“Nothing in life is free.”  NILIF.

Sounds like a rather cynical – albeit accurate – worldview, doesn’t it?

And while that may be one instance of the phrase, another is actually a dog training philosophy: when it comes to our relationship with the dog, nothing in life is free.

When first considering the concept, I realised that it’s a principle I’d often been employing without using that specific term.  My dog has to wait patiently for his food.  He has to perfectly execute a long-distance sit-stay to receive praise.  He has to be calm to receive affection.  He has to sit nicely at the door while I get ready before we go for a walk.  He has to be calm and obedient and walk nicely before he gets free “go play” time.

No, things are certainly not free for my dog, but I really don’t think he’s that distressed about it.  (Admittedly, the cats are governed by something much closer to EILIF – everything in life is free – and I suspect implementing otherwise would result in a revolt of epic proportions.)

At the base of it, NILIF is all about setting clear rules, guidelines, and expectations, and then following through with them.  Happily, my dog caught on quickly as a puppy, and very well knows that he’s going to do a sit-stay in the kitchen for a few minutes while we prepare his food and before he can eat.

Of course, provided my dog thinks about things the same way, he might be of the opinion that nothing in life is free for me, either; I don’t get the good behaviour out of him that I prefer unless I have consistently proved that I will make it worth his while.  So perhaps nothing in life is free for either of us and it’s a symbiotic give and take.

And the same may also be true with respect to undesired behaviour.  If my dog acts like a jerk, he will not get away with it – it will not be free.  Say, for example, he breaks a sit-stay.  I will then replace him and usually restart the clock if I’m going for a specific duration.  As far as my dog is concerned, this is a bad consequence, because he’s already shown me he’d rather be doing something else.  On the other hand, say I am practising recall with him, and fail to give praise when he comes into me – then maybe he will determine that the next time he’s not going to come when I call because I failed on my end of the bargain in the past.

Neither good nor bad behaviour is free for either of us: the good is earned and rewarded, and the bad comes with a negative follow-up of some sort.

The general principle NILIF works around is that we’re asking the dog to do something that is not rewarding in itself (i.e. a sit-stay), but then we follow up with offering something with a higher value as a reward (i.e. praise, food, play time, or even just more favourable body language).[1]

For those in the know, this is similar to the Premack Principle, which is the idea that we’re withholding access to something the dog views as inherently good in order to get the dog to follow our commands.  My dog learns that when I begin to prepare his food, that’s a cue for him to sit politely and calmly in the kitchen, rather than get in my way and try to get to the food as soon as possible.  He gets what he wants because of me, not in spite of me.  In return, I get desired behaviour.

Of course, even though NILIF fans stress it’s a “way of life” and not a training technique, I think we can all see the immediate benefits it will provide when it is applied to training.  And, like anyone discussing dog training and behaviour, there are critics.

Those opposed to NILIF simply say it’s cruel: it doesn’t allow a dog to just “be a dog”, because we are controlling every aspect.  Nothing is free for the dog to do or determine on its own.  They suggest this is stressful for the dog and basically creates a prisoner with Stockholm syndrome.

I disagree with the critics and agree with Kelly Gorman Dunbar’s response:

…NILIF makes life extremely predictable and controlled, which a dog’s mind craves and understands; that’s why it works so well. And while it’s true that a NILIF dog doesn’t have free control over his life (really, what pet dog does?) it does afford the dog clarity of consequences and consistency in the form of control over access to resources via his behavior; and that’s the point really.

As for the idea that NILIF causes stress, well, not all stress is bad. I’m not of the mindset that stress should be avoided at all costs. Just abuse. Some amount of stress is not only good, but also unavoidable in life. Ultimately, clarity and consistency actually reduce stress and makes a dog’s life easier, so it’s better than an environment of no rules, unpredictability, and lack of clear communication that many dogs live with due to human foible.

No form of training to fluency is stress-free. The truth is most science-based or so-called “positive trainers” (how I hate that term!) do use some degree of withholding in order to manipulate the dog’s environment, but mainly by using life rewards over food to enhance training and proof distractions. Most dogs still get free belly rubs and runs in the park too.[2]

On the Stockholm comment, I would also argue that NILIF does not make you the jailor and your dog the prisoner.  Leader and follower, perhaps.  Aside from my previous note that it does seem to involve compromise on both halves, NILIF teaches dogs to look to us for the things they want and need:  food, exercise, affection, play.  This is not unrealistic or cruel, because as a dog owner, you actually are in charge of all of these things, among many others.  Bringing your dog’s attention to this fact is not a bad thing.

Say, on a walk, your canine sees other dogs having play time in a park across the street.  Perhaps in a non-NILIF household where the dog has not been taught expectations, the dog would just make a beeline across the road enthusiastically, exercising its desire to go play.  Dangerous?  Absolutely.  And not just because of the road, but also because the owner isn’t given the opportunity to assess the other dogs and their owners, and make a safe call about the situation.

Using the same hypothetical in a NILIF context, it is possible that your dog will see the others playing and then check in with you, their leader, first, before simply bolting across the street.  The dog knows play time comes from the owner, and may fully expect to have to walk over there calmly and practice some patience before being allowed to play.  The owner is also given the opportunity to control the dog across the roadway, and assess the dog’s future playmates and the environment generally.

After exercising a NILIF-type routine, the dog will learn that the things he or she wants (and could previously have taken for “free”) come from you, the leader and guardian.

Of course, it is important to note that anything taken to the extreme is dangerous, and it is possible that someone could take a skewed, fundamentalist view of NILIF and turn it into a restrictive policy that borders on abuse.  The same can be said about almost anything, but it’s important to include these disclaimers even if just to give pause.  NILIF does not intend to create dictator-like dog owners who have an iron fist gripping all of the resources, but rather a benevolent leader who has the means to look out for the dog’s best interests and is able to draw out favourable behaviours in all sorts of situations.  You can implement NILIF and still shower your dog with affection, treats, toys, and playtime.  It’s all about balance.  The added NILIF element – that the dog has to do some work first – can ensure your dog is not spoiled and unruly.

And as the benevolent leader, it’s up to you to make sure the dog knows where the expectations lie, and never withhold necessary resources that are essential to your dog’s health and wellbeing.  Yes, a calm sit-stay is perfectly acceptable before allowing your dog to eat, but as the owner you have to be realistic.  If you are just starting out, perhaps all you will get is one minute (or less) of patience from your dog as he stares hungrily at his food.  Consider that a starting point for the both of you to build from, and don’t starve your dog because he can’t hold his stay indefinitely.

Returning again to Ms. Dunbar, who I think says it best:

I think what’s important is to keep in mind the dog’s physical and mental well being and to train as kindly and clearly as possible while still efficiently getting the job done; because good training is what keeps dogs happy, safe, and in their homes and that is the ultimate goal.[3]

The starting point for Moses’ solid sit-stay was ensuring him that he’d be adequately praised for a job well done.

[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.

About ThatJenK
Writing from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. 90% pictures of my dogs; 10% miscellaneous opinions nobody asked for.

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