Wednesday, June 20, 2012


NILIF is an acronym for: Nothing in Life is Free. Notice that the emphasis is on nothing, which means that in its purest form the dog must work for everything: food, treats, toys, affection, freedom to sniff and play, to be let in or out, and so on. It is a widespread concept you likely have heard about one time or another - and regardless to which side of the training philosophy spectrum you belong. That a dog can’t possibly be well behaved if he has resource autonomy is the rare occasion where traditional trainers and positive reinforcement ones seem to be on the same page. NILIF is, actually, rather popular with the positive crowd, because it is perceived as a non-confrontational way to show yer dog who is boss.
Well, I don’t like it - for several reasons.
For starters, I object to the notion that we can’t have a harmonious and cooperative relationship with our companion canine unless we make a show of our absolute control over everything he wants and needs several times a day, and for life. On an ideological level, NILIF is not any different than the alpha pack dominance crap, except it is kinder – more humane. Instead of dishing out an unpleasant consequence to curb an unwanted behavior, it withholds something pleasant until a prompted action is obeyed.  And only a prompted behavior counts. Offered ones, even if desired, don’t, because responding when the dog makes the first move would put him in charge, and that is a no-no with pack leaders and some NILIFers. The latter, if they aim for companionship, typically don’t deprive the pooch of attention, but still ensure that he can’t ask for theirs, while they can demand his whenever they like. I have a problem with that.
Snubbing someone who attempts to talk to us is socially rude, including if it’s just the dog. It leaves the other confused and frustrated, and decreases his confidence in his social group members, and his own ability to communicate successfully. In addition and regarding our dogs, it rarely can be followed consistently. Think about it: if the human is supposed to call all the shots and ignore the dog’s requests, he should also not respond to “gotta go pee” barks or whines. Yet, I never met an owner who does that. Of course the person heeds to the dog’s “open the door” signals, because he doesn’t want a puddle on the rug. What does the dog learn? That politely soliciting for social contact is ignored, while barking gets him what he wants.
The micromanaging aspect of NILIF; the demanding that the dog must perform as told before he gains access to things he needs, including getting permission to live out intrinsic behaviors, causes stress - as it would in every being, and even more so in one who is innately self-governing. Albeit social, dogs in nature, even when they belong to a loose group, don’t have an overbearing alpha. They can walk and rest when they want, sniff and mark without restrictions, seek food and eat what they find. Many of our owned dogs are already anxious. That, not dominance, is the underlying cause of many problem behaviors. Adding more pressure is counterproductive.
And it’s not only the dog who is feeling the stress. NILIF can be difficult for owners as well. Recent clients of mine, guardians of two toy terriers, illustrated that perfectly. Their previous trainer advised the Nothing in Life is Free protocol to modify one of the dog’s fear reactivity toward strangers. Because nothing means exactly that, she recommended that the dogs’ social interactions with each other be structured as well, and permission for play and snuggle time only be granted after they performed obedience commands or tricks. My clients couldn’t stand the thought of segregating the very bonded pair all day while they are at work, and therefore didn’t follow through with that part, but also questioned other suggestions the trainer forwarded.
Above all, for me NILIF presents a moral conflict. When a person makes a conscious and deliberate decision to bring a dog into his life, it is his obligation to provide what the pooch needs to have good welfare. To turn this around, a dog, because of his absolute dependency once owned, has the right, albeit sadly not a legal one in most jurisdictions, to certain things for free: food, water, shelter and safety, a certain amount of physical and mental stimulation, and social inclusion, which includes being acknowledged when he communicates that he needs something. It is that foundation, provision and protection, that makes you important to your dog and sets the relationship in which he is willing to take his cues from you.
NILIF, in it’s worst form, is deprivation and abuse and falls in the same category as withholding food and social togetherness to get better performances. There was an agility trainer and competitor a few years ago in Alberta, where I used to live, who purchased littermate Australian shepherds he kept in separate crates and only released when they trained. Both dogs eventually faltered under pressure and did not perform to the owner’s expectations, and subsequently were surrendered to the local humane society in a complete socially inept state; just like some show dogs are who never learn or experience anything else but to stand pretty for the judge.

The thing is that the majority of dogs, including ones with behavioral problems, don’t need to be treated the NILIF way. Dogs inherently know that you belong to that fabulous, big-brained species who owns all the assets. They know that we have the anatomical tools to open the food can and car door, and yet many must jump through figurative hoops to receive 2 for 1 on-sale kibble, and some can't even enjoy that in peace because their person, so insecure about his status, removes the food a couple of times while they eat. Granted, taking a dog’s food away is not part of the NILIF practice, but I frequently meet owners who do it anyway.
I also periodically meet people who respectfully leave the room while the dog eats in fear of being attacked, and others who surrender the food even though boisterous Brutus impatiently bowls into them. That’s not it either. I am not suggesting to reinforce aggression or unruliness. No doubt, polite manners is what we want and no, don’t toss the treat when the pooch behaves badly, but understand that pushiness is not necessarily indicative of dominance. Perhaps the dog has never learned how to communicate appropriately with humans, or maybe he was ignored for prior subtle attempts to get attention. So, teach him to ask politely.
I am also not suggesting letting the dog run loose, giving him complete autonomy. That is not possible in our society, but we don’t have to warily ensure that we’re always the ones who begin an interaction. A dog can solicit, but should understand and heed your “later” signal, and accept when the interaction is over and not pester you further. That, too, can be taught.

Truth is that successful dog ownership is more fluid and dynamic than NILIF. The balance to aim for is giving the dog enough freedom and choice to prevent anxiety, and controlling the right resources at the right time to cement that humans indeed are the ones with opposable thumbs and bank accounts. It is nonsensical to make a NILIF, or alpha, point when something isn’t important to the dog at the moment, so pay attention in what context the pooch is misbehaving. If he impatiently tries to snatch the ball in your hand, making him perform 15 tricks for his kibble is silly, but waiting for a sit before you throw the ball is not. Would my clients’ little reactive terrier stopped barking at visitors just because her humans suddenly controlled social closeness with her buddy? I don’t think so.
I don't feel as strongly about NILIF as I do about pinning and shock collars, but I think it is categorically a bad idea. That said, I also concede that the rare pooch, the very confident and at the same time very unruly, determined and persistently obnoxious one, needs to learn that he lives with people and not the other way around, and in that case the Nothing in Life is Free concept is indeed a non-confrontational, acceptable and effective way to teach that lesson.
For every other dog though, understanding what is important to him at the moment, and making access to whatever that is contingent on behavior, is more effective.
Granted, it might take a little more effort to know your dog’s motivators than applying a blanket NILIF rule, but trust me, it’s worth it.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Puppies, Breeders, and Why I Stopped Writing Columns

Regarding dogs, two things I will never support: shock collars and commercial breeding operations.
The latter is the reason why, after three years or so of bi-weekly anchoring the Plymouth Review’s pet page, I quit yesterday. A reader alerted me to the fact that one of the advertisers, found on the same page as my columns, is a puppy-mill-type facility. The reader personally visited the Pretty Penny Kennel, but also forwarded me this visual – and don’t click on it if you can picture what a place run by someone whose primary, likely only, focus is to make many pretty pennies on the back of dogs, looks like.
Typically, I don’t publish disturbing footage of animal abuse. To the contrary, I blocked Facebook contacts in the past because they forwarded stuff that haunted, and rendered me useless, for the rest of the day, but in this context, I felt I needed to.
Just to be clear, Pretty Penny Kennels has been checked out by government officials and, to the best of my knowledge, the local SPCA, and was deemed to meet legal requirements, and that makes it legally impossible for the Review to deny advertising opportunities.
Well, Pretty Penny Kennel doesn’t meet my moral requirements, and it angers and saddens me to think that inadvertently, indirectly, I might have contributed to the dogs’ suffering. If just one person believed it to be a good place to shop since my articles were featured next to their ads – a reasonable enough possibility – then that, in my opinion sub-human, breeder and broker benefitted from me. What a disgusting irony. Well, not anymore. I quit.
Of course, anyone whose primary income is breeding and brokering dogs with no regard for their wellbeing would be out of business if people stopped getting their pups from them. Such commercial breeders are rather easy to spot.
The first clue is that they don’t investigate buyers. Obviously, they are not frank about their carelessness. Who in their right mind would even approach someone who advertises: “Sell my puppies to anyone who opens their wallet. No references or qualifications needed, because I don’t give a rat’s tail about the pup’s future living conditions, or your intent and capabilities. I just want your cash, and all the future problems I created with my greed and negligence are going to be your problems”.
They don’t advertise like that, but that is exactly what they do.
Commercial breeders often have a variety of breeds, many flavor-of-the-day ones, and always a steady  supply – and do advertise that: All colors - All sizes, is a hint.
The puppies are sold too young. The younger, the cuter, but there is another reason: Female dogs that are a commodity are bred as often as nature allows, and get the cheapest crap to eat that keeps them alive. Worn out and malnourished, mom-dog is not able to nurse her brood as long as she should, and puppies not taken care of by their dams are an inconvenience for unconscionable breeders.
The dogs and puppies live in filth, in tiny cages and kennels, often outside in every temperature, or stacked away in a barn. Some breeders and brokers conceal that and meet the buyer at a mall parking lot or on the side of the road, but others boldly broadcast it, and people get a pup anyway because they pity the pooch.
Commercial breeders don’t provide a contract, or if it is a lousy one guaranteeing neither temperament nor health.
Don’t think for a second that commercial breeders can’t be found in the show circuit. Particularly toy dogs, even if born to registered and titled parents, can come from large-scale operations that borderline mills. You might get a contract then, but everything else is the same – the living conditions, the lack of care, and the indifference placing the pup with the right owners.

Fortunately, reputable breeders are equally easy to spot. For starters, they are approachable at any point of the dog’s life, provide support and are willing, in fact insist, to take the pooch back, or help with rehoming, if the owner is unable to provide care any longer.
Reputable breeders have fewer dogs, and don’t always have puppies readily available. The interested person, provided he qualifies, is put on a waiting list. To qualify, he has to fill out a questionnaire, meet certain criteria and give references.
Reputable breeders provide opportunities to visit with mom-dog and sire if he is on the premises, and of course the puppies; will have the litter in the house, and gently handle and socialize; will vet-check and inoculate the puppies, and will not release them until they are 8-10 weeks old; will not force the female to mate by holding and muzzling her, and will not breed her more than once a year – at the most. The best breeders have the pups started on crate, house and leash training.

It is really not that difficult to separate the good from the bad, and one might expect that intelligent humans would choose the good ones. But there is a problem. Humans – some anyway, have empathy, and that makes puppy acquiring less of a brainy and more of an emotional endeavor. That includes rescue organizations, by the way. Millers and brokers who go under or are unable to sell their surplus  typically find some charitable group who picks up those dogs, painstakingly rehabilitates and then adopts them out. What else can they do? Turn their backs? Nobody who loves animals could do that. But the flipside is that the good news stories and photos of pauper dogs landing in paradise; the “all’s well that ends well” perception, is what sticks in Jane Public’s mind. I wonder what were to happen if, instead of happy endings, the public would be plastered with headlines like: “Joe Puppyseller (photo attached so that everyone can see what he looks like) of 195 Barklane Road, Wooftown USA/ Canada, busted. 45 dogs and 150 puppies destroyed. Although some were salvageable, we decided to kill them all, because we refuse to bail someone out who caused years of suffering to countless living and feeling beings.”
Yes, in theory every person should decide to shop only at reputable places. In reality, many will continue to save that one pup from its unscrupulous person. It is human nature, yet it perpetuates the problem because leaving the skinny pooch who lives in her own crap behind, thus denying the commercial breeder financial means, is the only way to stop such practices.
We surely can’t rely on our lawmakers to create change. Other countries have laws. In Sweden, for example and according to an article published in Bark Magazine Sept/Oct. 2009, a breeder is obligated to pay for all medical expenses for the first three years of a dog’s life. That would put an end to large-scale operations. To be fair, sometimes there are attempts in North America. For instance, Pennsylvania proposed regulations that would require anybody to leash walk each dog in their care for 20 minutes per day. That, too, would prevent millers and brokers from legally carrying on with their dirty trade. I don’t know what came of it though. My hunch is nothing, because in the land of the free and vocal focus groups, common-sense proposals rarely make it into law.
And we also can’t rely on printed media and for-profit online sites to promote animal welfare. They back up whoever has money, and provide the opportunities for commercial breeders to advertise their wares. So for now and likely some time to come, I fear that mega puppy-producing businesses will continue thrive, unabated and with impunity.

At least I did my part yesterday. I quit writing for the Plymouth Review. I, of course, won’t stop writing posts on this here, ad-free on purpose, blog site. Perhaps a few of my column readers I invited will join us. In the next few posts I’ll discuss NILIF, positive reinforcement, and barking and lunging on the leash. Stay tuned.
We did our part again when we chose an awesome, incredible, local breeder for our next puppy. Yeah, that’s right. It is a well-known secret around here that we are waiting for an Aussie baby, hopefully to be born in the fall. Not having a deadline isn’t such a bad thing when one has a pup. And right now it frees up diddling time I can spend in the backyard yelling names out loud to get a feel what rolls nicely off the tongue. The mom’s name is Denim, and our frontrunner, provided we’ll get a blue merle, is Indie – for Indigo, Denim’s Blue Wonder. But we are open for suggestions.