Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive Training

I try my very best to follow the Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive training framework when working with my dog, the shelter dogs I worked with, and my foster dogs. I encourage the same framework for my clients.

LIMA (sort for Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive) is a framework that many trainers use to dictate how and when they’ll use different training techniques.

It’s commonly explained in conjunction with the Humane Hierarchy, which Dr. Susan Friedman brought to the training world.

Essentially, the goal of LIMA and the Humane Hierarchy is to help behavior professionals (like my team and me) decide which behavioral interventions to use when.

As Certified Dog Behavior Consultants with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, both Erin and I are strongly encouraged to adhere to LIMA.

My Main Goals as a Behavior Consultant

  1. First, do no harm.
  2. Ensure your learner (and the owner) wants to come back for more. This means training should be fun AND effective.
  3. Understand WTF (What’s The Function of the behavior)?
  4. Strive to build the relationships whenever and wherever possible.
  5. Address the whole picture, the whole animal, the whole family to make behavior changes effective.

How LIMA Helps Me Make Training Decisions

LIMA helps remind the trainer or behavioral consultant that our first question to the owner should be, “What do you want the animal to do here?”

The answer isn’t allowed to be a “dead dog behavior,” which is any behavior that a dead dog can also do (such as NOT barking, NOT chewing, NOT jumping).

The replacement behavior needs to be an actual behavior – such as sitting, lying on the mat, or chewing on a bone instead of the table.

Then it’s time to get to work.

LIMA trainers should work within a consistent, systematized protocol to effect behavioral change in their clients.

I choose to use the Humane Hierarchy, which relies heavily on what some trainers call Behavioral Wellness.

The Humane Hierarchy Behavior Change Process

As we start to try to help a dog, horse, parrot, hippo, or velociraptor through a training plan, we start at the basics.

As we adequately address each level of the Humane Hierarchy, we reassess to see how the behavior is progressing.

If the behavior still needs more work after skillful application of the first three measures, then we need to get help from another trainer or behavioral consultant.

This ensures that the lack of progress isn’t because we, the behavior consultants, have missed something.

A quick note here: the Humane Hierarchy is not meant to be a framework for addressing behaviors with an emotional undercurrent, like fear, phobias, and aggression. These need a healthy dose of counter-conditioning!

The further down the Humane Hierarchy we go, the more cautious we need to be. If you routinely find yourself resorting to #5 and #6 on this list, it’s time to get help, take some classes, and/or read more books.

LIMA and the Humane Hierarchy are competence-based. That means that if you’re routinely reaching for “heavier tools” (#5 and #6), it’s time to get help and recognize that something is above your current skill level.

1. Address the Learner’s Wellness.

Many behavior concerns have an underlying physical or physiological cause.

Your dog might be slow to respond to a “sit” cue because her hips hurt.

Your dog might snarl at oncoming dogs because he’s got a torn toenail and doesn’t want them to hurt him.

Your dog might bark, pace, and chew constantly because her exercise needs aren’t being met.

Take your dog to the vet if you’re seeing a sudden change in behavior. Ensure that you’re adequately meeting your dog’s exercise needs (mental and physical).

Often, this dramatically reduces problem behaviors.

2. Change the Environment to Help the Learner Succeed.

My dog Barley has a habit of getting into the trash. My main solution? I put the trash away and hide treats around the house so he learns to scavenge elsewhere.

If your dog barks at cars driving by, it’s time to get some window film. Your dog’s world is a classroom – make sure it’s ready to help her focus and succeed.

3. Use Positive Reinforcement to Increase Your Desired Behavior.

This is my bread and butter as a trainer. If your goal is to have a dog that walks nicely on leash, that means rewarding her when she looks up at you and has a slack leash.

Positive reinforcement relies on catching the dog being good (which relies on setting the dog up for success and meeting her needs).

It also relies on shaping your dog’s behavior. If your goal is to have your dog lie on her bed during dinner, you’re probably not going to be able to get 100% of that behavior right away. Instead, you’ll have to reward your dog for tiny approximations of that behavior.

4. Reward Incompatible Behaviors to Decrease Unwanted Behaviors.

This comes a bit after positive reinforcement because it can be a bit stressful for the dog – yesterday, Behavior A worked. Now it doesn’t, and she’s supposed to do Behavior B instead.

But training an incompatible behavior is still part of how I fix most behavior problems for most of my clients.

So you want your dog to sit when guests come in? Then use treats to teach your dog to sit in a less-distracting environment, then play the “Can You Listen When…?” game until your dog is a pro, then start using it when guests are over!

If you’d like your dog to hand target instead of barking and lunging at other dogs, then you’ve got to teach that skill using positive reinforcement. Of course, part of your training plan will still include #1 and #2.

5. Ignore an Unwanted Behavior, Remove Rewards, or Withhold Rewards.

This is pretty stressful for the learner – remember getting grounded as a kid? It also can be part of some training plans.

I will incorporate the removal of rewards (negative punishment) when working with dogs that bark at their owners incessantly. Bark at the owner, owner leaves briefly.

But I only incorporate negative punishment (removing rewards), negative reinforcement (removing a punisher), and extinction (withholding rewards and waiting a behavior out) in very specific scenarios, and only in conjunction with all four of the previous steps of behavior change.

6. Punish the Learner for an Unwanted Behavior.

Unfortunately, this is often the FIRST stop for many well-meaning advice-givers. It really should be the last step.

Any time you’re doing something to an animal to stop or reduce a behavior, you’re using punishment. So if you’re using a prong, pinch, choke, or e-collar, a newspaper to swat, a scolding done, or a swat on the rump, you are using punishment.

This doesn’t mean that trainers who adhere to the Humane Hierarchy and LIMA won’t yank on a leash to save a dog from traffic. It also doesn’t mean that LIMA trainers won’t use a stern tone of voice to stop a dog from eating something.

That said, I can’t think of any time I’ve used positive punishment in a TRAINING scenario. I’ve used it in real life to keep my dog safe – but it’s never my first choice.

It does mean that any trainer who adheres to LIMA and the Humane Hierarchy is working very hard on the first three or four stages of behavior change first.

Again, if you find yourself reaching for #6 on this list over and over again, it’s time to start over with more knowledge, fresh eyes, and – dare I say it – more treats.

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