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.

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