What is NILIF?
In Dog Training, the acronym NILIF stands for Nothing In Life Is Free. This refers to the school of thought that a dog never is given attention or anything else they consider valuable without first offering something in return. NILIF stays away from the proven incorrect ‘Alpha Dog’ train of thought and focuses almost entirely on Positive Reinforcement. You may believe that NILIF means a dog cannot receive attention outside of training, but that is not correct. This article will go over the correct ways to implement NILIF, what to stay away from, and the pros and cons of the training style.
Many dog trainers, unfortunately, associate NILIF with the ‘Pack Order’ mentality. Other trainers see it as a bar on fun, not allowing your dog to be a dog. NILIF training can be very fun and rewarding, but it does require a fair bit of consistency and discipline from both you and your dog. If you want to see if this training style is for you, keep reading.
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How to Begin NILIF
To begin NILIF does require a bit of basic training to already begun. A brand new puppy or a dog in a new environment won’t understand what’s being done without already having a few basic cues down. Sit and Come should be understood and performed with a fair bit of consistency to begin any sort of training using NILIF. The more cues the dog already understands, the better NILIF will proceed. NILIF should be considered a style of training, not a full replacement of all training methods. You should teach your dog as many cues as possible for NILIF to be the most effective. Being able to ask for different cues in different situations will give you much more control over how your dog interacts with its environment.
The basic idea of NILIF is that when your dog approaches you, they are not given your attention immediately. The dog must ask your permission before getting your attention. A dog asks for permission most commonly by sitting. If you are approached, and your dog noses at you, barks, jumps, or does anything except the cue that you want, they get nothing from you. You do not push them away or tell them no. Even giving your dog eye contact is attention. When your dog moves to a neutral behavior, such as standing, you can then ask it to Sit. Once your dog Sits, they are given the reward of attention.
You may have a dog that attempts to get your attention incorrectly. A dog might jump on your side as you are greeting it, or try to put their head up on the table during a meal. Some dogs may even attempt to take something from you so that you will chase them around, playing their favorite game of ‘My person yells and chases me under the table.’ NILIF is there to replace that jump with Sit, or that head on the table with a Down.
Why NILIF Works
The reason this works is simple – dogs will almost always go for what they consider to be the highest value object around them. Your dog will find the highest value object, and begin to interact with it. If you are the highest value thing around them, they’ll do what they know will get your attention first. When barking has always gotten your attention, why try anything else? They would rather have you tell them to stop barking than getting no attention at all, so they will take the negative attention that the bark gets. While it can be difficult to ignore your dog at first, they will realize that they are not getting anything for the behavior. Your dog will stop doing behaviors that get no attention. Always remember, it is easier to replace a behavior with a new one, than it is to get rid of a behavior. A dog needs an option in every situation, and without an option given to them, they’ll pick whatever they like.
Eventually, once your dog understands that a good choice gets them attention, and a bad choice gets them nothing, they will want to pick the good choice every time. You will notice them sitting immediately for attention, waiting as you open a door or put their leash on, behaving during grooming sessions, and much more. NILIF takes this a step further, and applies it to all aspect of the dog’s life. They do not go outside to go to the bathroom or for a walk without a Sit or a Shake. They do not get food until they do a Stay while you put their bowl down. The dog learns to ask permission for things they want, and learns to focus on you for what that permission needs to be.
NILIF also applies to things like potty training. When your dog gives you the correct behavior, such as going to the bathroom on a pad or on the grass, they are given the attention they want. This can be verbal praise, petting, or a treat, depending on what the dog prefers the most. Even if they are not directly asking for attention, a good behavior still gets that reward they want. The more you enjoy the training, the more the dog will as well. You can see Audie, the Australian Shepard, sitting politely to go outside instead of barking or jumping.
How to Keep NILIF Going
The biggest key for all of this, of course, is consistency. A single person giving a dog incorrect feedback is all that it takes to regress a dog’s training. Luckily, it is easy to know who may be giving the dog improper attention, as the dog knows who allows what actions. You may have seen or heard someone telling their trainer, “He listens here, but never at home!” This is usually because the training environment has stayed consistent, while the at-home environment is lacking. The dog knows that the trainer does not allow and does not acknowledge jumping or barking, but that the someone at home does. While this is sometimes mistaken as a dog considering itself ‘Alpha’, this is not the case. The dog knows what it can do where, and acts accordingly. Consider the dog to be like a child who knows their grandparents let them eat candy before dinner, so they go to their grandparents to ask for that candy.
The Positives of NILIF
There are a ton of reasons that NILIF works well. It is very easy to get your dog started on it at any age, from the puppy stage to the senior stage. Even older or stubborn dogs learn well from this style, and it is proven to work with disabled dogs who may bark or jump more often. NILIF is also all positive, so there is never a time that a dog may associate any negatives during the training. NILIF is a proven method that combines with every other method of Positive Reinforcement.
The investment that it takes to begin NILIF is small. Consistency, your attention, and a handful of treats are all you need. You will be amazed to see your dog suddenly sitting when they would jump, and greeting people with a Shake rather than a tackle. NILIF works wonders on any minor behavior issue.
The other biggest positive is that NILIF is easy to maintain. All you have to do is follow a set of rules and watch your dog follow the same rules. Watching your dog learn these rules and follow them is a reward for you, and getting attention is a reward for them. Because it is so simple to follow, both you and your dog will find yourselves following the rules set without even thinking about it.
The Cons of NILIF
While NILIF does have many positives, cons do exist. Ignoring a destructed behavior like chewing furniture or barking outside cannot be solved without additional training methods, as those behaviors are self-rewarding. Redirection is required for these behaviors, or other cues such as Leave It must be used. You should make sure you are giving your dog full training lessons for cues meant to redirect them back to you. NILIF does not work for severe behavioral issues, either. Aggression and resource guarding are not an easy fix, and speaking to a professional dog trainer is important for any issues that could cause your dog or others to be hurt. As you can see below if Leo the Border Collie was just ignored, he would freely take the food off the counter.
Another con is that many trainers see it as a negative training style. The ‘Say Please’ style is one often preferred, as it takes the idea of NILIF and adds more positivity to it, as well as more direct engagement with your dog. It has also been related with certain actions like the ‘Alpha Roll’, an outdated method that has been proven to both be damaging to the dog, but extremely dangerous for the owner as well.
The other thing to keep an eye out for is called Extinction Burst. Extinction Burst is a phenomenon seen in dogs who are about to stop showing a behavior that has been ignored. Imagine if your dog walks up to you, sits down, and gets petted almost every time because you have been using NILIF. Suddenly, one day, they begin to jump again, and even more than before. If you notice your dog is doing well, and suddenly they seem to have regressed, that is an Extinction Burst. Your dog is trying one last time to force that bad behavior to work, and it is a sign that the bad behavior is almost gone. Once you push through that last bit of jumping, that bad behavior should be gone. It’s extremely important to not allow the action to succeed again, or you’ll be back at square one.
Enjoying a Well Trained Dog
The idea of NILIF is a simple one – rewards and attention come when the proper behavior is shown. No attention is given when an incorrect action is shown. Following those two rules will result in a happy, well-trained dog. Just remember, these are only guidelines! Nothing beats working with a Positive Reinforcement Dog Trainer. When you look for a dog trainer to help you and your dog along a happier path, make sure they only use Positive Reinforcement. Shock collars, prong collars, or Alpha Rolls all are damaging and cruel, so stay away from trainers who swear by them. Remember, training a dog is an investment. It may take some time, but the end result is always worth it. It is ultimately up to you to decide whether or not this training style is right for you.