Nothing in Life is Free (NILIF), Learn to Earn. You may be familiar with these terms. They were devised, probably by well intention people, to allow you to use what your dog routinely gets in his life as ways to train him. The other thing some NILIF advocates is that your dog is behaving in a poor manner because he has unlimited access to resources, is spoiled or thinks he’s the “boss” or you are not the “pack leader”.
Now, some of what I say in this blog may seem contradictory as you read it, but it’s the reason why we are doing it, and the scientific reasons for it’s success/effectiveness which are important.
Following on from last week’s blog, I’ll define a couple of terms again, in simple terms (very simple)
1. Classical conditioning – learning by association.
2. Operant conditioning – learning by trial and error
3. Reinforcement – anything which causes the increase in the duration/frequency/intensity of a behaviour
4. Punishment – anything which causes the decrease in the duration/frequency/intensity of a behaviour
5. Positive/negative – adding(+)/subtracting(-) something from the dog’s environment. In training/learning, it doesn’t mean good or bad. We have positive and negative punishment and positve and negative reinforcement.
Proper understanding of the terms is important, because it allows us to have a greater understanding of what we are doing during training and why we are doing it.
So, to get back on topic. NILIF protocols advocate taking everything away from your dog if he isn’t behaving the way you want him to behave. The dog has no free access to food, toys or people for petting, playing etc. Further, every time your dog wants something, he has to earn it. You can’t just give your dog something, like a rub on the ear, just because he’s your pal and you want to. He has no access to toys he can play with himself, like chewing on a nylabone or kong, or playing with a squeaky plush toy to keep himself amused. Every morsel of food, every game you play with your dog, every time you want to pet her depends on her doing something you want her to do like sitting politely or coming when called.
The NILIF protocol says that when you decide you want to, you give the dog all the good things, and don’t when you don’t want to. What can happen here, is that if owners can’t be bothered or don’t have the time to interact with their dogs, they now have permission not to. It further recommends that if your dog approaches you for attention, ignore him, but when he walks away, then call him back and pet him then. That way, you are dictating access to you, not the other way around.
Now, if you haven’t already thought about this, this can lead to a very sad and frustrated dog. The day before you instigated this programme, your dog was fed regularly, had toys to play with, could come and say hi when he wanted to and you’d say hi back. Now his whole life has been changed, and as far as he’s concerned, not for the better and he can become depressed. The dog can also become demanding if this happens as he is trying desperately to get attention.
The other side of this, is that we can do very similar things to NILIF, but for different reasons and obtain hugely different results. These are all training programmes I’ve learned from the best trainers in the world such as Ian Dunbar, Jean Donaldson, Ken Ramirez and Kathy Sdao, among many others. Your dog has to eat. Hopefully, you like going out for walks, playing with your dog and giving them attention and petting. Your dog likes, and needs, these things too. So let’s use them for training. This is where it does become different.
1. Your dog’s food – food is a primary reinforcer. So let’s use it to train our dog. It reinforces behaviour, so when your dog sits, give him a piece of kibble so he’s more likely to do it again. Take your dog’s food out on a walk with you. Sit on a park bench and every time a person or dog walks past, give him a piece of food. This way he learns dogs and people means food comes out which makes him feel good and with enough practice, dog’s and people approaching makes him feel good with there being no food present (classical conditioning) and you are reinforcing him for paying attention to you when people or dogs are around (operant conditioning using positive reinforcement).
2. Your dog’s toys. Let him play with his own toys. He has his, I have mine. Mine are a couple of balls on ropes and a tug toy. He gets to play with his by chewing on them, maybe throwing them in the air and catching them. I let him play with mine, but only when I’m there and there are rules attached, but mine are more fun, beacsue I’m involved in the play. My toys move, I throw throw them and I tug on them. She gets to chase them and tug on them back. The rules are be careful with your teeth, and give them back when I ask you to. I don’t play with my dog’s toys but I do allow her to play with mine, because they are fun (for both of us) and because I can train her when playing.
Your dog enjoys playing tug or chasing a ball, you play tug or throw the ball, your dog will now enjoy playing with you (classical conditioning). You give your dog a game of tug or throw the ball when they come back to you you are now using positive reinforcement to train a recall.
There’s also loads you can do for free for your dog which is still training your dog and classically conditioning you to him in a beneficial way. Playing long games of tug in the garden with your dog, for no reason other than having fun, classically conditions your dog that you are a great, fun guy to be around, Further to that, now when you give your dog a short game of tug after a recall or a down stay, he has that long history of big tug games to refer to and it is much more powerful. Similarly, petting your dog for 40 minutes in the evening when you are sitting reading or watching TV means that clapping your dog when he does something you like now has more meaning.
One of the main differences between this approach and NILIF is that it doesn’t give you permission to do nothing. Your dog needs daily exercise and stimulation for a full life. The more we use our dogs food and play and attention for training, the better trained our dog will be. If you use a quarter of your dogs food for training, rather than all of it, you will only get a quarter of the benefit. That said, you don’t need to hand feed it all, put what you don’t use in a Kong or other stuffable toy and you are now teaching your dog to entertain herself, chew an appropriate item and be calm. The minimum we can do with this, if we’re motivated to is to give all daily food in toys or food puzzles so you are at least getting that benefit from it.
A programme like this leads to a well trained, sociable dog, and a truly deep relationship with you.
Firstly, apologies for not blogging for a few weeks, I’ve been crazy busy. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to blog about the following
1. Preparing your dog for the arrival of a new baby
2. Nothing in Life is Free Protocol versus using your dog’s food and toys for training and classical conditioning
3.Building a truly meaningful bond with your dog through positive reinforcement
4. Forging a new behavioural path and letting the “bad” ones overgrow.
If there is anything at all you’d like me to write about, please comment below, If you are having a problem with your dog’s training or behaviour, write a comment and I’ll do my best to answer it in a future blog.
I worked recently with a young guy, Steven, who has a five month old Rottweiler. Wallace is a handsome dog, very friendly and a typical Rottweiler puppy. The reason for the consultation was that Wallace had started to become increasingly possessive over certain items which had been dropped on the floor, such as tissues, items of rubbish outside and so forth. Steven told me he usually tries to get the items from Wallace by holding his collar and taking them from his mouth, which Wallace has taken a dislike to and had started to react by either running away when he has something and hiding or snarling, growling and lunging if he wasn’t able to run off.
Now, from my previous two blogs, I’ve explained that dogs do what works for them. If behaviours are reinforced, they will increase. So, as Wallace lunges and snaps which causes Steven to back off, he learns this behaviour works. He is not “winning” or being dominant or “bad”, he is simply learning what actions get him what he wants.
Also from my previous blogs, you may recognise the following statement which I have started to apply to my training – Control the environment, not the dog, so that the dog makes better decisions and then reinforce those choices to make them more likely in the future.
In this instance, our environmental controls would be working at a distance where Wallace feels comfortable and not allowing him to run off and hide under the table where we would be unable to work. The decisions we are looking for Wallace to make are not reacting in a way we don’t like (lunging etc), and to willingly drop the item he has in his mouth on our approach. We were aiming to train Wallace not to want or feel the need to guard the object from us.
We started off with Wallace off leash in the livingroom and used Chirag Patel’s method which is described in the following link
I told Steven to continue to work on this technique often, at least a couple of times a day for several weeks, to build a really strong behaviour.
Once Wallace had the hang of this, we tethered him with a 6 ft long leash to a piece of furniture so he couldn’t move away under the table. Another way we could have controlled the environment would have been to move the table out of the room or practice in an empty room. We then gave him a pig’s ear (a prized item) to chew on. Ordinarily, Wallace would run and hide with the item if you approached from about 4 feet way and lunge if your hand was within about a foot of him. Starting at 5 feet or so, I used the “drop” cue and dropped pieces of cheese on the floor. I pointed them out to Wallace, he dropped the ear and ate them. I then walked away and let him go back to his pig’s ear.
We did this several times and then I got a little closer. He was now willingly dropping the pig’s ear on my approach, even before the cue and approaching me with relaxed body language. I reinforced this with food and let him go back to his ear. I repeated this several times also. The next time, I approached, asked him to “drop”, he dropped th pig’s ear, I reinforced with food and then I picked up the pig’s ear while he was eating cheese cubes from the floor. When he finished, I give him the ear back and walked away.
Here, I was continually reinforcing behaviours I wanted, i.e. relaxed body language on my approach and giving up the pig’s ear. Because I didn’t get into a confrontation with him (something I would undoubtedly lose in a few months time), reinforced the right decisions he made and gave him his pig’s ear back, he started looking forward to me approaching and all thoughts of running away of fighting for the pig’s ear were gone.
The last few times, after I gave him the pig’s ear back, I help onto it for a few moments before letting go. What happens here is that the dog learns that your hand is better at holding the pig’s ear than his front feet, and then he enjoys you holding it as he can chew it more easily. This stage can only be done if your dog has enough trust that you won’t try to take it from him.
I then had Steven do all the steps and talked him through it so he felt confident in doing it when I wasn’t there. Before I arrived, Wallace would have run under the table and would have probably bitten me if I had tried to take the ear from him. By the end of the session, he was willingly lying next to me or Steven while he was chewing the pig’s ear. The technique described will take many, many sessions for it to be come completely reliable in Wallace and Steven will need to practice daily. If you are doing something similar with your dog, take advice from a professional and go at your dog’s pace.
A great result, all without force or intimidation.
“He’s stubborn. She’s disobedient. He’s aggressive. She doesn’t do as she’s told. He’s an Akita. She’s a Shiba Inu. I have to use a prong collar because he is X Y or Z or because he is a (fill in the blank) breed/type of dog. Postive reinforcement training doesn’t work because he is a dominant breed.”
I’ve heard loads of these comments from clients and dog people over the years and read more of them online. One of the most memorable was a guy who described his pitbull as a “cunning, conniving cur” which then gave him authority to treat him as such. One of the reasons for his description was that pitbulls are bred to fight, so they have to use “every trick” they can to win. As opposed to the reality of the matter, which is the dog is fighting for his life to entertain sick humans.
I’ve heard arguments or excuses from people on a number of topics – that bull breeds fight with other dogs because they are bull breeds. Hounds and Spitz breeds cannot be let off leash because a recall is impossible because their desire to hunt is too high. Mastiff and livestock guardians can’t be trained because they don’t have the brain for it (whatever that means). One of my favourites was a client who owned a border collie who read on an online collie forum that you can’t expect collies not to chase cars, which was the problem she was having. We managed to train her dog not to chase cars in the space of an hour, using a ball, not to mention the hundreds of collies I’ve seen in my lifetime happily walking down the street as cars drive by.
Yes, certain breeds do have tendencies to do things more than other breeds. But they don’t do them because of that. They do these things because they find it reinforcing (a different thing from enjoying something) and because they have been allowed to be reinforced for doing it. I know I am not the best dog trainer in the world. I know I’m pretty good at it and I know that I will never stop trying to be better than I am just now. I say this because I know it’s possible to retrain dog aggressive bull breeds. I know it’s possible to train a husky or a Shiba Inu to recall. I know it’s possible to do these things without resorting to aversive training methods. The reason I know these things is because I’ve done them. I know there are loads of other things you can train a dog to do, without having done them myself because I’ve seen others do it.
If you think you can’t train your beagle to come back to you because she’s a beagle, you won’t do it and you’ll never let her off leash. If you think your Akita is unfriendly to people because he’s an Akita, it gives you the excuse not to do anything about it (although with any work with dogs who react aggressively we need to always be aware of safety issues).
Rather than attaching a label to your dog, think in terms of “If (a certain sequence of events or situation occurs) then (my dog reacts in a certain way)”. If my dog is off leash and catches an interesting smell then she won’t come back when I call her (prudent use of a long line and reinforcers is how I would go about changing this). If my dog is on leash and there is another dog within 15 feet, he will react aggressively (here you could alter the distance and use classical conditioning). If you need to label anything, label behaviours, which we can change.
If you believe that you need to use aversive training methods (prong or shock collars, rattle cans, ear pinches, leash corrections, spray bottles), than you will be closed to other possibilities and you will never learn them. I don’t think that every dog issue can be solved but most of them can and the rest of them can be managed. I know that not every dog issue can be solved with force free techniques but that shouldn’t stop us from constantly trying to find behaviour modification solutions which are the least aversive. When we have exhausted all of these options we have a decision to make. How we make that decision will depend on our own ethics. A more aversive approach might work, but do we really need to use it? Is it worth inflicting pain in order to achieve our goal? If the answer is yes, then it’s a matter for your own conscience. Having tried all available force free alternatives to get your reactive dog safe around strange dogs or people, can we justify using a shock collar rather than getting up earlier in the morning and taking him out when it’s quiet and not exposing him to situations which will make him react. Is the reason for you wanting to take him out where there are other dogs or people around for him or for you?
I believe that force free methods can impact the vast majority of cases. Of all the dogs I’ve worked with, there is only one which I didn’t know how to help. Aversive techniques may have changed her behaviour, but there is always a high risk of fallout and I don’t use those techniques in any case. I haven’t stopped thinking of a solution for this dog and still ask other trainers their opinions. So in my own experience, I don’t know of a force free technique which hasn’t worked in 0.002% of cases and I work with dogs other trainers have tried to help and haven’t been able to or that other trainers won’t work with so it’s not as if I’m handpicking my clients.
“Let’s push beyond old limitations and see what’s truly possible for dogs, and their trainers” – Eric Brad, Canine Nation