I just got back from a great weekend at the New England Federation of Humane Societies Conference where I had the chance to spend a couple of days learning about better ways to support the pets and people in our communities. As a bonus, I also got to attend a TACT seminar!
TACT, which stands for Touch Associated Clicker Training, is a behavior modification program for fearful dogs. Created by Julie Robitaille and Emma Parsons (author of Click to Calm, Healing the Aggressive Dog), TACT is, in their words:
TACT, Touch Associated Clicker Training creatively combines the science and art of learning theory, clicker training and massage therapy. This unique approach is used specifically to rehabilitate and prevent shy, fearful, reactive, and aggressive behavior in dogs and puppies utilizing positive training methods.
TACT utilizes a ritualized protocol designed with safety, structure and predictability. TACT develops confidence and coping skills while changing the emotional response in fearful dogs. TACT incorporates a detailed home management and real world exposure control program for owners to follow to coincide with their training protocol.
The seminar was geared towards working with dogs that are very fearful around humans (not other dogs). My understanding is that this program has been formulated for dogs that are specifically reactive to people.
Julie kicked things off with an introduction to TACT and how she incorporates ritualized protocols that are safe, structured, and super predictable. In each of the four learning stages, the individual dog’s triggers are broken down into the tiniest parts and the dogs are carefully and slowly exposed to their triggers. Through the counter conditioning process, TACT works to desensitize dogs to their fear of people, ultimately changing their emotional response.
Julie showed us some videos of her clients, that I wish I could show you. The early sessions began in an enclosed room with just the handler, the dog, and Julie. Each time they met, throughout each stage of progress, the same protocols and routines were utilized in order create and maintain predictable patterns.
So, the very simplified version of this might be: if a dog is reactive towards large men walking at 15 feet away, TACT starts with a small woman sitting in a chair at 20 feet away. The work begins with the dog behind a visual barrier and just listening to the strange woman’s voice. Then, for example, the dog is brought out to see the woman and as long as the dog is calm and comfortable, the next step might be the woman turning her head to look at the dog, then turning away. It’s Baby Step Central.
The dogs are rewarded throughout this process by clicking and treating whenever they offer up certain foundation behaviors, such as looking at the person (similar to LAT), checking out novel items, or eventually allowing brief touch.
Julie shared that through her work as a massage therapist she realized predictable patterns, more than anything else, reduced fear in the dogs she was working with. That realization was a game changing moment for her. So TACT is intentionally very ritualized and predictable. The predictability the dogs encounter through TACT, coupled with a positive outcome each time, helps calm the dogs and shapes their emotional response from fear to calm and confident around unfamiliar people they encounter.
There are many terrific counter conditioning protocols out there, but what makes TACT particularly unique is the addition of therapeutic touch. Julie shared a quote at the beginning of her talk: “When I first began my massage therapy practice I knew I would be massaging the body, the mind and spirit but I had no idea I would be massaging behavior.” Her work as a massage therapist helped her to discover that therapeutic touch was changing her client’s behavior even after the massage work was over. So she incorporated this into TACT’s training methodology.
As Julie pointed out, touch is subjective, so we have to let our dogs choose if they want to be touched. In TACT the dogs are eventually touched by Julie, through slow, measured steps and, if the dogs actively seek out more touch, she moves on to therapeutic body work.
Dogs are gradually exposed to new people and environments, so they can begin to generalize what they’ve learned. But in each stage, the ritualized protocol work is repeated (the dog moves through it faster), so that they know what to expect.
The method itself isn’t complicated, but Julie made it clear that TACT takes time, effort, commitment, and hard work. She very wisely reminded the group that the work isn’t determined by what you want – it’s shaped by what the dog needs and that often means we have to slow way down, taking small steps that will add up to success over time.
Oh and there’s still NO CURE.
No matter how much progress you make, there’s no “cure” for reactivity or aggression. Julie pointed out that there are two crucial comments to TACT: Management and Training. In order for TACT to be successful (or any other program, in my opinion) you need to always be doing both.
You can go to her website to learn more about the specifics of TACT (since I’m not a trainer, I’m not fluent in training-ese and she can tell you more than I can). You can also order her DVD and workbook package from Clean Run, so you can learn the steps in detail. From what I understand Julie and Emma are the only two certified TACT professionals (though a TACT certification program is coming soon) and they’re both in Massachusetts, so if you’re in their area, it might be worth doing private sessions with them.
After listing to the presentation, I’d say that TACT could be of real help for some of your dogs, especially if you have the time and are committed to doing the work. It’s not a quick fix and you must have people who you trust to help you with the ritualized work.
I’m not exactly sure how I would implement this in the hustle and bustle of a shelter environment, but this would be a great program for anyone fostering a fearful dog. As for my own DINOS, Boogie, he’s more reactive with dogs than people (strangers scare him, but only briefly and he’s gotten much better over the years), so I’m not planning on trying TACT at home. But if your dog is aggressive or reactive towards humans, this is worth checking out.
Whether or not TACT is right for your dogs, Julie did have some good management ideas and tips that all of your dogs can benefit from:
Create a Safe Space in your house. Visitors to the house can be a really stressful (potentially dangerous) time for your dogs, so create a safe space in your home for your dog. Ideally this would be a separate room with a door you can close. When guests come over, have your dog go to their safe space BEFORE your guests arrive (not when the doorbell rings). Turn on soft music or a white noise machine and let them relax in their safe place.
To get them ready for this new routine, teach your dog to go their safe space and get comfortable. Have them stay in the their new safe space for up to 20 minutes before you release them. Practice this often, so that when your guests do visit, your dog is already comfortable with this set up.
Home should be Fun! Our dogs are often stressed and uncomfortable out in the real world. Make your home a safe, fun environment for your dogs by taking a look at their environment. If they’re sound sensitive, invest in a white noise machine to block out the sounds. If they’re visually overstimulated, cover windows that they perch near. Most importantly, spend time on enrichment that stimulates them mentally, so they can drain down their batteries, through puzzles, interactive toys, etc.
Real World Management Since people are everywhere (don’t we know it!), management will always play a big role in living with a fearful or reactive dog. Julie recommends:
Always use a leash, even if your dog has an awesome recall
Desensitize your dog to a muzzle, so if they ever need it, they’re comfortable wearing one.
Practice the “Let’s Go” command, so you can make quick getaways
Drive around to look for less crowded public places to walk your dogs
Have your dog wear a vest that tells people they are training.
What I really appreciated about the seminar is that Julie recognizes the incredible emotional toll that living with a reactive dog can have on their people. It’s stressful and frustrating and sometimes sad. Julie gets this – she’s been there – and developed the TACT Caregivers Fatigue Program. If you’re feeling burned out or at the end of your rope, I highly recommend you check this out. There are support groups online and if you’re in the Massachusetts area, there’s even an in-person support group, both are run by Anne Lindsay, a professional counselor.
Overall, a really positive seminar and I hope that those of you with dogs that are reactive to people will check it out to see if it might be a good match for your dogs.
Have any of you tried TACT? What are your thoughts on the program? Let me know!