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J Exp Psychol Gen. 1983 Jun;112(2):176-214.

Safety training: the elimination of avoidance-motivated aggression in dogs.


This study sought to identify the behavioral characteristics and appropriate treatment of a form of instrumental aggression in companion dogs, herein recognized as avoidance-motivated aggression. In Experiment 1, retrospective data on 92 cases of dangerously aggressive dogs demonstrated the avoidance nature of the aggressive response and its intractability to established counterconditioning treatments. In Experiment 2, safety training, a modified avoidance-learning procedure, resulted in complete and permanent elimination of aggression in all of the 36 dogs tested. In addition, it produced extremely extinction-resistant prosocial avoidance responses, significant increases in the dogs' emotional stability, an avoidance-learning and safety acquisition response set, and improvements in measures of the dog's "carriage." Experiment 3 showed how effective safety training is when compared with other behavior modification techniques that, in theory, should have an impact on avoidance-motivated aggression. Experiment 4 demonstrated the critical importance of using the conditioned safety cue as a positive reinforcement. The relationship of avoidance-motivated aggression to other forms of aggression is discussed. The success of safety training compared with the failure of electrical aversion therapy is analyzed. The theoretical concepts of behavioral balance and an avoidance-learning set are presented. Suggestions to improve the effectiveness of counterconditioning for human avoidance-motivated pathologies are offered. All in all, the data seem to suggest that safety training may create in dogs a sense of control over environmental stressors. By teaching the dogs a behaviorally balanced battery of prosocial "coping" responses, they may be developing the canine counterpart of "self-efficacy" or "courage." It is suggested that this cognitive modification may provide the antithesis of "learned helplessness" and may be of prime importance to the success and stability of the results.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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