I am the keynote speaker at the first ever Constructional Approach to Animal Welfare and Training (CAAWT) conference in Tokyo… yes, the one in Japan. My hosts, Maasa Nishimuta and Sean Will are amazing. They’ve gone the extra mile to make me and the attendees comfortable and to ensure that it goes off without a hitch. (And I think I’m tired! They’re working so hard! And I’m just waiting for them to cue me to talk.)
Ah, yes, you may be wondering how I’m in Japan during Covid-19. I’m in my home office wearing a pressed shirt and makeup, and my hair is done. And I’m wearing pajama bottoms. Because why not? My talk was at 11pm. Accomplished! It is now 1:25am. I’ve got another 3 hours to go! The presentations are great, so I. Can. Do. This. (I’m so tired. And I have another night to go!) (Night 2- linen shirt, makeup, hair, pajama bottoms.)
Sean Will, one of my hosts, just used the term Harmonious Engagement in his presentation about Constructional Affection. What a perfectly delicious term! Sean is one of the originators of the Constructional Affection approach to teaching wild and crazy dogs to just chill a minute. If you would like to learn more about Constructional Affection, head over here: https://constructionalaffection.com/
My graduate thesis and book focus on what I named the Constructional Aggression Treatment. One common practice in working with dogs with aggression is to use food to gain their attention, to classically condition aversive stimuli as appetitive, and generally to train non-aggressive behavior. In the Constructional Aggression Treatment we specifically focus on making sure that we give the dogs what they need in the moment, which, is not food. If you think about it that is obvious.
Say, one day you’ve gone into a convenience store with your friend. (Obviously this is a friend with whom you live because these are Covid-19 times!) You’re checking out the junk food when someone walks into the store brandishing a gun! You freak out! You try to get away but the doors are locked. You try to hide but there are cameras everywhere. There’s nothing to do but defend yourself.
Your friend wants to help you, so she holds your arm and starts feeding you M&Ms. You look at her like she’s crazy! She says, “GOOD!” and gives you another M&M. You eat it just to get her out of your face. Or you smack her and tell her to knock it off.
Do you need an M&M right then? No, actually what you need is a way to escape the guy with the gun, right? What you need is distance from the scary person. Same with our aggressive dogs. They aren’t hungry. They are trying to get something they don’t like to go away. I am not saying that using food in training is a bad idea. It’s not. It’s a great idea in many situations. But in a situation where aggression is happening for a clear outcome… distance from aversive stimuli… provide distance as a reinforcer for appropriate or preferred behavior.
Something Sean said about the Constructional Aggression Treatment (CAT) was that If we give them food instead of what they really want … distance from aversive stimuli… we are actually restricting access to what the dog really needs.
When he used the term “harmonious engagement”, Sean was talking about working with Constructional Affection, but it works the same way. When I get to the end of a Constructional Aggression Treatment with a dog, my goal is to have the dog solicit affection from me or from the other dog or person that has been worrying them. My goal with Constructional Aggression Treatment is to show the dog that I understand their concerns and I’m going to make sure I get their needs met. It’s not very sensitive of me to try to feed my friend when he is frightened. First I need to lead him to safety.
Now, there are things that can be done with treats during the CAT training process. Clicker train the dog to happily wear a muzzle just in case. Teach them to pay attention to where you are leading them on leash so that as you need to you can switch directions and avoid trouble. Teach them to rest comfortably in a crate when guests are over. All of that is important. But if you really want to treat aggression rather than managing it, you need to show your dog that providing distance contingently upon preferred behavior is going to work a charm. And your dog will learn that there are far easier ways to achieve distance than to aggress.