The Humane Hierarchy

This one is a little geeky. And if you haven't studied animal behavior, a bit of the terminology may be fuzzy. But I'll try to be clear without turning this into a terribly long article.

There are many methods for training dogs. In an effort to categorize those, animal behavior scientists have given us some terminology for how animals learn. For example, behaviors go "extinct" when they no longer work to produce a desired consequence (think of a dog who stops demand barking when the barking no longer gets him the attention he wants). "Extinction" is one of those terms.

B.F. Skinner came up with the terms Positive Reinforcement, Negative Reinforcement, Positive Punishment, Negative Punishment which we refer to as the learning theory "quadrants." The quadrants get discussed A LOT. All four are Operant Conditioning methods. The decision when to use Classical Conditioning instead of Operant Conditioning (yet another term) is another thing we consider.

There's been a lot of scientific study about which methods are most effective under different circumstances and how to use each method.  But beyond the question of effectiveness is a question about ethics. It's not necessarily "right" to use a method just because it works. For instance, I can use a shock collar to teach a dog to sit. Should I? Absolutely not. One reason it's wrong (there are others) is that we have equally effective, safer, and kinder ways to teach a dog to sit.

We needed some sort of direction about which methods to use first and an escalation plan if those first methods don't work. In an article in 2008, Dr. Susan Friedman proposed a model in which training methods are ranked from least invasive to most invasive - it came to be known as The Humane Hierarchy. I applaud the creation of the Humane Hierarchy and I really adore Susan Friedman. She's incredibly bright, thoughtful, kind, a great educator, and a brilliant mind. I've read her work on parrots for many years and I was delighted to attend a three-day session she taught recently.

The more I learned, the more I noticed a problem with the Humane Hierarchy as it currently stands. I spoke with Susan about this and shared my thoughts. She was skeptical at first about my concern. But I know that dogs are being mistreated by people who point to the Humane Hierarchy as justification for their decisions. In the end, Susan suggested that I write up our conversation and propose a modified version of the Humane Hierarchy. I've done that. And today, that article got published. If you'd like to read it, click here.

If we're successful, we'll get the Humane Hierarchy modified and dogs will be treated with more kindness than they are today. Please cross your fingers that my article is clear and convincing enough to get Susan's attention.



Tim SteeleComment