Should You Use “Nothing in Life Is Free” with Your Dog?

Learn how to use not only treats but any everyday interaction to teach your dog good manners.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
6-minute read
Episode #52

Trainers and behavior specialists often advise clients to put their dogs on a “Nothing in Life Is Free” program--NILIF, for short. A dog on NILIF gets nothing--not attention, not food, not walks--without earning it either during a formal training session or by responding to a cue such as “Sit” or “Down.” No collecting ear scritches just by resting that big doggy head on your thigh while you’re trying to write your next article. It sounds so grim—and yet it really shouldn’t be. This week, the hows and whys of “Nothing in Life Is Free.”

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Should You Use “Nothing in Life is Free” with Your Dog?

Framed in the usual way, NILIF makes many dog guardians cringe. It makes me cringe, too. “Nothing in life is free” sounds as if the whole point of the enterprise is to turn your doggy household into an outpost of some cult that bars dancing and hot chocolate. Actually, taken in the right spirit NILIF functions as a teaching program based on reciprocity and exchange. My friend and mentor Pat Miller calls it “Say Please”; other dog-friendly trainers use “Learn to Earn.” And as far as I’m concerned, most dogs should get all the ear scritches they want for free. I’ll describe the exception later on.

Teach Your Dog to Get What She Wants by Giving You What You Want

The big insight behind a “Say Please” program is that we, our dogs’ people, hold the key to pretty much everything a dog wants in life--walks, attention, tasty treats, a game of tug. When we use rewards to train we’re applying that principle. A “Say Please” program takes it further, by structuring daily interactions so that, as often as possible, Dogalini gets what she wants in exchange for doing something you want. The more of these informative and rewarding interactions Dogalini has, the stronger her good habits will become.

How to Use NILIF/“Say Please” Throughout the Day

Here are some examples of how “Say Please” might work in daily life.

If it’s time to go for a walk, then instead of letting Dogalini do whatever while you put on your shoes and attach her leash, you ask her to sit and stay. Here the reward is ongoing--as she holds her sit-stay, walk time gets closer and closer. If she breaks her sit, you interrupt your prep for going out. Once she holds the sit long enough for you to leash her, you could ask her to do a trick, then open the door to reward her for complying. As you walk, you say “Yes!” and deliver a small treat every few paces as long as Dogalini stays more or less by your side. And you reward her for keeping plenty of slack in the leash by offering her frequent chances to go sniff.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).