Is NILIF Nasty?

Recently I read a piece that lumped NILIF into the “nasty” category of dog training tools. My initial response was, "that’s preposterous"! But then I got to thinking…

The article mentioned, among other things, that using NILIF is stressful “because the dog loses all predictability and routine in his life, and loses all control of access to all of the rewarding elements of his life”.

The article also unhappily implied that NILIF is a rank reduction program based on the (faulty) belief that dogs need humans to be a surrogate “pack leader” or alpha in order to respect us enough to “follow our orders”.  

You may ask, what is NILIF?

One of the main ways we convince a dog to do our bidding is via the Premack Principle, which basically means we ask the dog to do something new, not inherently rewarding and then offer/allow an activity of higher value as the reward. Just like the, “eat all of your spinach and then you can have some ice cream” bargain most of our parents offered us as children. In this sense, we withhold access to something good until we get the dog to follow our requests. An example: we’d like to train our dog not to go crazy at the site of the leash or barrel through the door just because it has been opened. Rather, we’d like the dog to learn that the presentation of the leash or the opening of the door are cues to sit politely and wait for the leash to be clipped on and/or to be released to the great outdoors and all of the pleasures that ensue.

In other words the dog learns that the best way to get what he wants is via the handler never in spite of the handler (as in dangerously darting through doorways, or snatching food off of a table).

Over time, the initial behavior we’re trying to teach becomes inherently rewarding because it’s been paired with other wondrous activities. That is an added bonus and training at its best. Now the dog wants sit politely before a walk because of the promise of the great outdoors and its bounty.

Many trainers employ this tactic to some extent by using “life rewards” in training. It’s a great way to get more training bang for your buck and to convince your dog that paying attention to you is a cool idea, even in the face of major distractions such as other dogs playing in the park or a big roast chicken on the kitchen counter.

However, some people make use of the Premack Principle to the max by only allowing their dog access to the things he likes or needs via the completion of some training exercise. This amount of control takes a lot of management because the goal is to assure the dog never has the opportunity to self-reinforce (get something pleasant or necessary on his own).  This method of manipulation (aka training) is often referred to as NILIF, which is an acronym for Nothing In Life is Free.

It’s a savvy way to train, because you become the dog’s undivided focus, but ironically, as the name implies, it comes at a cost as well.

As I said above, training this way takes a lot of management and the way most people who employ NILIF succeed is by tightly controlling the dog’s environment at all times. To do this the dog cannot really ever have much free time, if any, especially in the initial stages of intensive training, which, if the dog is a sport, competition, or working dog could mean many years or a lifetime.

NILIF is not everyone’s cup of tea. Critics range from those who believe it’s somewhat cruel because it doesn’t allow a dog to just “be a dog”. Others believe it’s effective because it creates a canine Stockholm syndrome that treats the dog as a prisoner.

My thoughts on NILIF?

In it’s purest form I do believe it goes above and beyond what most dog owners need or indeed want out of living with a dog. It’s extreme and limiting and not really suited for most companion dog owners who really want to hang out with their canine buddy and perhaps don’t need or don’t care about precision in training or high-octane motivation or focus.

It’s a lot of work. More work than most people have the time or inclination for, because if you are going to limit your dog from the joys of life without your exclusive involvement you better damn well make sure that you’re spending a lot of time with your dog, getting him out and making sure his physical and mental needs are being met on a daily basis. It’s very easy for a dog to become neglected in this type of situation if the handler is lazy, not careful, of becomes desensitized to a dog living in a box. In its worst form dogs are put away like sports equipment when not being “used”.

While there are some circumstances where NILIF can be employed skillfully and may be an occasional wise tool of choice (never say never), I also believe that it can be abused or become the hallmark of lazy training. Not lazy in the sense that it’s easy, I’ve already said that it’s a lot of work to properly care for and train a dog under these conditions time wise, but lazy in a sense of creativity and relationship with a dog. It’s relatively easy to get a dog to do your biding or find you the most interesting thing in the world when he’s got absolutely nothing else going on in his life, no free will and no options.

However I don’t see it as a rank reduction program. It’s “Premack Extreme”. It works because of the principles of learning, not because of any hocus pocus alpha mind control leadership hokum.

And, on that note, I do not see how the author of the article that inspired this post can possible say that using NILIF causes a loss of predictability for a dog. Quite the contrary actually, NILIF makes life extremely predictable and controlled, which a dog’s mind craves and understands; that’s why it works so well. And while it’s true that a NILIF dog doesn’t have free control over his life (really, what pet dog does?) it does afford the dog clarity of consequences and consistency in the form of control over access to resources via his behavior; and that’s the point really.  

As for the idea that NILIF causes stress, well, not all stress is bad. I’m not of the mindset that stress should be avoided at all costs. Just abuse. Some amount of stress is not only good, but also unavoidable in life. Ultimately, clarity and consistency actually reduce stress and makes a dog’s life easier, so it’s better than an environment of no rules, unpredictability, and lack of clear communication that many dogs live with due to human foible.

No form of training to fluency is stress-free. The truth is most science-based or so-called “positive trainers” (how I hate that term!) do use some degree of withholding in order to manipulate the dog’s environment, but mainly by using life rewards over food to enhance training and proof distractions. Most dogs still get free belly rubs and runs in the park too.

That’s not the same thing as NILIF (where the emphasis is NOTHING for free) yet, I have heard the term used when people really just mean they’ve applied the Premack Principle and use life rewards.

Is it simply a matter of semantics? You say NILIF, I say Premack? In this case I don’t think so. We professionals have got to be careful with our terms and instructions because of the absoluteness and restriction implied by NILIF and it’s potential for abuse or misunderstanding, particularly for the general public. Which, I believe, is the point the article in question was trying to make.

Any tool can be used effectively or abused and NILIF is no exception. In the hands of a professional trainer for a sport or working dog it may well be the best option.

I think what’s important is to keep in mind the dog’s physical and mental well being and to train as kindly and clearly as possible while still efficiently getting the job done; because good training is what keeps dogs happy, safe, and in their homes and that is the ultimate goal.

So is NILIF nasty? Is it even what most of us are really using when we train? You tell me.


I find it interesting that someone should describe NILIF as rank reduction, this means we must be reducing the rank of our kids everyday when we simply say “If you tidy your room first, you can go play with your friends”.

The fact is nothing is life is free, unless of course you happen to be born of royal heritage, or the rich and famous, even then some people would say this comes with its own cost.

I don’t see how it can be cruel if applied with care and kindness, in fact in many cases applying NILIF makes a dogs life safer. Dogs want access to stuff and activities, but they live with humans in the human world. In this human world they have to know what works, and the safest or most appropriate ways to gain access to the stuff they want.

For example, take a simple everyday activity like going for an off-leash walk. Out on a walk it’s only natural that dogs will meet other dogs. I run at least one group dog walk a day where I am responsible for the safety of my client’s dogs.  I have trained my group to check in with me first, (less probable behaviour) - before engaging in activities with other dogs, (more probable behaviour) - simple premack. Why? For safety, because not every dog we encounter is going to be friendly/approachable, and as a general etiquette if the other dog(s) is on-leash.

I can see that the term “Nothing in Life is Free” can make it sound quite strict, so I prefer to use William E. Campbell’s “Learn to Earn”.  I view this as being less strict as not everything needs to be earned, but to a certain degree we all need to learn to earn right. If we didn’t do this then we would all be walking around naked, scratching out heads, feeling very hungry, frustrated, and confused. “Heck! How do I go about getting the stuff I want, hmm.”

In fact I see a lot of dogs doing this (not the hungry part). When I visit a new client for a behavioural consultation my assessment starts the moment I walk through the door using my eyes. Often what I see is a dog that is frustrated and confused, he/she is being given no constructive guidance on how to access “stuff” and is therefore throwing out behaviours, unfortunately mostly inappropriate. And often these behaviours are met with punishment of some kind, which in turn sets up a whole new slew of unwanted behaviours.

Therapists use the premack principle in behaviour modification, it sets a clear predictable sequence of events, gaining access to B is contingent on first doing A.

I write up a “Learn to Earn” program for behavioural clients as a first step in laying the foundations for ongoing behaviour modification and training. When I go back 4 weeks later I see a dog clearly loving this new game, it works for them, and it works for their human(s).  And guess what… the dog’s opportunity for positive reinforcement has increased 100% - how can this be nasty or cruel!

Clicker training 4 dogs

Kelly I think I know the original piece that discusses NILIF as a rank reduction program and lumps it in with pack garbage and nasty training techniques.  In that case I think they were referring to the use of such training programs by a particular category of trainers who use pack/alpha/dominance and rank reduction quite heavily as training paradigms often involving ignoring dogs for long periods of time and inducing a state of shut down as a result. 

Saying that however I do often use a version of this with clients.  I also refer to it as 'Learn to Earn' but usually as 'Say Please!'. 
I think it is most useful for pet owners as it illustrates a number of important things to them.

First of all its a great way of helping them understand that they do control their dog's access to most resources and it helps the dog to 'get' this too.
Implementing NILIF is a great way of getting them using training in every and all everyday situations rather than formally standing there with leash and treats.  So I find it helps them work training exercises into life therefore speeding up generalising.  I get them to use new  and/or appropriate behaviours in different situations but even asking the dog to carry out a trick behaviour such as high five is useful - to the dog its just another rewarding behaviour!
Its also a great way of getting owners to understand that access to life rewards is often just as effective, important and rewarding to the dog e.g. sit before going through the door etc.  It shows the owner that there is more to rewards than just treats or food and demonstrates that dogs are motivated by other things in other situations e.g. contact with other dogs etc.
It helps owners to get using R+ consistently and often - catching their dog doing the right thing!
NILIF is also a great way of teaching the dog how to 'train' his owner and as you say Kelly providing predictability and a sense of control for the dog.

I don't think that I have one pet owning client who has ever implemented it religiously and the dogs usually continued getting lots for free, but the owners and dogs definitley made an effort to earn some of the most rewarding things. It generally enhances the dog's and owner's life as part of a training plan for the reasons (and probably others) stated above.

I guess its like any training 'tool' - it requires correct and appropriate use to be effective, fun and kind as part of pet dog training.

Anne Rogers
Pet Central, Ireland

To reinforce Kelly's point about dog owners who truly DO keep to the 'NILIF" principle, I have often witnessed the extremes that can be reached where a dog is kept for competitive or working use. Some gundogs, some obedience and agility dogs, even show dogs can be kept under very rigid conditions. This I am assured is to retain their working focus. Intentions on never allowing the dog to learn a bad habit are brought to the fore. It is hard to say whether or not the dogs are stressed from the 'NILIF' environment when some dogs are taught using compulsion and others, using a toy or food. The rewards (or punishers) are magnified to the extent where the dog finds them enormously reinforcing. Does this inherently increase the stress levels experienced?

When we advise clients on introducing similar principles, don't we request 'consistency'? Does NILIF help to maintain consistency rather than expose the dog to error margins? Are we asking owners to introduce conditions I have described above? (for the most I would say, no of course we are not). We do need to be careful how people interpret our instructions. I feel that predictability can be hugely relaxing and perhaps it is anthropomorphous to automatically assume that dogs need the kind of variety on which some humans thrive. We would be better assisting people by simply providing specific, targeted rules, perhaps.

Perhaps a slightly old fashioned viewpoint from the original piece that the 'dominance' approach goes hand-in-hand with this more militaristic (some would say performance-enhancing) style of ownership.


Karen Wild BA (Hons) Dip App Psych


Looking at this from a handlers point of view, 'Nothing in Life Is Free' does sound very regimented and harsh.  However, as Kelly stated, it is what we all do anyway.  People have used it for centuries without pinning that term to it.  The term, 'The NILIF Programme' almost presents itself as a new and tough regime for you and your dog!  It's simply teaching a dog manners and then rewarding the dog.  It's just a form of learning. Taken to the extreme, as anything else,  of course it can be damaging.  Should be lumpted in with 'rank reduction'?  I don't think so. They are two very different methods.  

I don't like NILIF, I don't like the term.  

Do I use it?  Yes, most of the time. differently we all view dog training.  I know a trainer who regularly scruffs, alpha rolls, and uses other physically aversive and intimidating methods but feels it is cruel to hand feed dogs or puppies and require them to sit and/or down or "work" for their supper.  In his mind, food should just be given to a dog without any obligations whatsoever.  Oh, he also never uses food as a reward.  Only toys and praise.  So, at least he's being consistent.




Director of Training and Behavior Counseling Pup 'N Iron Host of Dog Sports and Performance Network on Pet Life Radio

I long ago decided that NILIF in its extreme form wasn't right for me or my dog- I like to play with her, and I like to touch her just because I do, not because she's done something for me. We do have manners and "say please" moments in our lives, but not as regimented as NILIF is.

I am curious why you don't like the term "positive trainers." I hope you'll expand on that sometime, either here in comments or in a future post. What would you prefer people use instead?

Crystal and Maisy RL1X AOE-L1 CGC


I think in the behaviour world 'positive' and 'negative' are viewed slightly differently. So by using the term 'positive trainer' can be misleading.  That is my experience anyway.

i agree that if it is applied with care and kindness and a good motivation, it is not nasty.

i cannot do it because i do not train my dogs with that kind of repetitive intensity.

NILIF is too hard on ME ! my dogs would probably love all the attention and fussing over them.


I always find discussions like this fasciating.  I'm not a BA in whatever or a CPDT, but I use a variety of tools and principals depending on the situation and the dog.  I've always viewed NILF as a tool, but not a program really.  Most people don't have the kind of dedication required to take away everything a dog wants/desires and make them earn it.  But really is there fault in requesting a sit before a dog takes off out the door?

NILF (which is an awful name, considering what *else* appears when you google it), is just a tool guys.  There are lots of them.  Not every tool works for every dog.  Just as a hyperfood-motivated dog becomes brain dead when doing lure work, there are some dogs that will shrink when any social pressure is applied.  In addition, not every handler can use every tool.  Not every handler has a great timing to using shaping effectivly - like me.

In performance work, we know to beware the trainer who only has one tool to solve a problem.  I'd hope that the training community can think broadly enough to help its members have multiple tools to address issues in a household using a variety of tools effectivly.  Life is too short to pick fights.

Here's my take on NILIF, reiterating a lot fo what Kelly said.