One of the ideas that is rapidly gaining popularity in dog training, particularly in progressive dog training circles, is the LIMA approach to working with dogs. As defined on the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) web site, LIMA or Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive training seeks to preserve the dog’s power of choice and their ability to have some control over the learning process. It also seeks to avoid unnecessarily subjecting the dog to things that they may find unpleasant or threatening. While I think this is an excellent framework for training with our dogs, much of the discussion on the LIMA approach to dog training often leaves out a crucial element that trainers should be considering.
Any dog training needs to be effective. By that I mean that we need to actually be able to see a change in the dog’s behaviour toward the thing we are trying to train. Is the animal learning? If we can put all of the science of behaviour and animal learning together with the art of reading and understanding dogs (some might call this Ethology) we arrive at what I would call Optimally Effective (OE) dog training. In my view, it is important to add those two letters to the LIMA approach above – Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive, and Optimally Effective training. LIMAOE.
Humans have been training our dogs for centuries. We have also selectively bred dogs to produce the most cooperative and intelligent working partners. But when it comes to how we measure the success of our training efforts with our dogs, it seems that we can be remarkably simplistic in determining how effective our training has been. Back when I first learned to train dogs (in the 1980s), success was determined by the dog’s response to a command and no more. When I said, “Sit!” did the dog sit? If so, job done. Good training.
But dogs are not simple machines that can be programmed to perform a series of actions in response to our commands. If that were true, it should be a simple matter of getting the information into the dog’s head and we’re done. Anyone who has owned a dog knows that this “command-response” model just doesn’t work as simply as that. We need a better way to determine how well we have trained our dogs that looks beyond just the results of the moment.
What makes up Optimally Effective
There are several things we can consider beyond just “does my dog do what I ask?” In my own training, I use a few conceptual guidelines to determine how well my dogs have learned a given task. This is by no means a definitive list, but I think most good dog trainers have a similar list based around similar concepts.
- Fluency – Does my dog clearly understand what I was trying to teach? I want my dog to be responsive when I give a cue for a behaviour but that also means that they must have enough experience doing the behaviour that they are not easily confused or distracted from the behaviour I’m asking for. This is sometimes called “Generalization” in that the dog should be fluent enough to perform the behaviour in a variety of environments or situations.
- Durability – A behaviour is “durable” when my dog will give me the correct behavioural response regardless of whether or not I provide any kind of feedback or consequence. Durability is an indication of how willing the dog is to perform that behaviour on cue. It can be affected by a number of different things like the history of rewards for that behaviour (or reprimands for non-compliance), how interesting or rewarding the behaviour is naturally, etc.
- Engagement – How eager is my dog to attend and respond to my cues? Some trainers call this “focus” or “interest” but it is the level to which my dog finds what I’m asking to be more interesting than other options in the environment.
- Conceptuality – Has my dog learned a larger concept behind a given behaviour? “Leave it!” is an example of conceptual learning in that my dog is taught not to leave a specific thing but to not advance on any object after hearing the cue “Leave it.” The concept is to hold back and not act on the previous impulse. The same applies to “Stay” or “Wait” in that the dog learns the concept of refraining from movement. Dogs learning nose work or scent detection learn the concept of “match to sample” or “find me one of THIS type of thing.”
- Utility – Does my dog have the ability to use what they have previously learned to help them learn new things? This is something Dr. Stewart Hilliard calls “transfer of learning.” An example of this would be that my dog can learn to “Sit” when she finds an object she was sent to search for or that she will do a “down” on a table in an agility exercise. A behaviour that was previously learned for a different purpose is applied in a new way and learned more quickly.
If my dog has successfully learned to “Sit” using the list above, she should be able to:
- Sit anywhere I ask her to and respond promptly. She is Fluent.
- Her response to my “Sit” cue should be the same 5 years from now as it is today. Her learning has been Durable over time.
- She should be interested and happy when I ask her to “Sit” and should perform the behaviour happily without showing signs of reluctance or concern. She is Engaged.
- My dog should have learned that she can use what she does with her body as an appropriate response to a cue. If “sitting” can be a correct response, other physical actions like “down” or “lift a paw” could also be worth offering in future. She has learned the Concept of physical responses.
- I should be able to use the “Sit” behaviour as a starting point for teaching additional behaviours like “Down” or to teach her to stand on her hind legs. The behaviour has Utility and can be used to teach other things.
It’s all connected
This focus on making sure our training is “Optimally Effective” cannot be done without consideration of the other aspects of the LIMA approach. Each aspect affects the others. The idea of “Least Intrusive” gets to making things easier for the animal. The more intrusive a training approach is, the more difficult it will be for the dog and that can affect Engagement and inhibit Fluency. Similarly, the idea of “minimally aversive” gets to making the activity more attractive to the dog so they will be more interested in it and that can affect their interest in learning the Concepts involved as well as improving their Engagement which can lead to greater Fluency and Durability.
Being more attentive to how effective my training is with my dogs does not mean that I lose sight of the other aspects of the LIMA approach. In fact, it allows me to have a clearer picture of how these least intrusive and minimally aversive approaches can enhance my dogs learning and increase the effectiveness of my training.
The rush toward kindness
It is a simple fact that a trainer can use the LIMA approach with a dog and teach them exactly nothing. After all, the “least intrusive, minimally aversive” approach might be to leave the dog alone to do what they are doing. But we have to at least acknowledge that we would like to see a change in the dog’s behaviour. And that is going to involve changing things and my dog might find that intrusive and/or aversive. So it becomes a balance.
It is possible to focus so much on results that I end up not caring about how intrusive or aversive my training feels to my dog. But does that approach really achieve the learning goals I want? I might get my dog to “Sit” faster right now but have I made her less willing to engage with me? Will she be less willing to “Sit” in the future or in different situations? Have I turned her off to learning more than just to comply with this one simple “sit?”
It is interesting to me that in the rush to be more humane trainers, a deeper discussion about whether or not our dogs are really learning better seems to be getting missed. It was an over emphasis on short term results that created training methods that frustrated and confused for both humans and dogs during training. Not exactly ideal. Perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate and re-define what “success” is when we talk about good dog training. Is it just the speed of response in a narrow time frame for a particular set of behaviours? Or is there a larger context that we should be looking at?
“Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive” is a great place to start not just because it is kind and humane. For me, it actually lays the foundation for the deeper and more important goals I have for training my dogs. I hope to teach my dogs to be Fluent, Durable, Engaged, Conceptual learners who are capable of building on the Utility of what they have learned throughout their lives with me. I want to be Optimally Effective and a large part of that means using a LIMA approach. LIMA-OE. I think it’s something worth considering.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
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