What is "Nothing in Life is Free?"

When I started working with my first dog-- an independent chow mix named Kai-- I was eccastic about a dog training method quoted as being a positive solution for “stubborn” dogs like her.

You might have heard of “nothing in life is free” (NILIF) training by now. It’s a training philosophy that claims to earn your dog’s respect, while remaining compatible with positive training methods. Your dog must “earn” all rewards in life through you. Commonly, supporters of this ideology require their pups to sit or check in before gaining access to what some people call “life rewards.” These rewards include things like access to beds, treats, food, and even attention.

I tried using NILIF for a few months. I did a terrible job. In my defense, Kai is really stinkin’ cute, so it was hard for me to resist giving her attention when she nuzzled my elbow for some pets or did a great big happy sneeze upon catching a whiff of something yummy. Of course that earned her a tid-bit of cheese!

Nearly a decade later, NILIF isn’t something I’ve revisited with either of my dogs, or my clients’ dogs. It’s not because it doesn’t work, but rather, I think it focuses on the wrong aspect of the dog-human relationship.

I’m all for removing rewards for inappropriate behavior. Of course I’d rather see a young puppy learn to sit at my feet and work the “cute factor” for attention rather than bark. The thing is, these behaviors aren’t so much about respect for the human as they are about learning.

Positive training is all about capitalizing on the fact that dogs learn through consequences. There’s no need to complicate the science of learning with dialogue about “respect” in the human-dog relationship.

A dog that has learned to bark for attention has learned through the exact same psychological process as a dog that has learned to sit patiently at your feet. The only difference is which behavior has a history of being rewarded.

It’s hard to separate the anthropomorphized view of our dogs from the evidence-based science of animal behavior. I’ve heard people call vocal dogs that “demand bark” pushy or rude or, well, demanding more times than I can count. In our world, with our human frame of view, it feels like being yelled at.

But what about the dog? Are they yelling at us?

Well, there’s no evidence that barking is the canine equivalent to human yelling or being rude. If we break down the behavior without using emotionally charged words, a dog that “demand barks” is likely excited about the potential for a reward and has learned that barking does typically lead to a pay-out.

Similarly, both my dogs have learned to nudge their leashes when it’s about walk o’clock. The behavior started small, with vague targeting action in the vicinity of the door, but has been fine-tuned through reinforcement (mostly me getting excited and using a fun, squeaky voice.)

This behavior is often hailed as “smart” or “cute” by dog owners because it’s not annoying. How my dogs learned this is psychologically no different than how many dogs learn to bark to get a treat or a ball tossed. Barking is annoying, though, and thus in our human frame of reference, we justify wanting to rid our dogs of the behavior by claiming it comes from a “lack of respect” and must be curbed before it erodes the human/dog relationship.

Hey, I get it-- I dislike being barked at as much as the next person. But this is reason enough for me to prevent the behavior. I don’t have to invent malicious intent to justify training. At the end of the day, it’s humans who decide which behaviors are acceptable and which ones we won’t put up with. A chronic misunderstanding of canine motivation has instilled in us an idea that we need control over our dogs, though, shifting the focus from communication to this loose idea of respect.

If your dog doesn’t listen to you, it doesn’t respect you, according to many dog professionals. The nothing in life is free philosophy aims to gain that respect by ensuring your dog understands that you are in control of every aspect of their life.

The issue with this is, we as humans choose what “respect” looks like to us, and often, we choose random behaviors to demonstrate this abstract concept. There is absolutely no evidence that the dog who sits for a treat respects their owner any more than the dog who barks. Both of these behaviors have been trained through operant conditioning. Controlling irrelevant resources like access to beds or the backyard won’t “fix” the barking, either. This behavior is independent from other reinforcers. The pet parent isn’t lacking a sense of control or respect, but has simply rewarded an undesirable behavior, typically by accident.

Chances are that our dogs, being the highly discriminative learners they are, won’t transfer sitting at the door waiting to go outside to all the other interactions they have with their people, let alone to this idea of “respect.” For most dog owners, focusing on creating a safe, stimulating environment in which all their dog’s needs are met would be a much more worthwhile endeavor than trying to demonstrate control over resources.

Back to my chow mix, Kai-- what training method helped our relationship?

I learned to lower my expectations. I just let her be a dog.

All too often, we get caught up in the idea of what our dog should be rather than what they are. As a younger dog, Kai was very easily distracted. This is what led me to discover NILIF-style training. I figured that having all rewards come through me would increase my value to her.

The problem was, Kai’s inattentive behavior wasn’t due to a lack or respect for me. It cropped up for two reasons-- over-excitement or stress. Kai had an overwhelming prey drive, and was fairly uncomfortable working around other dogs. As an inexperienced dog owner, I was suckered into the idea that these issues were a result of her not respecting me on some level.

Of course, what I came to learn was that my dog had two pretty common issues that were overcome (for the most part) with gradual desensitization and an increased awareness of her body language on my part.

Over the years, I’ve learned to lower my expectations for a dog’s behavior and instead focus on what I’m doing to set them up for success. I’ve also spent some time learning to think of my dogs less as “my dogs” and more as “animals I take care of.” This subtle difference has helped me shift my focus from what I think they should be doing to what I, as the caregiver, should be doing to meet their needs.

In my opinion, there’s nothing inherently wrong with NILIF. However, most pet parents would gain more from focusing on what they can do to change their pups’ behavior rather than looking for signs of “respect” in the relationship. More often than not, this includes increasing expectations for the human in the relationship and lowering them for the dog.

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