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.