More on LIMA

To delve more deeply into why we support LIMA training methods:

Empowerment v. Force

Through the scientific study of behavior, we know that learners of all species are both mentally and behaviorally healthier when they have the ability to make decisions in order to achieve something they want. That ability to choose is called “agency” or “empowerment,” and is the opposite of force or compulsion, which imposes our will on a learner and robs them of the ability to choose.

When an individual is chronically deprived of agency, they can develop a condition called “learned helplessness,” where they believe that nothing they do will change their situation, so there isn’t any point in trying. Learned helpless is why victims of domestic abuse stay in the abusive relationship, and why dogs from puppy mills who spent their whole lives in a 2′ x 2′ cage will still continuously walk in a 2′ x 2′ circle long after they are removed from that cage. It’s also, incidentally, why an animal who is showing clear signs of stress and/or fear towards their handler will still behave “perfectly.” An individual who is trained to do a behavior by force because they have no other choice than to do what they are made to do might appear well-trained on the outside, but their mental state is unwell. It is far better to teach a learner how to think for themselves and make the decision to do what we ask them to do–and, incidentally, it doesn’t take any longer to train in this way than it does to teach by force.

There may be times when using force is unavoidable–for example, if a cat is about to chew on a live wire, or if a dog is about to run out in front of a car. For their own safety, you have to quickly grab them and pull them away from danger. But even in those situations, if we use the least amount of force possible, we can reduce the amount of trauma an animal may incur from such an experience.

The Alluring Myth of Aversive Methods Being Faster

We often hear that using aversives is a faster way to train, and for that reason is more effective or more practical for the average pet owner. In order to understand why this is not true, we have to understand the two different types of learning:

Consequence-Based Learning (called Operant Conditioning) is what most people think of when they think of training. That is, an individual has the opportunity to decide how to behave based on past or presumed consequences. In general, species learn faster when they are working towards something they want (known as positive reinforcement training) than either receiving or avoiding something they don’t want (either positive punishment or negative reinforcement, respectively). Not only do they learn faster, but they retain it longer and are mentally healthier in the process. The reason aversives look faster is because suppressing a behavior makes it temporarily go away very quickly, but when the aversive is removed the behavior will eventually return–or an equally undesirable behavior will take its place. So, on a very short-term scale, aversives work more quickly, but in order to truly, completely eliminate a behavior and replace it with a better behavior, positive reinforcement is ultimately both faster and more effective. Think of it like The Tortoise and The Hare: you have to go slower to go faster.

Emotion-Based Learning (called Classical Conditioning) is when an individual has a reflexive emotional response to something and is acting based on that emotion. Again, suppressing the behavior may look fast, but it does nothing to address the underlying emotional state. Imagine if you were angry or sad and someone said, “If you don’t stop [shouting or crying], I’m going to punch you in the face.” You might suppress your emotional outburst, but it wouldn’t make the anger or grief go away. If anything, it would just add fear, frustration, and resentment to your current emotional state. So externally you might look calm, but internally you would be a hot mess! Those emotions are eventually going to express themselves somehow. On the other hand, if we address the emotional state, and work to change the way that individual feels about the situation, they will truly become calm, confident, and happy rather than just appearing calm. How quickly we can change the emotional state depends on a lot of factors: genetics, age, intensity of the emotions, and how long they’ve felt the way they do about that situation. In some cases, we can successfully change the way an animal feels about something in a matter of minutes. In other cases, it may take weeks, months, or years to undo the damage. So no, that is not fast. But it’s the only way to truly heal that individual. Just like some physical rehab may take months or years, so does some emotional rehab.

 On Dominance

Pop culture training focuses a lot on being the “alpha” or the “pack leader,” but the idea that dogs form and work to maintain a hierarchical social structure is based on very old, very bad science, which has been debunked many times over by multiple studies performed on both wolves and companion dogs over the past few decades. The myriad behaviors which are commonly attributed to “dominance” or “submission” have other, more scientifically sound explanations, so training methods promoting force and punishment under the guise of establishing your alpha status are unnecessary and often counterproductive. When we can instead accurately identify the source of those behaviors and then work to change the underlying emotional state and/or teach them more desirable behaviors instead, we can be effective without causing any damage to either the learner’s behavioral health or our relationship with them.

About “All Available Tools”

“Whatever works” is not an acceptable philosophy because many animals are emotionally and/or physically damaged by aversive training methods. As Dr. Friedman explains, efficacy is only one criterion for appropriate and successful training methods. There is no need to use all available tools when we can instead just learn how to proficiently use the right ones. A doctor could indeed use a hacksaw to cut open a patient, but why create so much collateral damage and incur so much risk to the patient’s health when he could instead just learn how to successfully perform laparoscopic surgery? LIMA means using the methods which yield maximum efficacy with minimum risk of collateral damage. Some tools are frequently misused or overused; some tools are just plain old unnecessary.

The Trust Bank

Dr. Friedman uses this wonderful analogy to best explain LIMA:

Think of training like a bank account. Every time you train an individual using something that they want to work for, it’s like making a deposit in that account. On the other hand, every time you train using force, pain, or fear, it’s like making a withdrawal.

Life happens. Sometimes you may find yourself in a position where force, pain, or fear are unavoidable [e.g. the cat biting the live wire example from above] or accidental [e.g. tripping over your dog, or accidentally dropping your parrot]. If you have built up a huge savings account, you can make those occasional withdrawals without adversely affecting your balance–you still have plenty of money in the bank! If, however, you have a low account balance, and then you have to make that withdrawal, you’ll end up in the red; you will have lost that individual’s trust. And just like a real bank account, the trust bank account charges overdraft fees. Once trust is lost, it takes much more work to get it back. LIMA training ensures that you make so many deposits into your trust account that if/when that rainy day comes where you have to make that withdrawal, your trust balance will still be so huge that it won’t make a dent.


About Emily Strong

behavior consultant. veterinary technician. crazy parrot lady. lifelong animal lover. cellist. yogi. hula hooper. horse rider. swimmer. singer. reader. writer. dreamer. music lover. amateur gardener. nutrition enthusiast. eternal student. language lover. aspiring polyglot. tattoo canvas. water drinker. overthinker. bountiful laugher. overenthusiast. attention deficit meditator.
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