LIMA: The Most Humane Way to Help Animals

I’m in the process of becoming certified by the International Association of Behavior Consultants and taking a course called Animal Behavior Consulting: Principles & Practice. The setup of the course consists of teaching videos by animal experts, instructional handouts, a weekly online mentoring session with the teacher and all students, weekly quizzes, and a major assignment. Each week I’ll share highlights here from my studies.

Jumping ahead to week five, the focus was on LIMA, which is an acronym for Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive Interventions. The inspiration for LIMA came from Susan Friedman who in 2008 published an article entitled “What’s Wrong with this Picture? When Effectiveness is not Enough.” In that article she proposed the Humane Hierarchy. The latter is embraced by IAABC and serves as an ethical road map for consultants.

In its handout on LIMA, IAABC addressed the following topics:

  • LIMA Is Competence-Based
  • Positive Reinforcement and Understanding the Animal
  • Clarity and Consistency in Problem-Solving
  • Preventing Abuse
  • Choice and Control for the Learner (the Animal)
  • What do you want the Animal to Do?

I’m going to focus on just the first and last of these topics, starting with the fact that LIMA is competence-based. In its handout, IAABC writes: “To ensure best practices, consultants pursue and maintain competence in animal behavior consulting through education, training, or supervised experience, and not advise on problems outside the recognized boundaries of their competencies and experience.”

There are consultants who haven’t availed of education, training, or supervised experience. To me, they set themselves up for risk in two ways. First, if consultants lack an education in the principles of animal learning and behavior, they may turn to less effective training methods such as punishment. While punishment might work for a time, in the long run it’ll cause more frustration in an animal and thereby fail as a training method. IAABC referred to a study which appeared in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, which reported that owners who used punishment as part of their training experienced the highest incidence of avoidance and aggression in their dogs.

In addition, consultants who lack a background in client communication may turn off clients by being judgmental. This can cause those pet owners to revert to handling their pets’ behavior problems on their own, which can lead to frustration, unchanged or even worse behavior, and possibly pet relinquishment. I recently ran into a situation where a lady reached out for help with a kitten. Initially, the help she received was judgmental, and so the lady become defensive and wanted to surrender the kitten. In contrast, once she received help from those more qualified to address her needs, she calmed down and figured out how to better respond to the kitten’s misbehavior. The knowledge that she gained helped her save the lives of other kittens in the litter when they got sick.

A second part of ensuring best practices is recognizing one’s boundaries. I will not work with dogs, despite growing up with them, because I don’t have training with canines. Even within the cat field, however, I often won’t be the right person to help. In the above example of a lady with a kitten, she initially needed help with the kitten’s behavior, and so I took the lead role. Once her needs moved from behavioral to medical, I stepped back and let those with medical experience take over. The needs of an animal needs might fall under training, behavior modification, medical treatment, or some combination of these. Helping animals will often take a village.

Next, I’ll turn to the section in the IAABC handout entitled “What do you want the animal to do?” The focus of this section is the Humane Hierarchy of Behavior Change, which follows this path:

  • Wellness: Health, nutrition, and physical setting
  • Antecedent Arrangements
  • Positive Reinforcement
  • Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behaviors
  • Extinction, Negative Reinforcement, and Negative Punishment
  • Positive punishment

Our class watched several case studies by Chris Pachal, who is the owner of a veterinarian clinic and an instructor of courses in veterinarian behavior. He illustrated through videos how to use the Humane Hierarchy of Behavior Change. In one video of a case study, Pachal demonstrated the value of wellness. The two owners of a dog had a reactive relationship with their dog, which means that they failed to provide any training to their dog but instead responded to the dog’s demands as they happened. Pachal validated the close relationship they had with their dog, one wherein they went so far as to set a place at the table for the dog. He then followed up by educating them on canine body language, communication, and social needs. And then he posed the question, “What if there was a way to provide all these things for Sparky?” At this point, the owners started collaborating with him on training ideas, which may not have happened if Pachal had dictated to them what they should do. What’s most interesting to me about this case study is that it also demonstrates the importance of being collaborative and beginning from a position of comfort for the clients.

In another video of a case study, Pachal demonstrated the value of antecedent arrangements, or of managing the environment. The two owners of a dog found themselves having to contend with a dog that would snap if they tried to coax it off their master bed. Pachal discovered that the owners would kennel the dog if they left the house and that the dog didn’t like the kennel.  The dog had learned that he would be kenneled immediately after the man dabbed himself with cologne. The dog would exhibit avoidance behavior by escaping to the master bedroom and then naturally resist any attempts to redirect him to the kennel. Pachal discovered that in every other situation the dog didn’t have any history of resource-guarding or aggression. In fact, if the dog was anywhere else in the house at any other time of day, the owners could take hold of the dog’s leash and lead him to the kennel. Pachal had the owners manage the environment by closing the door to the bedroom, so that the dog couldn’t escape it. Then he followed up by showing them how to use positive reinforcement to teach their dog that the kennel was a safe and comfortable place.

To conclude, I want to stress not only the value of consultants being educated themselves, but also the value of their imparting that knowledge to clients and the animal welfare community. LIMA requires that consultants use the Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive technique that is likely to succeed. Not everyone is aware, for example, that punishment is no longer considered a viable training method. According to Pachal, most of his cat owner clients turn instinctively to a spray bottle to change a cat’s behavior. If he were to reprimand an owner for this choice, it would only make them defensive and resistant to change. Everyone in animal welfare, including consultants, need to take the time to educate pet owners on the most humane ways to help animals.

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