Tuesday 10 December 2013

NILIF - Nothing In Life Is Free

Nothing In Life Is Free, or NILIF is a phrase that according to Karen Overall was originally coined by veterinary behaviourist Victoria Voith, although Bill Campbell had a similar concept at around the same time. Since then various trainers and behaviourists have developed variations on the NILIF concept, which is still in broad use. Why it is still in use after all this time is because it is a valuable protocol, but perhaps is sometimes misunderstood as it seems harsh and regimental. This article describes NILIF and what it does.

The Protocol

The idea of NILIF is that whenever your dog wants something, they must perform a particular behaviour before you give it to them. Usually a sit or down is used because it is a stationary behaviour that is incompatible with things like jumping up, so you are setting your dog up to do a lot of polite sits. If your dog wants to go out, they should sit first. If they are to get food, their leash on for a walk, or their leash off at the dog park, sit first. If they want affection or attention, sit first. Before they get to do anything they enjoy or want to do they should sit. It does sound regimental, but think of it as the dog asking nicely, the way we teach our children to say 'please'. If the dog doesn't sit, you don't have to make them. Assume they don't want what is on offer after all and walk away. Try again in 10 seconds or so. If they still won't do it, walk away again and leave it at that. They will quickly learn to just do it the first time, and then they will start doing it before you even ask them to.

The degree to which you implement NILIF is up to you. Most people believe that some things in life should be free, like water, and shelter. Others believe things like affection and going out to toilet should also be free. Really it depends on the dog. If you have a dog that is very opportunistic and pushy, you may want to use stricter NILIF than if you have a dog that is laid back and mellow. If you have a dog that rarely seeks your attention you may want to give them attention for free to encourage them to seek it more often. This protocol is quite flexible. It can be Some Things In Life Are Free or Many Things In Life Are Free or Occasional Things In Life Are Free. Read through the next section on why it works to decide the level you want to use.

How NILIF Helps

NILIF can help with a broad range of problems, as it offers a dog several things.
1) Predictability - The dog knows when good things will happen and that they will be able to get them. This is particularly helpful for a nervous or soft dog, as predictability = security. It takes pressure off them as they don't have to guess what you want of them. For these dogs you may want to adjust how much is for free depending on how nervous they are. Very nervous dogs will probably really appreciate a strict structure because it takes all the guesswork out of their lives, but you may want to let them have things for free that they are cautious about seeking.

2) Control - NILIF also gives dogs a sense of control while simultaneously giving actual control to the humans. This is good for dogs because control makes dogs feel secure and confident. It is good for humans because the dog will not try to take what they want. Instead they will sit quietly to 'ask' for it, which means they will be reinforced for good, calm, controlled behaviour and will not get the opportunity to do things you don't want them to do, like snatching or jumping up. This benefits all dogs, but is particularly important for those whirlwind youngsters that can do six dismaying things in the time it takes you to think what to do about the first one.

3) Deference - NILIF teaches dogs to get into the habit of checking with you and giving you priority access to resources. In other words, they are content to let you decide who gets what when. This means they will be less likely to become aggressive if they don't get what they want, or if you try to make them do something. This helps dogs that tend to be controlling to relax and let the people take care of things.

4) Trust and Reliability - NILIF teaches dogs that they probably want to do what you ask them to do. Rather than thinking about whether they really want to come to you and sit right now, they tend to assume if you asked them it will probably turn out well for them if they do it. Great for dogs that are independent or stubborn.

5) Impulse Control - You can use NILIF to teach your dog to control their impulses once your dog knows the game well enough that they don't need to be told to sit anymore. All you do is wait for your dog to 'ask' for something by sitting. When you have something they want, wait quietly for them to think for themselves how to get it. A sit often works for them if you have used NILIF, so sooner or later they should decide to give it a go. This is excellent because if they were being impulsive they would jump around like a lunatic or try to snatch. Instead, they can think through the problem and control their urges to bounce and grab and instead do something calm and controlled. 

Baby Erik performs a down at the river to 'ask' for a treat. 

So that's NILIF in a nutshell. It's good practice for all dogs to ask nicely for some things, like their dinner and waiting to go out a door because it helps them stay calm at times when they may normally be very excitable. But a more extensive use of NILIF gives dogs structure and puts them in your control, and that can help with all kinds of problems. As a general rule of thumb, the more extreme a dog's behaviour regardless of what it is, the more they may benefit from NILIF. Just remember not to push the matter, as it may put you in direct confrontation with your dog, and that is exactly what NILIF is supposed to help you avoid. You're not making them listen to you, you are gently showing them how it benefits them to listen to you.

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