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Type: Training Concepts


In rank-reduction based and dominance-based training, ‘alpha’ is used to refer to the leader. “Becoming alpha” refers to a set of techniques and protocols designed to assert a dog owner’s leadership over the dog. These techniques vary depending on the individual trainer, and can refer to anything from making sure you eat dinner before your dog, to the use of physical punishments.

Balanced Training

A set of techniques that involve the use of both reward and punishment.  Trainers who call themselves balanced could use tools like clickers, e-collars, and time-outs on their clients’ dogs.

Trainers that call themselves balanced do not always adhere to dominance theory, although the word “balance” has come to be associated with dominance and rank-reduction.

Behavior Modification

Also called Applied Behavior Analysis, sometimes abbreviated to b-mod.  Behavior modification is the process of changing the way a dog thinks about the world, which in turn changes what he chooses to do.  The goal is to minimize behaviors the dog’s owners see as undesirable and that are stressful or upsetting for the dog, and to teach the dog new, desirable behaviors he can do instead.

Examples of behavior modification techniques include:

Bite Levels

There are different scales used by dog professionals to evaluate how severe a bite is. The most common are the Dunbar Bite Scale  and Dr Sophia Yin’s Canine Bite Levels, which is a modified version of the Dunbar Scale. Both categorize bites in terms of the level of injury inflicted on the victim and the number of injuries inflicted.

  • Level 1 Bite – A“pre-bite”, where the dog has snapped at the air or otherwise shown *aggression, but not punctured skin.
  • Level 2 Bite – When a dog makes contact with the victim’s skin but does not cause a puncture, or does so only as an accidental side-effect of a lunge.
  • Level 3 Bite (Dunbar Scale) – The dog punctures the skin, but not deeper than half the length of the dog’s canine teeth.
  • Level 3A Bite (Yin’s Bite Levels) the dog bites once and punctures skin, but the puncture is shallower than the whole length of the canine tooth.
  • Level 3B Bite (Yin’s Bite Levels) the dog bites multiple times leaving skin punctures shallower than half of the canine.
  • Level 4 Bite  – The dog bites and clamps down, leaving punctures that are deeper than the length of the canine tooth.
  • Level 5 Bite – Multiple Level 4 bites in a single attack
  • Level 6 Bite – The dog kills the victim.


A sound or other signal that indicates to the dog that a reward is coming.  The sound made by a clicker is a popular type of bridge.

Dominance Training

Training techniques that are based in the belief that many behavior problems stem from a dog’s attempt to assert himself as alpha in the household. These techniques are designed to show the dog that the humans in the household are his leaders.  Examples include:

There is a great deal of controversy over the claim that domestic dogs adhere to a pack structure, or see their relationships in terms of dominance and submission.

Flight Distance

A term to describe the distance at which an animal will move away from something that scares or concerns it.  The term comes from the study of birds.

Force-free Training

A philosophy of dog training that involves using as close to zero compulsion and aversives as possible.  Many force-free trainers claim that all dogs can be trained without the use of any punishment or unpleasant experiences at all.

The term “force free” has also been used by some trainers who exclusively use e-collars, to indicate that none of the techniques they use involve physically making contact with the dog.


A concept found in some dog training philosophies, particularly rank reduction, pack theory and dominance-based training.  According to trainers who believe in the importance of leadership, obedience is more likely to be consistent, and behavioral problems are less likely to arise, if a dog can come to believe that his owner is his leader.

Learning to Learn

The idea that as a dog spends more time in training, he becomes better and quicker at learning new behaviors because he understands the training framework and can make better guesses at what he is supposed to do.


LIMA stands for Least Invasive Minimally Aversive. It is a description of how to use the Humane Hierarchy to guide decisionmaking in behavior modification.  According to LIMA, a trainer should always use the method involving the least punishment first, and only consider more invasive or aversive interventions when it is clear that the current plan is not working.

Motivational training

Motivating a dog means creating a desire for him to do what his handler wants, both in general and for a specific behavior at a specific time. What motivates the dog is dependent on his individual preferences, breed predispositions, and the state of his body and mind.

Both compulsion-based and positive reinforcement trainers use the idea of motivation in their training; the term “motivational training” doesn’t refer to any specific techniques or tools.

Pack Leader

According to pack theory, dogs see themselves as either a dominant or submissive member of their pack. The dominant member of the group, also known as the alpha, is the pack leader. In dominance training, the aim is to convince the dog that his owner is the pack leader and therefore that he ought to obey their cues.

Pack Theory

The theory that as domestic dogs descended from an ancestral wolf, the social structure of modern-day wolves is a good filter to understand dog behavior, either in terms of how dogs relate to other dogs in the home and outside, or how they relate to humans, or both.

In training, pack theory also contains the belief that the dog’s perception of his place in the pack relative to the trainer informs his willingness to perform desired behaviors. This often forms the conceptual underpinnings of rank reduction, and dominance based training.

Rank Reduction

Part of dominance based training, rank reduction techniques are aimed at fostering a power dynamic between a dog and his owner, where the handler assumes a leadership role.  According to pack theory, dogs will be more obedient if they believe that their handler is their leader.  Many, but not all, rank-reduction techniques involve an element of punishment.

Resource Holding Potential

A term coined Dr John Bradshaw, referring to the way dogs perceive the ability themselves and others have to hold onto resources they deem valuable, like food.  Through observation, a dog can estimate his RHP relative to other dogs around him, which tells him whether he is likely to win in a physical conflict over that resource, as well as how much the other dog values the resource.

SEEKING system

One of the emotional systems described by Jaak Panskepp.  SEEKING is associated with finding a reward; when the dog is expecting a reward or actively trying to obtain one, he gets a flood of dopamine, which causes him to feel good.

This system is said to be activated by mark and reward training, particularly by shaping, which encourages creativity.

Social Learning

Learning from other members of a social group – usually other dogs.  Social learning is an important part of the socialization period in puppies.  Dogs that are new to a household can also pick up behavioral habits (good or bad) from established dogs in the home.

Socialization Period

Between 3 and 12 weeks of age, a puppy’s brain is developed enough to begin learning appropriate responses to things in his environment. Through interactions with his litter mates and mother, the puppy learns basic social skills. Through pleasant experiences around his exposure to novel objects, noises, people and other animals, the puppy is likely to be tolerant of these things in his later life. Adequate socialization as a puppy can be considered as an inoculation against phobia and anxiety as an adult dog.

Three-Term Contingency

The three-term contingency describes the process of a dog learning that his behavior has an effect on what happens to him in his environment.

Term 1: A stimulus is present in the dog’s environment;

Term 2: The dog’s responds to the stimulus;

Term 3: The environment changes.

For example, dogs who spend a lot of time out in a yard can sometimes develop problems with alarm barking.  This is because they learn that when a person walks along their fence (Term 1), and they bark at the person (Term 2), the person always goes away (Term 3).


The point at which a dog’s internal state changes from one thing to another. Usually used in behavior modification to describe the moment when a dog goes from just noticing a trigger, to displaying stress signals or aggressive behaviors about that trigger. It can also describe the point where a dog starts to notice that a trigger is there. Thresholds are often described in terms of distance, for example, a dog may notice that a man is nearby at 50ft away, and then begin to bark and lunge at the man when he is 10ft away.

When a dog is described as being “over-threshold”, this usually means he is anxious or aggressive and he cannot calm down.  One measure of whether a dog has reached this point is whether he will take treats when offered, although this is not entirely reliable.

Trick Training

Training for behaviors that aren’t considered part of everyday obedience. Tricks are almost always taught using positive reinforcement-based methods like clicker training.

Some trainers prefer not to use this distinction, as the dog does not understand the difference between a trick and an obedience behavior.


In behavior modification, a trigger is anything that causes a specific dog to react with anxiety or aggression.

For example, a client’s dog might be afraid of men, so when a trainer develops a behavior modification plan, she refers to men as “triggers”, even though her plan is developed so that the dog won’t actually be triggered to react aggressively, because she is instructing the client to stay far enough away from men that the dog can remain calm.

Trigger Stacking

When a dog is exposed to something that concerns or frightens him, it can take him a while for his stress levels to go back down. If the dog is exposed to other scary things before his stress levels have had a chance to decrease, there can be a compound effect – multiple low-level bad experiences can cause high levels of stress, which makes the dog more likely to panic or have an aggressive outburst.


Can refer to:
(1) A variation of the “Leave it” exercise, where a dog is either told not to take an object he wants, or generally only takes objects after being told he can. This term was popularized as part of Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels; she refers to teaching Zen as rewarding dogs for moving away from an object they want or displaying relaxed behaviors in its presence.
(2) A variation of “down”, where a dog is taught to lie down and relax whilst in the presence of things he wants to interact with.