CAT is not performed correctly.
  • There is an inevitable level of stress in this process. If you are using decoy dogs, the stress can be both in the aggressive dog and the decoy dog. It's important to have several decoy dogs that have a high threshold so to not expose to prolonged stress. Not all dogs are good candidates for being decoys. The wrong type of decoy may jeopardize the whole process and swipe away any history of improvements.
  • If done incorrectly, with the dog over threshold the dog rehearses the aggressive behavior. According to James O' Heare, fear is known for producing adrenalin, whereas, anger causes the secretion of adrenalin and another hormone known as noradrenalin, explains James O' Heare in his book “The Canine Aggression Workbook”.This chemical bath can be quite addicting, which is also a contributing factor to why you see aggressive behaviors repeat over and over.
  • This training method is based on negative reinforcement. To learn about this, read my article on the quadrants of dog training. Basically, the dog's behavior is reinforced by the removal of the trigger. The dog learns that the trigger is removed (negative) when he behaves a certain way, and this behavior reinforces this way (you'll see it more and more).

This training method remains a subject of controversy. There are several trainers who believe that dogs cannot learn when under stress. On the other hand, some trainers claim that dogs can learn instead quite well under stress especially when it comes to rehearsing avoidance behaviors. The question is: is there a way to totally avoid stress when performing behavior modification? This question remains a hot subject of debate among many trainers/behavior consultants.

Alexadry © All rights reserved, do not copy.


Training your Dog and You: Constructional Aggression Treatment.

An Example of CAT in horse training


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    Post Comment
    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 

      6 years ago

      Thanks Monis Mas, it's my passion and my full-time job! Thanks for stopping by!

    • Monis Mas profile image


      6 years ago

      Very interesting. Your knowledge is absolutely amazing!

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 

      6 years ago

      It's true that this method uses functional rewards rather than treats, but as mentioned it also has many drawback to keep into consideration.Thanks for stopping by!

    • midget38 profile image

      Michelle Liew 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      This was a wonderful display of behavioral modification at work. I like that CAT does not require treats! Thanks for the introduction!

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 

      6 years ago

      Thanks Eidween for stopping by and for the votes up. I'm not too sure why the horse video calls it 'Constructional Approach Training". It's the same process and they also mention the same person who invented CAT.

    • Eiddwen profile image


      6 years ago from Wales

      A wonderful;interesting and useful share. Voted up.



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