My good friend and fellow dog trainer, Colleen Pelar often quips, “Dog trainers are wonderful, but they are not normal.” She means that the way in which we treat our dogs is not, in general, the way the average dog owner relates to his or her canine. For example, my dog Bingley loves whole wheat pancakes and I will go out of my way to find his very favorite pancake mix. Another trainer not only serves pancakes to her dog, but makes them into fun shapes for him. All of this is to say that we trainers think a lot about what we do, and how it impacts our furry friends.
One concept that has been around for awhile (and therefore discussed, dissected, and analyzed for just one week short of awhile) is NILIF or Nothing In Life Is Free.* The basic concept is: any thing that your dog wants must be preceded by something you want, most often a sit. If, for example, your dog wants to go outside, a sit at the door is a pre-requisite for opening the portal to paradise. Sit happens if you want me to place the dinner bowl on the floor for you, if you want a treat, etc. In this way, sit becomes the equivalent of “Please.”
Trainers use NILIF in a variety of situations and to greater and lesser degrees of conformity. Some trainers demand that everything from food to petting to play must be preceded by a sit. Others are more lenient and require that only certain behaviors require a sit. Personally, I am more of the lenient sort, and require sit at times when it makes my life easier. My dogs sit before meals, because I don’t like to be flattened by a 100 pound dog lunging for his last (in his mind anyway) meal. I also like sit at the door, sit on the scale at the vet’s office, and if you are a giant Bernese Mountain dog, sit should be your default behavior so you don’t scare or accidentally knock over the person you are convinced is “MY NEW BESTEST FRIEND IN THE WORLD AT LEAST FOR THIS MINUTE!”
I tend to be more stringent about NILIF when I am working with an overly confident dog who I think needs to learn some more self control and that he cannot get his way by being pushy. This sort of dog will have to sit for treats, petting, the door, getting his leash on, meeting new people, etc., at least at the beginning of training so that he learns to keep his enthusiasm, energy, and/or confidence in check and so that the owner feels as if he has a bit more control over the situation. As the owner and dog build a closer relationship and the dog understands that sit gets him all sorts of wonderful, the regime can be loosened.
I started to reflect more on NILIF after reading Kathy Sdao’s book, Plenty in life is Free. I have heard Ms Sdao talk on numerous occasions and have learned a great deal from her about training, reinforcement, and building relationships with our animals. She is a compassionate and experienced behaviorist and trainer and I have always walked away from her lectures feeling as if I were a better person as well as a better trainer. Her new book is challenging, insightful and got me to think about what I am doing as a trainer to enhance the wellbeing of both my human and animal clients. Ms Sdao advocates the idea of a partnership between dog and person and that clients can get the behavior they want out of their dogs by getting SMART:
-that is, that they practice “See, Mark And Reward Training.” Those three components- seeing good behavior, marking good behavior (often with a click or a “yes”) and rewarding good behavior – are the core competencies of successful trainers. (Plenty in life is Free, pg. 50)
This approach does leave room for talking, luring, prompting, etc, but they are not as important as watching your dog and rewarding the good stuff. This approach uses the “most fundamental law of behavior: consequences drive behavior.” (pg. 83). In other words, rewards matter. Rewarding desirable behavior will do more to change and improve your dog’s behavior than anything else you do, including playing at being alpha dog. “Effective trainers are reward junkies…They strive to be the source of dozens of things the dog finds satisfying: food, play, attention, affection, exercise, smells, praise, petting, freedom, comfort and more.” (pg. 84). Using effective and well timed rewards will increase the frequency of your dog’s good behaviors as well as build a relationship with him based on co-operation and trust.
I also think that SMART can be effectively combined with parts of NILIF. For example, if you want your dog to sit before you open the door, reward a lot of sits in a variety of situations so that sit becomes a go-to behavior for your dog. Then, when he wants to go out, pause and wait for the sit. As soon as Rover’s haunches hit the floor, the portcullis can be raised! In this way, you have Seen, Marked and Rewarded sits, and then allowed your dog to make the right decision to use this learned behavior to get what he wants.
Ms. Sdao’s book is easy to read, narrative in style, and filled with easy, practical tips that allow trainers and owners to effectively, efficiently, and compassionately train dogs and build relationships that are mutually beneficial and rewarding partnerships. I highly recommend it for anyone who has ever loved a dog, troublesome or perfect, unruly or agreeable, as it will enrich your life as well as your dog’s.
*NILIF= Nothing In Life Is Free; STILAF= Some Things in Life Are Free; PILIF= Plenty In Life Is Free; IAILF= Is Anything In Life Free; WBDTTAT= Who But Dog Trainers Think About This