Nothing In Life is Free

In my dog training business, most of the animals I work with come to me with a profound misunderstanding of their place in the human/dog relationship. They have their own ideas of how things should work. The slightest distraction can lead them to blow me off, even when I’m certain that they know how to do what I’m asking. Many of them suffer from a low frustration tolerance, and having to deal with anything they don’t want to deal with can lead to hyperactive behavior, excessive vocalization, and even aggression. I’m a big fan of using the “Nothing in Life is Free” (or NILIF) protocol to teach these recalcitrant students their proper place in the pack. I’m speaking, of course, about my human students.

NILIF operates on the basic principle that before a dog is granted anything that he wants in life - treats, petting, to go outside, to come inside, etc. - he must first do something for his human, like perform a sit/stay. Proponents of NILIF typically portray sitting to get things as a ritual of deference that teaches the dog to accept his owner as The Pack Leader who is entitled to obedience. I don’t know about all of that, but I kind of doubt it. I don’t want to spend too much time on the idea of social status, but I’ll just say that I have yet to meet all these dogs that are scheming to take over leadership of their families. In my experience it’s the people, rather than the dogs, who obsess over who’s in charge.

I think that dogs are simpler than that. Dogs do what works. If a particular behavior in a particular situation tends to result in Good Things For Dogs, then the dog will probably stick to that behavior. If it doesn’t, the dog will probably abandon the behavior. Set up your dog’s life so that good behavior consistently pays off for the dog and bad behavior does not, and you should have a delightfully obedient and well-mannered pet. Your dog learns that the best way to get what he wants is to look at you and offer the canine version of saying please. It’s a simple principle, but not necessarily an easy one to implement. One word in my little aphorism accounts for a lot of the difficulties people have in training: consistency.

Dogs excel at consistency. If something works, they tend to stick with it. Humans? Not so much. Most of my students train effectively during formal training sessions. When focused on the task at hand, they improve their timing, set and achieve appropriate goals, respond properly to misbehavior, and everyone has fun. In the real world, on the other hand, things fall apart. If a beginning student’s dog misbehaves while the human is busy doing 5 other things she might choose to just ignore it – or even reward it! – rather than deal with it. In such circumstance, people often forget all the wonderfully practical commands they’ve practiced and just yell at the dog in frustration. In short, training goes out the window. This is a bit of a disaster, because it’s the real world situations that count.

I constantly remind my students that training is taking place every time they interact with their dogs. The only questions are, “Who is being trained?” and “what are they learning?” I spend a lot time singing the praises of consistency and stressing the special importance of using the most exciting parts of a dog’s day as opportunities to train. My students still struggle with it more than probably any skill I teach, but I don’t find that surprising.

I think that perhaps the hardest skill to learn in dog training is maintaining a constant awareness of how your behavior impacts your dog’s behavior. It’s not a pleasant habit to develop. It feels a little manipulative at first, and it’s not easy to remember in the course of a hectic daily life. Long time dog people tend to forget this. Awareness of the consequences of our own behavior and the consistency that comes with it become unconscious habits for most of us. It didn’t, however, start that way. It was a discipline that we had to learn.

I find NILIF an excellent device for teaching people this discipline. For some mysterious reason that perhaps a cognitive psychologist could explain, this simple rule really seems to help people to remember that they’re always training. It gets them in the habit of consistently asking for good behavior and refusing to accept poor behavior. In other words, it takes people a long way towards learning the personal discipline necessary to train a well-mannered dog.

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