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Implementing the Nothing in Life is Free Training Approach

A well-behaved dog is a joy be around. Confident and calm, quiet and capable, when sweet little Rover knows what’s expected of him and understands that you call the shots. You can readily expect to enjoy his company without a constant battle over unwanted behaviors. Does this sound too good to be true? It might be time to try the “Nothing in Life is Free” (NILIF) approach.

What is the NILIF approach?
More of a life philosophy than a specific training technique or set of techniques, NILIF works from the perspective that helps your dog accept you as the leader and feel secure and confident in his or her position as pack member. Not unlike what some parents refer to as “Grandma’s Rule,” NILIF predicates all positive rewards on you, the pack leader, getting what you want first. In Spike’s case, Spikey-boy wants what you have: attention, food, treats or toys. You provide these things for Spike after he does what you want (e.g. sits before you place his food bowl down, or backs up before the door is opened).

Some more examples of how this philosophy looks in practice would include insisting that Spot sit still before his leash is put on to go outside, or that he lie down before receiving a belly rub. You as the pack leader are frequently giving commands, and Spot executes the command before receiving any “goodies” (praise, treats or even going outside).

How Do You Get Started?
First, teach Zoe a few basic commands such a sit, come and lie down. Use positive reinforcement (big praise, and/or small food treat) to reinforce the correct behavior. Second, stop giving away things your dog wants “for free.” What does that mean? Stop petting your dog “just because” or when he shoves his head under your hand. Don’t give treats “just because” or “for dessert.” Start to think in terms of these treats (praise, food treats or attention/affection) in terms of exchanges: Zoe gives me correct and appropriate behavior, and I give her something positive in return.

Soon, every interaction with your dog will offer opportunities for this kind of exchange. You want to play ball? Give me your paw first. You want a treat? Speak to me. You want to go outside? Sit still before I put your leash on. Lance will start to get it that you, the human in charge, receive what you want from him before he gets any goodies at all.

Remember, Rascal needs to understand the basic commands and be able to obey them before you initiate the NILIF approach. What is the key to making this work? Be consistent.

Special Circumstances:
Sometimes, situations develop where Jasper needs extra help getting his behavior together. Maybe he’s brand new to you and your household and has come from a very unstructured environment. Or maybe he’s just young, strong, full of himself and going through adolescent growing pains. Whatever the situation, a “pushy” dog can develop truly bad habits that can end up being annoying at best and dangerous at worst.

The NILIF approach in this circumstance gets a little more elaborate. Combining crate training with “tethering” can help rewire Jasper’s behavior. Crate training involves using a dog crate as a safe “time out:” a den-like refuge for Jasper where he stays when he is not tied to you. Yes, using this technique you actually tie ol’ Jasper to your waist using a fairly short leash, and insist that he go where you go, at your speed, on your whim. Tethering in this way helps convey to Jasper that you are in charge in a very intense and powerful way. Tethering is sometimes suggested for growling or biting behaviors, and in such cases is also combined with all the NILIF concepts outlined above.

These techniques are extensions of establishing the human owner as the alpha, but are best used with the help and guidance of a professional trainer to ensure that all discipline is just that: teaching, training, shaping and supporting positive behaviors without ever, even inadvertently, punishing with cruelty or harsh responses.

A well-trained dog does so much more than offer robotic correct responses to commands. A well-trained dog has the potential to bond with his or her owner in a profound and deeply satisfying way. For both dog and owner, there is no question: the investment in training is well worth it!