“There is no such thing as a free lunch.” Or so the saying goes. The origins of the phrase go back to the 19th century when American saloon owners would offer a “free lunch” to customers who purchased drinks. I guess those lunches weren’t exactly free if you had to do something for them even if it was just paying for drinks to go along with them. But is it possible that some dogs get a “free lunch”? Is there really a something-for-nothing deal out there for dogs?
When we were making our change over to positive, science based training, we were directed to a program called “Nothing In Life Is Free” (NILIF) on the Internet. It’s a remarkably simple concept with simple mechanics for implementing the protocol with your dog. If your dog wants something (e.g., food, play, affection, attention, etc.), they have to do something you ask of them first (e.g., sit, lie down, etc). On the face of it, the program looks like an excellent method of teaching dog owners about the value of being consistent in their criteria and to provide clear contingencies for their dogs’ behaviour.
As an advocate of behavioural science, I’m all for anything that teaches dog owners to communicate clearly with their dogs. There is probably no more direct way to show your dog what you want than by using cause-and-effect in training. It is what B.F. Skinner meant when he said that “consequence dictates behaviour.” If my dog sits, she will get a treat. If sits nicely next to me, she will get affection. If my dog jumps up on me when I come home, I will ignore her until she stops. Dogs very quickly learn to do what works. The NILIF approach seems ideal to help owners understand this concept.
Too much of a good thing
The sum total of that original article that describes the NILIF program is all of 1700 words, about the length of this article. Although it is based on sound behavioural science, the program is more of a “recipe” for changing behaviour than an explanation of how dogs can learn through operant conditioning. At it’s core, the author of this web page presents her program as one that will allow you to regain control of your dog, to make sure that that your dog is not “calling the shots” in your home.
When we first read through NILIF and started using it with our dog, we looked very carefully at our relationship with him to see where he was making “demands” of us and how we could take back “control” by requiring him to do something for us before getting what he wanted. That could have been a recipe for disaster if we had not done a bit more reading and learned a little more about behavioural science as we went along. While the NILIF program gave us a good start to understanding the value of clear consequences in training our dog, it could easily have become more about keeping our dog in his place and not really about forming a good partnership.
NILIF suggests that your dog may be pestering you for attention and that if you give him that attention without requiring anything in return, you could be losing your leadership position. If your dog can get affection or attention for free, there is no reason for him to cooperate when you ask him to sit or down for instance. And, for me, this is where the NILIF program comes off the rails a bit.
A while back, I wrote three articles for Life As A Human on why your dog isn’t responding to your cues. In those articles I cite only 3 reasons – he didn’t get the cue, he doesn’t understand the cue, or he has no motivation to respond to your cue even though he heard it and knows what to do. It’s that third one that seems to cause the most trouble. What is it that you ask of your dog and what does he get in return? Is it worth it from his decidedly doggie point of view? We humans like to believe that a pat on the head and some affection is a very valuable reward but the proof is in the behaviour. If your dog isn’t jumping right up to respond to your cue, chances are they don’t find affection all that valuable. And that shouldn’t be surprising since food is more critical to survival than a pat on the head.
So really, NILIF should be about showing your dog that all of the things he values most in life are available from you if only he cooperates a little. And it’s that balance between providing something of value for your dog when you ask him to do something for you. NILIF shouldn’t really be about seeing who is “in control” at all! Clearly, as the humans with all of the resources and the opposable thumbs, we have as much or as little control as we choose to exercise.
Plenty in life is free
Kathy Sdao is a full time animal trainer and an Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviourist. She has provided seminars and lectures around the world for dog trainers. Her recently released book, Plenty In Life Is Free, takes a critical look at programs like Nothing In Life Is Free and how we form our relationships with our dogs. In her book, Sdao points out that one of the significant weaknesses in the NILIF program is that it is focused more on control than communication. The goals of the NILIF program appear to be to place the dog owner in control of when and where their dogs get to do any kind of behaviour.
This differs significantly from communication. Sdao quite rightly points out that although the humans in the relationship may have preferences for when and how their dog behaves, the dogs also have physical, emotional, and psychological needs that need to be addressed in a healthy relationship. If the NILIF program is just about letting the humans “control” the dog in any way they see fit without regard to the dog’s needs, doesn’t this then become a well-intentioned form of abuse? If the dog is denied their opportunity to engage in behaviours that they find satisfying, then this one sided game of control can frustrate the dog enough for them to act out. And that is not going to end well for the dog.
I agree with Kathy Sdao. Plenty in life should be free, or at least at very low cost for our dogs. Doing something nice for your dog every once in a while is not going to turn them into a power mad, status seeking hound from hell. However, not providing some structure to the contingencies and consequences for our dogs’ behaviour just might. So the Nothing In Life Is Free idea is a useful one, but it also has it’s drawbacks. And just like most things I’ve found in life, the shortcuts are usually not as effective as doing the whole job.
Operant conditioning is not a difficult or complex model for behaviour modification. It is taught in most first year college psychology programs and even some high schools. It can provide more context and structure to the simple 1700 word (approximately) “program” that most descriptions of NILIF. Working with your dog daily and asking for behaviour and providing something the dog values in return is a great way to establish trust and a great working relationship. But taken to extremes, it becomes a restricted regimen designed to control and not to educate. A dog will easily figure that out and quickly become frustrated.
Like any prescriptive approach to behaviour modification, I think we have to use our best judgement. There is plenty of information out there in books and online to go beyond the simplistic, one size fits all approach of programs like NILIF. If we are to do the best job with our dogs, we shouldn’t be looking for shortcuts. We should be looking for answers. Behavioural science and force free trainers are providing those answers and giving us plenty of background and context to tailor solutions to our own homes and dogs.
Nothing In Life Is Free. And that includes quick solutions to our problems with our dogs. Don’t let promises of quick fixes and simple procedures persuade you that you can get your problems solved fast. If we focus on communication and information we create a solid foundation for a good relationship with our dogs. That’s when we find, as Kathy Sdao suggests, that plenty of great things in life are free for both us and our dogs.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs.
Photo credits –