The Humane Hierarchy

When CCPDT came out with their humane hierarchy, I was thrilled. I had been exposed to this hierarchy for several years, found it to be a very useful tool, and have been teaching it to my students, so I was very happy to see CCPDT adopt it. The hierarchy comes from the human applied behavior field, and a lot of very informed, serious thought by extremely qualified individuals went into it.

I don’t know that this is the reasoning behind the hierarchy, but it seems to me that the higher the level, the less stressful on the animal. In other words, antecedent control (another term for management) is less stressful than the next level down, which is R+. All learning is somewhat stressful, so, simply removing the stimulus that sets the occasion for these behaviors is less stressful than training the dog to do something different.

In our weekly phone calls for my Professional Dog Trainer Course students, I’m finding myself referring to the hierarchy more and more. Our phone calls are student-driven – i.e., they come to the call with questions, training scenarios they’re having problems with, etc., and we discuss these issues with a goal of clarifying how theory can inform us in real life application.

As we discuss these situations, I find myself saying things like

  • “Where does this fall in the humane hierarchy?”
  • “Why would you choose this protocol before trying DRI? Have you referred to the humane hierarchy?”
  • “Who can tell me the levels of the humane hierarchy?”
  • “You are expected to know the humane hierarchy and be able to recite it from memory.”

Knowing the humane hierarchy does not necessarily mean you must actually implement each level of the hierarchy before moving to the next level. It means you should understand the levels and be able to make an informed decision (from experience) as to what is going to work best in this situation.

I would expect the newer the trainer, the more they have to think about this; however, experienced trainers will know immediately that they are going to, for example, combine management, DRA (differential reinforcement of an alternative behavior) and P- (negative punishment) for a dog that persistently and obnoxiously jumps up on people; whereas, a softer dog who is jumping up and very lightly putting his paws on you may only need management and DRA.

The humane hierarchy can also help experienced trainers. We often automatically go to a technique that we know works without thinking about why. For instance, when working with reactive dogs there are three techniques that are all effective and actually very similar with minor variations: D/CC* (desensitization and counter-conditioning), DRA, and R- (negative reinforcement – CAT or BAT, for instance). Every trainer should have these three tools in their toolbox, but they can use the humane hierarchy to inform them about which is preferable and in what order.

The humane hierarchy also makes us better critical thinkers. It makes us think about what other trainers are saying, and analyze whether or not it makes sense to us. So, I think the humane hierarchy is a great tool and one we should all know by heart!

*Note: D/CC is not included in the humane hierarchy, but I believe it should be included on the same level as R+.

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