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Humane Hierarchy & LIMA Training, Explained with Examples | Pupford

November 29th, 2023

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Two principles and concepts completely changed my understanding of training and raising a well-mannered dog. LIMA dog training and the Humane Hierarchy.

The two are interconnected and provide a framework for changing dog behavior in a thoughtful, humane, and effective manner.

While these principles stand as an ethos and methodology for professional trainers and behaviorists, familiarity with the concepts will help you, the pup parent, feel vastly more confident and comfortable training your puppy.

Plus, these principles can guide you in choosing the right trainer for your dog!

Here’s what we will cover:

  • What is LIMA dog training?
  • Humane Hierarchy and how it relates to LIMA
  • Examples of the Humane Hierarchy

Let’s get right into it. ⬇️

A special thanks to Traci Madson, CDPT-KA & CBCC-KA, for her assistance with this article and episode.


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lima dog training is a set of principles for deciding how to train a dog or puppy and stands for least invasive minimally aversive

To understand LIMA, we need to first understand animal welfare.

Animal welfare is the physical and psychological state of nonhuman animals. The term animal welfare can also mean human concern for animal welfare or a position in a debate on animal ethics and animal rights.

Basically, animal welfare means concern for the overall well-being of an animal, including our dogs.

LIMA was first introduced around 2005 by Steven R. Lindsay.

So, what is LIMA? LIMA stands for Least Intrusive Minimally Aversive. It generally refers to a trainer or behavior consultant who sets out to change behaviors through the least intrusive minimally aversive methods possible.

Let’s define the two pieces.

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#1- Least Intrusive.

Intrusive, in a dog context, can be seen as something that limits a dog’s ability to choose and act freely or comfortably. Certain techniques can intrude on a dog’s safety, well-being, and freedom to choose.

And on that note, LIMA methodology lends itself to relying primarily on positive reinforcement techniques as the initial behavior-changing route.

Allowing a dog to make choices (non-intrusive) and then rewarding when the desired behavior is performed is about as “least intrusive” as it gets.

#2- Minimally Aversive.

It’s important to define the term aversive. The dictionary definition reads: “ending to avoid or causing avoidance of a noxious or punishing stimulus”.

In simple terms, a stimulus (could be a shock, harsh sound, bad-tasting anti-chew spray) that is provided to try and make your dog stop doing a certain behavior.

We’ll cover this more later, but aversives have been shown to cause more stress and anxiety often leading to more problem behaviors.

Is the science 100% perfect? Nope. But the vast majority of research, studies, and evidence show that aversives negatively impact the welfare of animals (see the beginning of this section).

So bringing it back to LIMA, the methodology requires a trainer to implement the most minimally aversive methods possible.

To sum it all up… LIMA boils down to finding strategies and methods that put the learner (the dog) first. That means understanding the dog’s history, challenging behaviors, preferences, and learning styles. And then following a humane hierarchy approach (more on that next) to resolve problem behaviors in the least intrusive (think freedom) and minimally aversive (think harsh punishment) way as possible.


dogs decide what is aversive for them

Traci Madson assisted with this article, and she really stressed the importance of understanding who chooses what is aversive and reinforcing.

Let’s say it simply, your dog chooses what is aversive for them. And your dog also chooses what is reinforcing for them.

One more time…


Here’s what Traci, a professional dog trainer with 20+ years of experience, had to say:

“One thing I always mention to clients is that the LEARNER (dog) gets to determine what is aversive. So when they say, “I only use the beep or the vibrate,” [of an e-collar] if the dog finds the vibrate scary or the beep scares them, then it’s aversive.

I had a client once use the “Tschh” sound (made popular by a TV dog trainer). She asked what the difference was between that and me saying, “uh-uh, try again.” So I asked her to make the “Tschh” sound and watch her dog. The dog’s tail tucked, the dog cowered, so even that simple sound was intimidating and, thus, aversive to the dog.”

And the same goes for reinforcers. Just because you think that a ball should be reinforcing for your dog, they might not like the ball or fetch at all. And if they don’t, it’s not a reinforcer.

So, how can you determine what is aversive or reinforcing for your dog?

#1- Reading body language.

Learning to pick up on your dog’s stress signals should be at the top of every pup parent’s to-do list.

Dogs are constantly “speaking” to us with their tails, ears, mouth, and even eyes (amongst other things). It’s up to us to actively look for and “listen” to what they’re saying.

So, dive into dog body language, observe dogs in your neighborhood or park, and watch videos outlining dog body language. Do it all! This can help you learn what things are aversive for your dog.

#2- Time, exposure & experience.

As with many things in life, we must learn AND we must also put our learning into practice.

With dog body language it’s beneficial to read, watch, and learn, but it also will take time, exposure, and experience.

Every dog is unique and every situation is different. With time and a concerted effort, you will start to become more and more familiar with the “unspoken” language dogs speak at every moment!

By doing these two things you will acquire a stronger understanding of what is aversive and reinforcing for your specific dog. And on that note, remember that each dog is unique.

One of my Labs, Scout, absolutely would do anything for a ball. It is her #1 reinforcer (miles above food).

My other Lab, Sunny, truly prefers love, affection, and praise as one of her top reinforcers. As well as tasty treats.

Every dog is different, so pay close attention to your dog’s signals and body language to better learn what is aversive or reinforcing for them!

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While LIMA is a strategy, it’s not necessarily an “action plan” for overcoming challenging behaviors. LIMA doesn’t refer to specific techniques (like luring or shaping) but rather a guideline for how to approach and choose techniques for training.

Luckily, The Humane Hierarchy can help us choose the best techniques in a given situation, while still applying the strategy and mindset of LIMA.

Humane Hierarchy of Behavior Change – Procedures for Humane and Effective Practice, or simply The Humane Hierarchy, outlines a progressive approach to changing behaviors.

It starts with wellness as the first “step” in the hierarchy and ends with positive punishment.

Here’s an image illustrating The Humane Hierarchy.

the humane hierarchy graphic showing the route to changing behavior in the most humane way possible

Let’s break down each step of The Humane Hierarchy in more detail.

I’ll also include examples for steps 1-4 that have to do with your dog reactively barking inside your home. This would be in a case where they see someone outside and bark.

Step 1- Wellness: Nutritional, Physical & Health

Some challenging behaviors can stem from a health concern. At times a dog may become suddenly reactive or overly vocal, which can be a sign of a health problem.

Related Reading: Reactive Dog Training Tips & Games

Other behaviors can, at times, be due to poor nutrition or an underlying wellness issue. This should of course be assessed by a veterinarian.

And similarly, one must ask first and foremost if a dog has their physical and mental exercise needs met each day.

Once that is ensured, you’d move to step 2.

Step 1 Example

Before we even look at real “training” we need to check off a few boxes first. A trainer, or maybe you in this case, would look at the following questions:

  • When is the last time you went to the vet? Are they generally in good health?
  • Have we ruled out any medical conditions that could be attributing to your dog’s barking and reactivity?
  • Also, what food is your dog eating? Is their diet providing sufficient nutrients?
  • Is your dog barking more when they’re bored?

See how important this step can be?! Before we even look at “training” we need to get a more realistic and thorough picture of our dog’s situation.

Once we feel all those questions are answered, we can move to step 2 to reduce that reactive barking.

Step 2- Antecedent Arrangements

making new arrangements for your dog can reduce problem behaviors

Think of antecedent arrangements as the event, environmental factors, or physical settings that cue (or even cause) the behavior.

Can any of these factors be changed or added/removed to discontinue the behavior from happening?

Step 2 Example

If the main times your dog barks in the home are when they see someone outside, like a garbage man or postal worker, we may need to change the arrangement.

If your dog sits near the front window and barks when they see someone, could you try not giving them access to that window?

You can use window film, curtains, blinds, or even not allow your dog into that room.

Sometimes by just not allowing your dog access to the cue/signal, you can stop the problem behavior.

While not every home layout or situation allows for this, it is a great place to start!

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Step 3- Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is the act of adding an enjoyable consequence (aka reinforcer) when a desired behavior occurs.

This will increase the likelihood of the desired behavior repeating.

Step 4- Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behaviors

Steps 3 & 4 are often done in unison. Typically as you try to decrease an undesired behavior you will offer an alternative behavior and positively reinforce that “new” behavior.

More many behaviors, steps 1-4 are sufficient to teach your dog how you want them to behave and act in situations.

These first 4 steps should be implemented for a period of time before moving to steps 5 or 6.

Step 3 & 4 Example

Okay, so now that steps 1-2 have been completed you can move to steps 3 & 4. These steps are often performed in tandem.

Continuing with the barking example, you can start to pair the cue/stimulus (like a postal worker outside) with an alternative behavior.

When your dog sees someone outside and barks, you can teach them to move away from the window and go to their place (an alternative behavior). Once settled in their place, you can reward (positive reinforcement) with a treat or tasty chew.

While this process can take a LOT of practice and a solid chunk of time, you can retrain your dog’s brain on how they process the person passing by the window.

Another technique that falls under steps 3 and 4 would be the Engage Disengage Game.

If your dog is still unable to control their barking, you can work through something similar to what Traci recommends below.

‘So with this dog if he couldn’t NOT bark at something I would use a Positive Interrupter (“that’s enough”) which I pair with treats.

The same as you “charge the clicker” when you start using one. So I say “that’s enough” and then toss a treat. I asked them to do it 10 times a day for several days.

It’s okay for the dog to bark once because that is how they communicate, like alerting that something is outside. So then I will say “that’s enough” and the dog knows now “that means treat!” and he leaves the window to come for the treat.

Then I redirect him to a different activity, such as a snuffle mat, a Turbo Tendon on the mat, essentially anything OTHER than barking. So we are teaching the dog to do something incompatible with barking at the window, or we simply reward him anytime he looks out the window and doesn’t bark.’

Hopefully, this example of reactive barking helps you see the progression of how to approach a problem behavior with The Humane Hierarchy in mind!

Step 5- Extinction, Negative Reinforcement, Negative Punishment

negative punishment can reduce problem behaviors by employing a consequence

Negative punishment is taking something desirable away (like a toy) to reduce the likelihood of the problem behavior occurring.

Negative reinforcement is taking away an aversive stimulus to encourage desirable behavior. For example, pulling a choke chain tight until the dog stops pulling, and only when that happens releasing the pressure. (This is one of the more challenging parts of operant conditioning to get “right”. It’s not very likely you’ve used this, at least generally speaking.)

Extinction is permanently removing a reinforcer to suppress the behavior. The key here is “permanently”. Once you reintroduce the reinforcer again, extinction no longer exists.

Step 6- Positive Punishment

After all of the other steps have been followed and attempted, the last step in The Humane Hierarchy is positive punishment.

This means adding an aversive consequence to reduce the probability of your dog repeating a specific behavior. Again, aversives are different for each dog but they could include giving a shock when a dog barks or jerking the leash when a dog pulls, amongst other things.

The Humane Hierarchy provides a framework for professionals (and us pup parents) to ethically, humanely, and effectively determine how to best change problem behaviors.

It is also important to remember that The Humane Hierarchy helps us NOT jump straight to further steps (like 5-6) just because that is what worked in the past.

Again, for the 10th time, each situation and dog are different. Behavior modification should be approached methodically through this hierarchy.

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The simple answer is yes, aversives can still be used in the application of The Humane Hierarchy.


Many other steps and procedures should be implemented and followed thoroughly before stepping into aversives.

Methods like extinction, negative reinforcement, and even positive punishment can be used in the right context. The key, as mentioned above, is that they are seen as a further down the line or even “last resort” method for changing behavior.

As Traci outlined in her example with barking, most of her cases with a dog reactively barking while inside can be changed and overcome just with steps 1-4.

Will steps 1-4 take a solid amount of time, practice, and repetition? Certainly!

The overarching purpose of The Humane Hierarchy is to improve animal welfare while also improving unwanted behaviors our dogs exhibit. And as we discussed animal welfare earlier, using aversives as an inexperienced or untrained individual can lead to serious harm, stress, and negative long-term effects for dogs.

More on that point now. 👇


aversive methods can cause damage when done incorrectly or as a first line of training efforts

Disclaimer: This section is very much the opinion of the writer, but I hope you can consider it with an open mind.

Even Steven R. Lindsay believed shock collars fell under the LIMA methodology…

But here’s the issue I see. He said, “When properly understood and employed, ES (Electrical Stimulation) can be effectively used to modify dog behavior without eliciting significant stress or fear.”

The focus words there should be “when properly understood and employed.”

Does a brand new pup parent really properly understand the use of e-collars? I genuinely want you to think about that.

And additionally, can a new pup parent really properly employ the safe use of an e-collar?

Looking back to my “level of knowledge” about dog behavior and training when I first got my puppies, it was VERY low. While I wouldn’t say I’m a complete expert now, I have loads more knowledge and experience.

The real challenge, and one I’d hope proponents of e-collars for everyday use would try to consider objectively, is what happens when an e-collar is put on a young dog and used by a human with little to no experience with e-collars.

While the use of e-collars can be done properly, that is more than likely to be true in the case of experts with years and years of training and experience.

If you go to a dog trainer who wants you to use an e-collar on your dog, how much training are they really giving you? Quite possibly about an hour of training once a week for 4-8 weeks…

Does that mean you’re equipped to handle a tool that can cause your dog fear, anxiety, and stress?

Furthermore, what happens when an inexperienced pup parent puts an e-collar or choke chain on their dog while trying to overcome seriously stressful (for the human) behaviors like leash pulling, excessive barking, and recall? Will the controller of the shocks and vibrations act with a clear mind and implement the very limited training they’ve received from a dog trainer about how to use an e-collar “properly”?

Those are all questions one should attempt to objectively answer before putting an e-collar or choke chain on their dog.

Again, this is just my opinion. But it’s an opinion rooted in a desire for more dogs to stay in their forever homes as well-mannered companions in this human-first world. It’s also an opinion heavily influenced by first-hand experience, hours of face-to-face conversation with professional dog trainers (many of whom previously but no longer use aversive methods), and countless hours of research.

And beyond that, I want as many pup parents as possible to avoid the mistakes and potential trauma I inflicted upon my dog (which I’m still working to overcome and solve with her). You can read/watch/listen to my experience with putting a choke chain on my young dog Scout here.

Opinion/rant complete. 😀


lima dog training helps trainers and pup parents raise well mannered puppies

Changing behavior is best seen and approached as a study of one. Each dog, situation, and behavior are unique.

Following LIMA and The Humane Hierarchy allows us to safely, humanely, and effectively change our dogs’ behavior while keeping their welfare as a top consideration.

As a recap, LIMA stands for least intrusive, minimally aversive. It is a code of conduct for finding techniques that allow as much freedom for the learner (dog) as possible and as few aversives (if any at all) for the dog’s learning experience as possible.

The Humane Hierarchy helps us to follow a sequence of steps that ideally help shape and change behaviors with only the use of environmental changes, alternative behaviors, and positive reinforcement. Further methods like extinction and positive punishment are only used after other less invasive methods have been tried thoroughly.

How you choose to train your dog is a personal choice. Our hope at Pupford is that you’ll opt for training techniques that keep your dog’s welfare, safety, and well-being as a top priority!

If you want training help, sign up for our 100% free online dog training class taught by Zak George, 30 Day Perfect Pup. Sign up for free here!

Why do you think LIMA dog training & The Humane Hierarchy are important?! Tell me some of your experiences in the comments!

All pups are good pups. But with our proven training methodology, you'll have a better-behaved dog in as little as 30 days.  Get started with our 30 Day Perfect Pup course, now. 


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