Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Constructional Aggression Treatment

I had a clicker lesson with Kate last weekend, while we were planning on when to meet I told her about how I've been trying to get Gwen to be okay outside of the pasture. I also mentioned my frustration on the return of her anxiety-fueled barging. So when Kate arrived, she came with a plan.

She wanted to see if using CAT would help Gwen with her fear of being away from the herd. In a nutshell, CAT uses approach and retreat to help animals deal with fear and aggression issues (since fear and aggression are so often linked). Mary H. has a post on it here where she used this method with an extremely fearful horse. I also found this paragraph from a dog training site that I feel sums up CAT fairly well: 

"Researchers at the University of North Texas, Kellie Snider and her mentor, Dr Jesus Rosales-Ruiz have designed a procedure to very specifically take advantage of how badly dogs want unpleasant things to go away. Kellie and Jesus figure that since dogs do what works to get what they WANT, then the best possible reward for a dog who is presented with something she wishes would go away, is to make it go away! However, the dog must do something in exchange, something that is not barking and growling, some thing that looks a whole lot more like calmness. So, instead of twirling on her hind legs for a hot dog, or scratching at the door to be let in, the aggressive dog is going to figure out from this procedure that to keep quiet or turn her head away is what works best to get the bad thing to go away."

How does this apply to my mare? Gwen doesn't want to be away from the herd, it makes her incredibly uncomfortable, but she needs to learn that being away from them is okay and that there's a whole wide world out there for her to explore. So we approach the area she's afraid of (away from the herd), I wait for a sign of relaxation- like head lowering, and then retreat back to "safety." The goal is to gradually move the fear point and the safety point farther and farther away from the herd until she finally decides the outside world is no longer scary. 

This is going very slowly, on the first day we only got about 15 feet away from the herd before she got worried. After a few days we are now at 20 feet. You know how they say good horse training is as exciting to watch as grass growing? This is even less exciting, but there's a trade-off for working at a snail's pace, now that I'm not pushing her past her comfort level she's not barging or circling anymore and I can lead her with a loose lead rope again. I've got my lovely, soft mare back.

Slow and steady will win this race!


  1. I so admire your patience, Shannon! The rewards will be worth the time you are investing now.

    I have one dog that has fear aggression and one that has high anxiety if the situation makes him nervous. I have worked with both to teach them to pick up their "dolly" when they get stressed. The dolly is their security blanket and they prance around with it until the anxiety disappears. :-)

  2. That's a good way to deal with it - I think herd-boundness is one of the hardest things to deal with. I do something very similar, using "just standing around" and relaxation as the response I'm looking for, however briefly. Great that you're willing to take things slowly!

  3. If you met me in person you'd find out pretty quickly that I am NOT patient. This is part of why Gwen is good for me, she demands patience and lots of it!

    Wolfie- how cool that you trained your dogs to do that. I can see that working really well.

    Kate- your method sounds very similar to what I'm doing. We are doing lots of just standing around.

  4. Great stuff! I have done this kind of work for herd bound horses too though I had never heard of CAT until Stale Cheerios. I think once you can consistently get her back into a calm state of mind after she gets nervous you will be impressed with how fast she will improve.

  5. Golden, I sure hope so. My patience has held up so far but I don't know if I could stand months of this.