Earlier this year, I attended a conference committee meeting for the Association of Pet Dog Trainers in Lexington, Kentucky. During our discussions, the planner said something to the effect of, “The field of dog training is so dramatic, it’s worthy of its own reality show!” How right she was. The industry is very polarized and political, with professionals generally dividing themselves as “traditional” trainers (like Cesar Millan) and “positive” trainers (think Victoria Stilwell).
While the two camps have little trouble finding things to bicker about, there is one bastion of unity: the concept of NLIF (Nothing in Life Is Free). Basically, NLIF means that you and your dog are constantly trading. You ask for behaviors you want (sit, down, recall) in exchange for giving your dog the things he wants (treats, play, freedom, a walk). Traditional trainers generally describe it in terms of a rank-reduction strategy, which allows owners to teach their dogs to submit to authority. Positive trainers call it a practical application of the Premack Principle. The application of NLIF is much the same among both traditional and positive trainers, even if the motivation differs substantially.
In animal-behaviorist Kathy Sdao’s first book, Plenty in Life Is Free: Reflections on Training, Dogs, and Finding Grace, she discusses how NLIF is generally assumed to be a sound training methodology. But is it? In 2009, my friend and colleague Kelly Gorman Dunbar wrote a blog post titled “Is NILIF Nasty?” which explored the relationship between NLIF and Premack and wondered whether they were synonymous. Kelly (I think rightly) determined that they are related but not the same. Essentially, NLIF is concentrated Premack. Where an owner applying Premack may ask the dog for a few quick behaviors and reward the dog by allowing freedom, a play opportunity, or squirrel chase, NLIF extremists say that dogs should work for everything — every butt scritch, bowl of water, or kind word. Many trainers recommend NLIF across the board to all of their clients as a foundation for both manners and behavior modification.
Kathy’s book is a deeper exploration of the concept of NLIF and what it means for dogs, people, and the relationships they share. Be warned: This is not a training book. It does not contain “recipes” for teaching a variety of new behaviors. It’s more of a philosophical guide to living and creating meaningful relationships with dogs. This book isn’t for anyone who’s ever uttered the words, “It’s just a dog,” or who considers his or her dog to be little more than a lawn ornament or a fashion accessory. This book is for people who love dogs, who think of them as friends and family members, and for whom greeting the family dog may be one of the best parts of a stressful day.
When Kathy examined NLIF within the context of her own personal, spiritual, and professional development, she came to the conclusion that many things in life should be “free.” She writes, “I’ve come to believe that NLIF contradicts the central miracle I embrace: that I’m surrounded by countless unearned gifts from an extravagantly loving God. So, for me, one of these opposing ideas — ‘nothing in life is free for dogs’ or ‘grace is abundant for all creatures’ — had to go.”
Instead of NLIF, Kathy recommends liberal reinforcement via her SMART x50 (See, Mark, and Reward Training x50), in which pet owners are asked to notice and reward good behavior (freely offered by the dog) at least fifty times each day. This reminds me of a Dogster article I wrote last year, “Active vs. Passive Training,” in which I postulated that many of my clients could have a well-behaved companion without ever putting a behavior on cue, simply by noticing and rewarding the good behaviors the dog naturally offers, while modifying the environment to make it more difficult for the dog to rehearse undesirable behaviors. (Kathy uses the fabulous term “choice architect” to describe those who do this.)
I admit that I do relatively little formal training with my dogs, and that most of my training is passive — I always want to be prepared to reward my dogs’ good decisions. In an effort to avoid having to micromanage my dogs with cues, I reinforce good decisions, so the environment becomes the cue. Right now, as I am writing in my office at home, my dogs are relaxing on their beds. This behavior is reinforced often and well, with treats, scratches, snuggles, praise, marrow bones — you name it. The office is a cue for my dogs to relax. I don’t want to have to ask them to relax, I want them to choose to relax.
There’s a lot to love about this short book. At 112 pages, I devoured it in an hour last week and read it twice again over the weekend. It will make you question what you think you know about dogs and perhaps reevaluate the type of relationship you’d like to share with the dogs in your family. Although it’s not technically a training book, it contains tips that will allow you to make great changes in your dog’s behavior, in a way that is easy and fun for both of you. It will also let you off the hook if you, like me, have never been disciplined enough to follow a strict NLIF regime. I am rarely able to resist scratching a belly that is offered with a happily wagging tail, even if the dog didn’t do anything to “earn” a belly-scratching fest.
Kathy’s publisher, Dogwise, is offering copies of the book to five lucky Dogster readers! To enter the contest, simply leave a comment below, telling us why you’d like to win the book and what you think you and your pup might learn from it. U.S. residents may choose from a paperback or e-book, while those outside of the U.S. will receive an e-book. We’ll select the winning entries using Random.org on Monday, April 23, at noon Pacific time, and we’ll announce the winners here in next week’s column.
Until then, happy training!