The Humane Hierarchy, Part 1 of 2: Overview

I am a Humane Hierarchy trainer. That is the name of the roadmap I use to make ethical choices about the training methods I use. I’m going to describe the method in this post.

(Humane Hierarchy Part 2, which is now also published, comprises real world examples of all the methods in the Hierarchy.)

I don’t call myself a clicker trainer, although I have used one, nor do I call myself a force-free trainer, although that is certainly a goal, nor do I call myself “all positive,” since that could include positive reinforcement and punishment both. I do use the first two terms, along with several others, to refer casually to trainers who use those names and have similar goals to mine. The people who use these terms are part of my community.

But the Humane Hierarchy is a concept I love, and a name I take on for myself comfortably and with pride. And I was born a non-conformist, and throw off labels as fast as anyone can put them on me. But this one I’ll take. Because it’s a non-label of a label. You’ll see.

Susan Friedman, PhD, published “What’s Wrong with this Picture: When Effectiveness is Not Enough” in 2008, and in that article proposed the Humane Hierarchy. The article is about incorporating ethics into the choices we make when training animals, rather than considering only “what works.”

I have written about Dr. Friedman frequently. She is a behavior analyst and strong proponent of humane, ethical treatment of all animals. Here is my review of her course on Living and Learning with Animals, and here is her website, Be sure and check the free articles.

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.

Dr. Friedman takes behavioral intervention seriously. It is a large responsibility to intervene in the behavior of an animal, and her approach directs the user to consider the animal first: its needs, wants, likes and dislikes. What does the animal want, and how can we figure out if there is an acceptable method for it to get it? It’s only fair, since in all cases we are the ones with the keys to the cabinet, the cage, the car. But that’s a pretty radical concept for a lot of people.

So here is her new graphic of the Humane Hierarchy. To use it, think of a behavior of your animal that you might want to change. Then start at the bottom of the picture, in the little car, drive forward very slowly, and take every right turn. If the consideration on the side street is irrelevant or doesn’t work when tried with full information and skill, you can drive forward again and take the next right turn, or consult a trainer or colleague. Note the stop sign before you get to positive punishment!

A graphic that shows 6 levels of behavioral intervention, starting with the least invasive at the bottom, going to the most invasive at the top. The graphic looks like a road going straight ahead, with a right turn for each behavioral intervention. They are, in order: Health, Nutrition, and Physical Setting; Antecedent Arrangements; Positive Reinforcement; Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behaviors; Extinction, Negative Reinforcement and Negative Punishment; Positive Punishment.

Here is a link to a different version of the Humane Hierarchy graphic that may be visually easier than the roadmap version.

In a previous post, “But Every Dog is Different!,” I hope I showed that the claims that trainers who avoid force are somehow employing a cookie cutter method or limiting themselves are wrong.  This graphic makes it explicit. But the speedbumps, caution sign, and stop sign warn us to take care as we reach the more intrusive actions. The path a person will take will be absolutely different with every animal she trains.

The fact that no procedure is ruled out does not mean that for me personally, and I dare say most people who use this roadmap, that certain commonly used tools are under consideration. If I ever did get to the positive punishment turnoff, unlikely in itself, you can be pretty sure I would not be strapping something around my dog’s neck to administer it. I would be consulting a professional who did not use such tools.

Someone who habitually shoots up to the end of the road with only a nod in the direction of the other turnoffs is showing their limitations. I don’t mean this in a snarky way. I mean that each turnoff and its method requires care, consideration, and often creativity to employ well. As an amateur, I know that the limitations of my skill level could further endanger an animal if I tried to employ some aversives. Even professionals I know consult with colleagues before going that far down the road.

Dr. Friedman describes employing a negative reinforcement protocol with a zoo animal after other methods were tried for a **year**. In hindsight, that may seem like too long to some people, since the goal was to get the animal to enter a more enriching environment. However, any method including aversive stimuli involves risks of fallout, and the keepers were unwilling to take those risks if they were unnecessary. As it turned out, the aversive method only had to be used once, and no fallout was perceived.

Note that positive reinforcement is third on the list. The first two considerations are new to lots of people, and discussed much too infrequently in my opinion. The magic of the Humane Hierarchy is on the “most humane” end in my opinion. There is so much to be learned there.

Part 2 of this post will give an example of every method on the map, all centering around a common theme: crate behavior. So come back to read about “antecedent arrangements” if you’ve never heard the term before. [1]Added note 1/7/14: I have a whole post about antecedent arrangements now.


One of Dr. Friedman’s foci is that labels are not useful in observing and documenting behavior. “The dog is dominant” and “the parrot is acting hormonal” tell us nothing about actual behavior. One of the skills I am always working on, and which got greatly exercised when I took her class, was observing my dogs’ behavior and working on putting it accurately into words. That’s harder than it first seems! (Again I’ll refer to the great FaceBook group Observation Skills for Training Dogs. There’s the place to go practice.)

So even though I very much support the “Unlabel me!” campaign for our animals, as a writer I really struggled with some kind of term to refer to the type of training I do! I welcomed a term for my training approach. I sure didn’t need to write a paragraph about quadrants and force and aversives and management every time I refer to my training.

“Humane Hierarchy trainer” describes perfectly what I seek to do. It’s not a rubber stamp. I don’t have to qualify it or explain away anything. I just need to define it from time to time, since it is new to some folks. Thanks again, Dr. Friedman!

Closeup of the face of a caramel colored dog. Her eyes are squinted, her facial muscles are relaxed, and her ears are back. You can barely see a hand under her neck, petting her.
A commenter on one of my movies yesterday called Summer “dominant.” Is that a useful description for what she is doing here while I pet her?

Thanks for reading!

Proceed to Part 2 of the Humane Hierarchy (examples of each method)

Afternote, 5/29/13: Because of the comments of a reader, I realized that I did not mention something important. The hierarchy applies to operant learning only. If your dog is fearful or aggressive, you will almost certainly be using classical conditioning and desensitization techniques.  In those situations, no knowledgable trainer will ever recommend that you try any aversives. Although classical conditioning usually involves food, it is not the same as positive reinforcement because there is no contingency on the animal’s behavior. The goal is to elicit a respondent reaction that changes its emotional state. Thanks for helping me clarify!

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

 Copyright Eileen Anderson 2013


1 Added note 1/7/14: I have a whole post about antecedent arrangements now.

47 thoughts on “The Humane Hierarchy, Part 1 of 2: Overview

    1. Yup, guess I’m one of those, too! Thanks for bringing up LIMA (Least Invasive Minimally Aversive). The concept that is made explicit in the hierarchy. Glad you liked the post!

  1. I find it interesting, that extinction is in the 2nd to the top category, just below positive punishment. Why? because extinction is a necessary part of shaping. When raising criteria in shaping, you need to extinguish the previous criteria in order that the new one can be learned. This is also why shaping can be so stressful and frustrating for the subject, even when done very well and in miniature steps.

    1. Though I absolutely agree that we need to take care about stress in shaping, and have written quite a bit about that, the assertion that the extinction in shaping puts shaping into the second to the top category is incorrect. Dr. Friedman makes it very clear that extinction is a part of any differential reinforcement protocol. The second highest category refers to extinction on its own. Shaping includes extinction in tandem with the positive reinforcement of successive approximations, and is thus under the next category down: Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behaviors. I have written about this in my post “How to Make Extinction Not Stink.

  2. I’m replying to Leonard Cecil. Proper shaping should not be stressful and frustrating for the dog, it should be a steady stream of reinforcement that they want want want. I do it a lot, I train basically ALL the dogs behaviors via shaping but maybe what you are describing is where the dog doesn’t understand the shaping game. Extinction is not a part of shaping, it’s more a behavior chain, where winning one part means you get to go on and do the next thing. For example, if I want a dog to lay down roll over, I keep all the increments of the behaviors, so I wind up with down, head down, “flat,” belly up, roll over, double roll over, triple roll over. I don’t extinquish anything along the way, but the dog is being rewarded, via chaining really, with the game continuing and getting the next increment. If in a previous session, I shaped “bow” and now in this session, I want the dog to be in a down position, there is no law that says you can’t either cue the dog in, or else just start reinforcing with no cue and play around and get the dog playing. For my dogs, shaping is always fun and never frustrating. And example of extinction, which can be quite frustrating for the dog, is for example a dog who barks in a crate, or who barks in shaping, where barking used to be rewarded with release, or continuation and now it isn’t rewarded with release (or with continuation of the game, or with anything).

    Leonard and I have discussed (argued actually) before over my story about how I had to use a shock collar, not very much, but wow, it was so important for my dog Tigerlily, it really helped her to understand “danger” and it was a necessary part of her education (either that, or she could have learned about danger in a way that might really have killed her). This heirarchy was exactly how I got to that point. We went through every stage and we tried everything, and only when I was convinced that I had tried EVERYTHING (including carrying live mice in my pocket!), and I could not dissuade her from her increasingly tricky and terrifying escapes to hunt, did I resort to the thing I always thought I would never do. And the result was it saved her and me and she lived and learned! I had exactly this humane heirarchy in my mind, and only when I had decided there was nothing I could do to teach her the danger, she was likely to kill herself, did I realize, well, there was one thing. I think all the other R+ things I did also are part of her success but she did need to learn about danger, and the potential COST of her great escapes-to-hunt, in order for her to value my reinforcements and choose to accept my reinforcements AS reinforcements , in contrast with her better understanding of the cost/value of hunting. Before the shock collar, a piece of chicken was only a way of saying “you don’t get squirrel chase,” and so the the chicken was actually not welcomed. But post learning about the danger of blasting off (out windows, leaping off big boat, etc) after prey, then my chicken became reinforcement again.

    1. This is going to get interesting! Thanks Buzz and Jenny. I am going to chime in about the shaping question a bit later when I have more time. Right now I want to mention to all my readers that Jenny is an experienced professional trainer, and when she says “I tried everything on the hierarchy” (before she got to positive punishment) it means something very different from when Susie your neighbor says she tried everything. I need to go on record though that I still do not support her use of positive punishment. It’s something we hear frequently: Well I tried everything else, so I had to use an aversive. The “had to” is usually not true.

      I’ve stated several times that even if I were to that end of the hierarchy, I wouldn’t use a shock collar for many reasons including that there are inherent risks with the devices themselves, so it’s not something I personally condone. I also hope I never get to the extreme problems and decisions Jenny has described with her dog. (Are any of your articles about Tigerlily available for free, Jenny?).

      I’ll be back later to see how the shaping discussion goes. Can we keep this thread mostly in the realm of shaping and extinction now? Thanks!

      1. Hi Eileen, I am working on booklet on necessary evils in dog training, incorporating some of Tigerlily’s story, but I wanted to add that since then, another thing that helped Tigerlily, and really solidified her now-awesome behavior is my other (newer addition rescue) dog Bee. Bee’s natural behaviors are very different than Tigerlily’s. On a few occasions when Tigerlily misbehaved in a dangerous way (for example, once she reacted to a dog through a gate, attempting a fencefight, potentially provoking a dog who was staring at her) Bee wrapped her front paws around Tigerlily and flattened her and bit her neck too (no injury or puncture, but Bee definitely told Tigerlily, “you may NOT behave in that way!”). Bee doesn’t like it when Tigerlily “causes trouble,” and she is a lot faster than me to correct Tigerlily’s “troublemaking” with a bit of tough love! When I first got Bee, Tigerlily was still somewhat addicted to misbehaving, leaping out 2nd story window to take off across 3 acres of wild-life fenced in area, swimming out to the middle of the pond where I had to swim after her, and it was not easy for me to collect her and she knew it! She could have died too many times. She is just too fast and smart and tricky for me, but not too fast and smart and tricky for Bee! Bee told her “hey, you need to listen to Mom!” in many different funny but “tough love” ways. Tigerlily is a lot more confident and focused on me since Bee joined our household. Tigerlily seems to feel Bee protects her, and she just doesn’t react to other dogs at all now when I have both dogs together. In the beginning when Tigerlily tried to revert to a blast-off stunt, I’d say, “Bee, go get Tigerlily,” and Bee went and held her til I got there!! But now Bee will just stare at Tigerlily if she starts to behave, and Tigerlily surrenders! It’s hysterical! She really listens to Bee! Dogs are so funny. Bee is quite bossy and she likes all the dogs to behave and now they do. Apparently, some dogs REALLY need the pack. Behavior is really a web, there are so many Rs and Ps we can’t entirely control, and Rs and Ps are always “relative” to whatever other Rs and Ps are out there. We are so lucky to learn from our dogs, and just like them, we all surely need our pack to keep us working most productively and safely together.

        1. I wish more trainers would observe without prejudice how dogs communicate and learn from each other.

  3. comment to picture: DOminant?? where on earth do they get that from..look at the softness in her eyes..she is just fully enjoying being with you and being petted, while still being my opinion , nyways :o0

    1. Yep, dominant! The comment read, in part, “Dogs that move their chin toward your hand or put their paw on you have dominance issues.” In the movie Summer is moving into my hand with her upper body for more petting. The funny thing is that of all the behaviors people typically tend to lump under dominance, Summer has the least of them of all my dogs.

      Thanks for posting!

  4. Pingback: Hot cars are deadly for dogs, even with the windows rolled down | | Pets Blogs and Free Classifieds
  5. Great article, it’s given me a lot of pause for thought… I adopted a long term kennel dog that unbeknown to me was utterly dog aggressive. I love her dearly and have spent an absolute fortune on positive reinforcement, behavior modification, trainers ($100+ per hour to walk her within sight of a dog briefly, then click, turn away and treat). I did that for months and months until I really couldn’t afford it anymore. There was no effect, walking my girl is torturous as I always have to be highly alert and as there are dogs everywhere off lead it usually results in her going from 0 to 10 in a split second. Still, she gets a good run every day but it’s certainly not what I envisaged when I adopted her (so much for the much thought about/planned trips to the beach/hiking trails etc!).

    At what point do I consider stronger measures? I’ve been to expensive positive reinforcement expert after another for the last 7 months and it’s done less than nothing 🙁 Sigh.

    1. Hi Allan. First, good for you for making the best you can out of a tough situation. I know what it’s like to have a difficult dog that you didn’t sign up for. And the money, ay yay!

      For what it’s worth, I’m close to the two year mark of working in public with my feral puppy Clara, who showed deep distrust and potential aggression to other humans besides me at 10 weeks old (and also strange dogs.). However, I’m fortunate that in our case the steady work has paid off. Her circle of people is widening and she can go in public with some care and attentiveness from me. We have been using straight classical conditioning and desensitization.

      However, I can’t give you any encouragement about proceeding up the hierarchy towards more aversive methods to deal with an aggression problem. I’m not a pro trainer and in any case can’t diagnose your dog over the internet, but I can say as a generality that aversive methods are never recommended for aggression problems by Humane Hierarchy trainers because they have been shown to have side effects that are exactly what you are already dealing with.

      You have hit on an important point, and I need to amend my post. The Humane Hierarchy comprises operant learning, management, and health considerations. Behavior problems such as fear and aggression are generally addressed using respondent (classical) conditioning, so as to change the dog’s emotional reaction before addressing behavior. The hierarchy does not apply to that situation. I wish I had written that in the first place. Sorry if it’s yet another disappointment for you.

      Good luck with your dog, and hang in there.

      1. Thank you for the considerate reply. I will continue the training and hope for the best then.

  6. I just wanted to say thank you for introducing me to the “humane hierarchy”! My dog was attacked by another dog last weekend while we were out walking (Romeo was on leash, the other dog was not) and I had been wracking my brain for how to help him. Like Allan, my neighborhood is full of off-leash dogs and I did not want to run the risk of anything even approaching an incident. Learning about the humane hierarchy gave me the vocabulary I needed to find a local trainer with a similar philosophy to my own to work with us. Right now Romeo is on a “cortisol vacation” for a week or so with lots of indoor games to keep him exercised; later we will introduce him to dogs very slowly and under controlled conditions as he feels comfortable. One thing the trainer suggested, which I have been doing with Roxy, is to drive to other neighborhoods or parks for our walks. Not only has this cut the encounters with unleashed dogs to zero but it’s also given us new things to see and explore (and smell).

    Once again your blog has come to the rescue!

    1. ClearlyKrystal I am so sorry about the attack. I am familiar with the trauma of that, for the person and the dog. I’m so glad the hierarchy was helpful. There have been some concerns that people could misinterpret the hierarchy as permission to shoot straight up the road to punishment but it sounds like that is not the case with your trainer and I’m glad!

  7. I don’t understand what all the fuss is about. I have a two year old female Golden Retriever, from a club registered breeder.
    She is my mate. I have trained her without the need to yell, scream, choke or prong her. I respect her and she respects me. When she is barking at the neighbors cat I say, time to come inside and she comes inside. She has no fear of me and she has NEVER been placed into a fearful or punishing situation. I do not control her and I have NEVER suppressed her dog personality. She knows voice and hand commands with or without being treated. She has been exposed to every possible situation, environment including people, dog and travelling since she was a puppy. I have never used ‘training aids’ that are not used in daily life. I have given myself and her every opportunity to learn and become the dog and dog owner that we should be. She is the most well adjusted, well mannered dog I have ever meet – she uses a harness and NEVER do I yell, scream, dominate or smack her. She knows where she stands in our family purely by the love and the type of life and training we have given her and its disappointing that people JUST DON’T GET IT. We have a stress free mutual relationship, which is constantly pleasant. I as a human – the smartest species on the planet, through knowledge and understanding have found that guess what – my dog is my friend – ALL THE TIME – I am not here to control and dominate her life and we are the best proof of what a relationship between the domesticated dog and human should be.

    1. Sandy this is a wonderful description of the perfect attitude and partnership with a companion animal. How beautiful it is. Thank you for posting.

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