NILIF = Nothing In Life Is Free

Nothing In Life Should Be Free
by Pamela J. Reid, Ph.D.
(from Dogs In Canada Magazine - Behaviour Column 1999)

Developing a loving bond with your dog does not mean catering to his every whim.

If you ever find yourself visiting my sister, you will be asked not to sit on the futon because it belongs to the dog. The dog is a small, black Pug named "Windsor". Windsor -- who is as cute as a bug -- has a tough life. He spends his days napping, playing and gaining weight.

When he wants a snack he waddles to his 'all-you-can-eat' bowl in the kitchen. His basket of toys is placed nearby so he can grab a stuffed bear at his leisure. My sister describes Windsor as "moody" -- he sometimes growls and snaps at my brother-in-law for no good reason and he has to be sedated to have his nails clipped by the veterinarian.

Windsor turns into a complete demon if he gets his paws on a chew bone and he becomes a whirling dervish at my parents' home, while my sister looks on, helpless to reform his behaviour. And although he appears totally devoted to her, Windsor recoiled in fear when my sister reached out to hug him at the airport after an absence of only seven days.

His allegiance had completely switched to his dog-sitter.

No More Something For Nothing

Is Windsor a problem dog? Not according to my sister. But the way I see it, their relationship could be vastly improved with a few simple changes. He has too much autonomy -- he has been permitted to run rampant and so he does as he pleases, all in the name of love.

If I had my druthers, I would place Windsor on a 'nothing-in-life-is-free' program. By this I mean I would determine the things that Windsor considers important in his life, such as food, toys, his futon and attention, and make his access to these contingent upon certain behaviour. If Windsor wants to go out, Windsor sits first.

If Windsor wants his dinner, Windsor does a down-stay first. If Windsor wants to be cuddled, Windsor rolls over and shows his tummy first, and so on. This program can be effective for adult dogs in need of an 'attitude adjustment' and for puppies learning to bond with their human family.

Co-Dependents Anonymous

Some professional behaviourists and trainers advocate a nothing-in-life-is-free program for dogs displaying aggression toward people, arguing that the act of doling out resources reinforces the dog's subordinate position. That is one possible interpretation of the effect of earning the good things in life but I prefer to view it as a process whereby the dog and owner become co-dependent because it appears to benefit any dog-owner relationship.

Controlling a dog's favoured things helps to establish a strong partnership between the dog and the owner. The dog learns to depend upon and trust the owner, and the owner learns to become very attuned to the dog's needs. The goal is not to remove the dog's control but rather to teach him a new way of controlling -- he learns to 'play' the owner.

The Foundation Block of a Strong Bond

Although I admit my laxity when it comes to controlling my adult dogs' resources, when I bring a new puppy into my family, I become quite compulsive. I start scheming right away to convince the pup that I have special magical powers because I can cause great things to happen. Think of the cartoon that depicts the dog marvelling at the ability of his owner to drive up to a drive-through window and have food passed into the car!

I begin this by teaching the pup that he 'scores' every time he looks at me. He might get a piece of kibble, a special tidbit, a quick game with a toy or an affectionate cuddle. After a day or two of this, the pup is incredibly attentive to me. American trainer Chris Bach takes this one step further -- she advocates teaching the puppy that he never gets anything he wants by looking directly at it;  he only gets what he wants by staring at his owner.

Hand-feeding is another important component of nothing-in-life-is-free. I enjoy the special moments sharing in one of the pup's favourite activities of the day, and the pup comes to view me as his very own vending machine! Sometimes the puppy just has to look at me for a piece of kibble; sometimes the meal becomes a short training session. Hand-feeding has the added benefit of helping a pup learn to feel comfortable with people around him while he is eating.

I also spend a great deal of time playing, doing my best to mimic puppy play so I will become the pup's preferred play partner. I wrestle, play-bite (gently!), tug, chase and play keep-away. Gradually, I incorporate simple training exercises so the puppy thinks that learning and playing are one and the same. A powerful bond is established between the puppy and the owner by controlling a variety of resources, not just food.

You Get What You Pay For

We have all heard the old adage that people don't value things that come too easily. Animals appear to be the same. When Windsor was a puppy, I gave my sister a selection of toys, including a Buster Cube, a Kong and a Goodie Ship. She was horrified that I expected Windsor to 'work' for his food and politely returned the gifts.

Do dogs become resentful if asked to perform for their food or other needs? Some adult dogs may have trouble with the transition, but almost all come to enjoy the extra challenge. There have been numerous studies that offer animals a choice between free food and food that include a cost. Hens will peck a key for food and rats will press a bar for food, even though food is also available for free, simply because they like the activity.

Squirrels given a choice of shelled peanuts or peanuts still in the shells, overwhelmingly prefer the latter. The squirrels find it enjoyable just handling the shells and digging out the nuts. Maybe this explains the popularity of crab and lobster for the human palate! Progressive zoos and farms now enrich the environments of their animals by providing simulated foraging activities such as giving bears salmon frozen in large blocks of ice.

You Scratch My Back and I'll Scratch Yours

My sister doesn't view Windsor as a problem dog because she doesn't ask much of him and that's okay. But many owners would find Windsor's aggression unacceptable, his unruly behaviour alarming and his fickle attachment disconcerting. Many of us want more from our companions.

Nothing-in-life-is-free isn't a cure-all for all relationship woes between a dog and his owner but it can contribute to the development of a new and healthy partnership. I may not win the case with my sister but I am convinced there is a well-mannered, charming Pug inside Windsor, just clamouring to come out and play.

If your teenage dog is begining to try to assert himself, or herself, it's time for the dog to learn that "Nothing in life is free!"

The suggestions below are for people who are already experiencing behaviour problems with a dog that challenges their authority.

(1) Avoid circumstances that elicit aggression -- at least temporarily. Later you'll be able to work on desensitization, but only after you've gotten the dog's cooperation, not resistance.

(2) Maintain an aloof attitude toward the dog. This is accomplished quite easily by crating the dog (or isolating it from the family in a small area with a babygate for a few hours a day).

(3) Two-three times a day for 3-5 minutes maximum practice QUICK sits and downs for food. (If you don't know how to train this, go to a class.) You are working for speed and attitude here -- so reward correct behavior generously with praise and food. Don't make these training sessions a chore -- they should be fast and fun, not a battle. When the dog is IMMEDIATELY and CONSISTENTLY and with ANTICIPATION obeying the commands, she is ready for the meat of the NILIF program.

(4) At first, priveleges are still restricted, but you'll gradually be able to add them back. Don't rush things -- if you have a bad day, just go back to the prior level where things were successful and start over. Don't go from confinement/isolation to full house priveleges in a day -- keep doors shut, start with limited amount of "free time".

(5) NILIF -- Nothing in life is free. This means the dog must PERFORM to get anything it wants. For many dogs, using the "down" command is recommended because it requires her to throw herself into the most submissive posture available; the "sit" command can also be used.

"Wanna cookie?" -- nothing in life is free, so the dog must "down" on command for the cookie. (BTW -- when you start introducing NILIF, carry food AT ALL TIMES -- you're still rewarding the dog for submitting - this is NONCONFRONTATIONAL. Reward for a LONG time, then wean off food sporadically, but still praise the behavior.)

"Wanna go outside?" - dog must "down". "Wanna drink of water?" -- that's right. You're catching on. The dog gets NO freebies. She must *earn* everything -- food, play, petting, water, going out, going for a r-i-d-e, getting T-R-E-A-T-S, coming inside.

BTW -- there are other non-confrontational ways to establish dominance. Ignore a dog when it tries to initiate play -- and as soon as it gives up, you initiate the game yourself. Alpha dogs decide when the pack plays, and when it hunts.

Controlling food is another good thing -- if you're free-feeding your dog, meal-feeding will also help establish you as alpha since you'll be deciding when she eats. And I *do* like the idea of teaching a puppy or a dog to roll on its back and accept petting ... but it doesn't have to, and it shouldn't be a battle.

NOTE: Pamela J. Reid, Ph.D. is a certified applied animal behaviourist and assistant professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, where she teaches veterinary students courses in Applied Ethology and the Principles of Learning. Her behaviour column in Dogs In Canada magazine won the 1999 Dog Writers Association of America award for Best column.