Can I Use A Clicker in Constructional Aggression Treatment?

11 Mar

Kellie Snider © 2018

Back when we did the CAT research one of the goals was to discover what could be done with distance as a reinforcer for alternatives to aggressive behaviors in aggressive dogs.  A common question then and now about Constructional Aggression Treatment is, “Why not add a marker/clicker and treats to let him know when he’s doing the right thing?” Great question. Clicker training is well and long-established as a highly effective training technology, and still today trainers have accepted it as a primary teaching tool. It is even used in Tag-Teach to work with humans.

Long before CAT, the primary use of clicker training was to teach new skills and put them on cue. It is commonly used in pet dog training, canine sports, working dog training (e.g. service dogs, search and rescue, sometimes military and police-dog work), to some degree in horse training, and with parrots and a variety of exotic species in zoos, aquaria, and other environments. Like its predecessor, the whistle, used extensively with aquatic animals and other large exotics, the clicker gave a precise notification that the desired behavior had been performed and that a reinforcer (reward) was going to be delivered.

Very cool stuff.

In clicker training the reinforcer is usually food. Healthy animals eat, and as a result will work to obtain food, a hand-me-down from how they survived this far as a species. This kind of “do what I want and I’ll give you a treat” model is what most people think of as reward training. If the food is fun and tasty they’ll work even harder. Clicker training became synonymous with treat training because the process went something like this:

·        Trainer gives a cue (command).  E.g. “High five!”

·        Dog performs the behavior. E.g. Raises paw into the air and touches the trainer’s hand.

·        Trainer gives a reinforcer (treat).  E.g. Hands over a chunk of ham.

By performing this procedure with a dog that enjoys ham you can teach her all kinds of stuff. Cool.

But what if you’re trying to get rid of a behavior you don’t want the animal to do anymore? Like attacking Uncle George? Unlike training a high five and putting it on cue, in this case you need to replace an existing problematic behavior with a desirable behavior. So, it’s not just building one behavior, it’s getting rid of a behavior and building an alternative behavior, too. This is quite a bit more challenging.

Emotional behavior already occurs “on cue”, but the cue probably isn’t the owner’s word signal. It’s a trigger in the environment. It may be, “Man walks into view,” “Dog picks up a rawhide,” or “Child screams and runs across the yard.” These are rarely things the dog was intentionally taught to respond aggressively to, but they indicate that if the dog performs aggressive behavior she might get some relief from an unpleasant situation. (There doesn’t have to be any known reason the presence or actions of the man, dog, or child seem to be unpleasant to the dog.)

The questions we need to answer are:

1.      If the man/dog/child moves away or lets the dog move away after the dog behaves aggressively, does the dog continue to behave aggressively in their presence in the future? (Or does he behave aggressively more often in the future?)

2.      If the man/dog/child no longer moves away when the dog is behaving aggressively but now only moves away if the dog behaves in friendly ways does the dog continue to behave in friendly ways, or do his friendly responses increase?  (And, yes, yikes. Don’t use a child during aggression training… and use men and animals only with extreme caution! It’s potentially very dangerous. I wish we could have animated, realistic robots of children and other animals to use in this training, but so far we don’t. Read the book for discussion on this.)

Did you notice that I didn’t ask, “Does the dog behave aggressively less often in the future if I click and treat when he acts all friendly?” Well…

Here are some things to think about.

When you’re training you need to use the most relevant and desirable reinforcers possible for the best results.  When your dog is faced with a scary man who has exited his front door with the clear intention of killing her and you just because he’s a man and she’s afraid of men, is she eager and excited to get a treat? Um, no. Some dogs will eat in the presence of the things that get their blood boiling but often those guys are just getting a distraction out of their faces or have a long history of eating whatever whenever. Others would never, could not, don’t even ASK about it, eat a treat in this situation. Come on! An obvious axe murderer with a bunch of flowers has just come out of his apartment singing! WHY ARE YOU GIVING ME CHUNKS OF HAM AT A TIME LIKE THIS??

What is the man-aggressive dog used to getting when she snarls and lunges at a strange man? The man may yelp, but he is unlikely to stick around. He puts distance between himself and the dog, and that is A-OK by the dog! (Okay, we have all run into those people who say, “Oh, dogs like me!” But they’re not the majority.) Does your dog want a treat just then? No, he has bigger fish to fry.

So, what about the clicker? What if you set up a scenario that goes, “Click > Stranger Walks Away”? Well, you might get some results you like. But, the goal of CAT is not to make the dog more dependent on you to make him make the right decisions. The goal is to show him that he has a whole lot of alternatives to aggression, and that they can work even if Owner-Person doesn’t have a clicker, or misses the opportunity to click. What happens if your dog sees the guy before you do?

You know how the mere sight of the strange dude acts as a cue telling your dog to behave aggressively, and you don’t have to announce the guy’s presence with a verbal command at all? It works on the backside, too. The sight of the guy turning is the click that refreshes. The dog sees the man (cue), the dog stays cool by turning his head or looking at his Mom (behavior), and the man walks away.

There’s your click, treat.


Happy Day, y’all,



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