Operant Counterconditioning/CAT-H

CAT on Horses

Have you ever tried CAT?

Some say you shouldn’t do that

“But it’s Negative Reinforcement, oh my!”

I dare you to give it a try

No need for so much consternation,

we’re just looking for relaxation!

“But it’s Negative Reinforcement, oh my!”
I dare you to give it a try!
No need for so much consternation,
we’re just looking for relaxation!


OK, I probably shouldn’t quit my day job, but trying to learn all the different acronyms surrounding Constructional Approach Training often feels like reading a Dr. Seuss book…

CAT was a topic of discussion at The Art and Science of Animal Training Conference this weekend. I use it with every horse I work with, from unhandled or feral horses, to horses with phobias and separation anxiety.

First of all, let’s get the breakdown of all those acronyms out of the way…

CAT: Constructional Aggression Treatment

  • Originally developed by Kellie Snider and Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz, for aggressive and reactive dogs. Kellie’s book is ‘Turning Fierce Dogs Friendly.’
    More information here:

CAT-H: Constructional Approach Training for Horses

BAT: Behavioral Adjustment Training

Basically, they are all the same thing, and we don’t have to get too hung up on the acronyms, as long as we remember we can build relaxation and confidence by using control of proximity as a reinforcer.

  • CAT/CAT-H retreats the scary stimulus away from the animal upon relaxation.
  • Reverse CAT retreats the animal back to where it wants to be; for instance, when we are expanding thresholds of separation anxiety.
  • BAT retreats the animal away from the scary stimulus upon relaxation.

Unfortunately, because a lot of this originated in the dog training world, there aren’t a lot of resources out there for how we might apply it to horses.
But, once we get the general idea, and we start experimenting, we might realize there are a lot of horse training techniques already using this principle, because it’s a universal principle.

Basically, this applies to anything that causes the horse concern, and recognizes we can use proximity and thresholds to reinforce and build relaxation.

The biggest hurdle for us as trainers, mentally, is we have to stop seeing relaxation as a green light to keep going.

Relaxation responses during the learning process should mean to retreat back, otherwise, we are actually punishing relaxation when we charge full steam ahead.

“But this is negative reinforcement. I’ll just keep my horse under threshold and countercondition him with positive reinforcement.”

If the need for counterconditioning exists, the aversiveness of the stimulus exists, even if it is imperceptible and it appears the animal is under threshold emotionally or reactivity-wise.

Refusing to admit proximity control may be more reinforcing than a food reinforcer is not in the animal’s best interest.

Fortunately, this period is short-lived. Once the animal starts finding a food reinforcer and even the relaxation response itself more reinforcing than proximity control, CAT-H basically puts itself out of a job.

And this is why CAT-H does not neatly fit into the quadrant of negative reinforcement, even though it might appear like it at first glance. Operant Counterconditioning is a term that has been used to describe it.

Of course, the application of CAT-H is subject to the individuality of each horse, handler, and situation, and can be thought of as operating on a spectrum of the intensity of the thresholds.

The least stressful approach would be building relaxation incrementally, staying under emotional threshold. staying under emotional threshold.building relaxation incrementally, staying under emotional threshold.

A more stressful approach is where CAT-H starts to look like flooding, where we have gone over emotional thresholds into reactivity, and the horse is required to demonstrate impulse control.

An emergency veterinary intervention is a good example, or, perhaps, gathering cattle on a horse who has unexpectedly been triggered with separation anxiety, but we need to finish the job.

Sometimes these situations cannot be avoided, although we should do our best to prepare for them in advance.

Horsemanship is at its best when it is proactive, rather than reactive. This doesn’t mean that we should neglect learning proper management techniques.

In these situations, having the knowledge base of CAT-H to understand we should try to have the timing, if at all possible, to provide proximity control as soon as it is appropriate and we see the smallest indicator of something more relaxed, it’s a lot more empowering for the animal than nothing at all.

If an animal can believe it has controlled the situation by practicing impulse control and releasing emotional or physical tension, this can leave a completely different impression on them in the moment, and for the future.

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