The Humane Hierarchy of dog training guides the majority of my decisions as a behavior consultant, trainer, and dog owner. This framework was created by Dr. Susan Friedman to help trainers navigate training choices with their pets and clients.
I’ll give the humane hierarchy a basic overview first, then we’ll discuss some of the important notes for how to implement it well. The humane hierarchy is often drawn as a road map, with speed bumps and yield signs to help remind you to slow down before charging on to the next level of training.
The basic idea is to ensure that you’ve fully accounted for basic welfare and less-intrusive interventions before escalating the intensity of your training approach. This helps remind us not to immediately default to frustration-, pain-, or fear-inducing training methods simply because they get results.
1. Health, nutrition, and behavioral wellness.
Until your dog – or any learner – has all of their needs met, a training program is incomplete. Ensure that your learner is happy and healthy and well-fed before moving on.
For example, many dogs that growl when we attempt to pet them are actually experiencing pain. Until we treat that pain, a behavior modification plan is incomplete.
Likewise, if your dog is chronically bored, under-exercised, or fatigued from interrupted sleep, your training is unlikely to succeed.
2. Antecedent Arrangement
Is the environment actually set up to help your dog behave in the way you’d like? For example, leaving your dog unattended in the back yard when school lets out across the road is a recipe for backyard barking. Simply bring your dog inside and close the blinds to get a head start on solving the problem.
Similarly, feeding dogs in separate areas prevents arguments breaking out over food.
The basic idea is to remove whatever is causing your dog’s behavior, either permanently or as part of the training program while working on other solutions.
This approach is often overlooked, even though it relates to the joke below:
3. Positive Reinforcement.
You can also use food rewards, petting, or playtime to reward your dog for behaviors you DO like. If you notice your dog lying on their bed instead of bothering your guests, walk over and give them a treat!
Rewarding your dog for good behaviors will automatically decrease bad behaviors as well, because your dog can only do so many behaviors in a given day,
Pause before moving on to the next step and consider seeking help.
4. Differential Reinforcement.
This gets to splitting hairs a bit for most people, so we’re going to be brief here. It is defined as “Reinforce an acceptable replacement behavior and remove the maintaining reinforcer for the problem behavior.”
For example, you can teach your dog for sit at the door instead of barking. This is different from simply teaching your dog to sit (see #3) because it inherently includes a bit more stress for your dog and involves some element of extinction (ignoring an unwanted behavior that used to earn reward for your dog).
Pause and consult other behavior professionals before moving on!
5. Extinction, Negative Punishment, and Negative Reinforcement.
These protocols involve ignoring unwanted behavior, taking away things your dog wants when they misbehave, or pestering them until they stops an unwanted behavior.
All of these options are potentially harmful to your relationship with your pet.
This is where most people jump to – and as you can see, you have many other options for changing your dog’s behavior first! It’s best practice to reach out to a professional (not just Facebook) for help before starting to implement any of these procedures.
Pause and re-start your training if you’re stuck here. Then loop in more training expertise before moving on to #6.
It’s also important to note that different levels of negative punishment and negative reinforcement (see our article on the quadrants of operant conditioning for extra background here) can come at VASTLY different levels of pain, fear, or intrusiveness for your dog.
Most loose-leash walking protocols and leave it protocols involves using negative punishment – by removing food if the dog dives in or stopping your movement if the dog pulls. I don’t consider these approaches inherently cruel, although I certainly am moving to advocate more progressive and effective training programs instead.
Regardless, these protocols are VERY different from using an electronic collar to shock/vibrate/stimulate a dog’s neck until the dog stops chasing a squirrel. One of the biggest criticisms of the Humane Hierarchy is that these two protocols fall on the same level of “negative reinforcement.”
Extinction can also be incredibly stressful for a learner, because by definition you’re removing a reward that an animal used to be able to earn. This causes frustration that can range from mild and momentary to crippling and counterproductive.
6. Positive Punishment.
Positive punishment involves scaring, scolding, or even hurting your dog when they do something you don’t like. Again, many people jump directly to this step when attempting to change their dog’s behavior. This can be extremely harmful to your cat’s relationship with you.
Additionally, punishment fails to help your cat behave appropriately and does not treat the underlying impulse that caused the unwanted behavior. Consult a professional before attempting to scold, shock, swat, or spray your dog for unwanted behaviors: you have other options that will get you better results!
It’s a Framework, Not a Complete Plan
We’ve already touched on a few valid criticisms of the Humane Hierarchy: different levels of punishment and negative reinforcement exist, yet they’re placed on the same plane in this framework. That said, this is an incredibly useful framework for many trainers.
It’s also important to note that the Humane Hierarchy is NOT intended to be used to justify use of force, fear, or pain in dog training. It’s a reminder to pause, consult other professionals, and revisit your training plan before reaching for a bigger stick instead of a smarter carrot.
Additionally, the Humane Hierarchy is not designed to be used for dog behavior modification for issues related to fear, aggression, anxiety, or phobias. In those cases, any responsible behavior consultant will rely heavily on counterconditioning and desensitization and is unlikely to ever reach for punishment as a tool.
The Humane Hierarchy reminds us that we shouldn’t just reach for the dog training methods that “work” – effectiveness is not enough. Instead we should consider the ethics of our training choices.
As Eileen Anderson so intelligently points out in her article on the Humane Hierarchy, “The Humane Hierarchy is not a set of “rules.” It is a general ranking of training methods, starting with the least intrusive for the animal and ending with the most intrusive. Least intrusive is defined as the procedure that leaves the animal with the most control over its outcomes. Any person who uses the Hierarchy as a guideline must inform herself about the species of animal she is working with and carefully observe the behavior of the individual animal, because different animals will respond differently to different methods.”
Finally, any trainer who continually skips ahead to #6 (positive punishment) without carefully considering the other steps is limited in their knowledge of learning theory and animal behavior.
Kayla is from Ashland, Wisconsin but lives in Missoula Montana. She holds a degree in biology from Colorado College and has spent years working in zoos, animal shelters, as a private dog trainer, and with working detection K9s. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. She shares her life with her border collie Barley.