Nothing in Life is Free

There’s a common practice in dog training that involves controlling all of a dog’s valuable resources—food, toys, play—so that anything the dog really wants he must earn. This is known as NILIF (Nothing in Life is Free) or NILFF (Nothing in Life for Free), “closing the economy” or deprivation training. To some extent these techniques work well for force-free training, but it is important to practice deprivation correctly, humanely, and always support it with positive reinforcement.

Crate training is a good example of deprivation. When unsupervised, the puppy must be in the crate to avoid potty accidents or inappropriate behavior such as chewing on furniture. The puppy is then rewarded for the behavior we want, such as relieving himself outside and settling on his mat with a dog toy for chewing. Depriving the puppy of free-roaming, all-access to the house benefits both human and dog because the puppy has a better chance of learning what is expected of him in his environment (he doesn’t have to guess!), and his owner is not worried about what the puppy is doing when out of sight. As long as the puppy is taught to enjoy his crate, given sufficient potty breaks, and allowed socialization and playtime, this form of deprivation is helpful rather than harmful.

Closing the economy on food can also assist with motivation in training. This does not mean you should withhold food and starve your dog into submission and obedience. Dogs must eat, however the concept of feeding a dog only out of a bowl twice a day might not be the best idea for serious training or behavior adjustment. If a dog struggles on walks, consider carrying a good portion of his regular breakfast or special food rewards along with you and feed it to him for good behavior. This should be considered part of his regular diet, not extra calories. Use meal times as training times and teach your dog to stay, do a trick, or come when called using his kibble. If your dog has tons of extra energy to burn, feed him out of a work-to-eat toy or puzzle instead of a bowl. As writer and dog trainer Denise Fenzi states, this application of NILFF should be more about HOW a dog eats rather than WHETHER a dog eats.

I employ NILFF for dogs with impulse control issues, teaching them that access to toys, the outside, other dogs or attention from people depends on their ability to sit or wait and keep all four paws on the floor. I also use a closed economy of food for dogs that are “not food motivated” or leash reactive, using the high-value food rewards to build positive associations with triggers like other dogs or strangers. Deprivation, to be successful, is not used as punishment, but rather a tool to make rewards more salient and desirable for the dog.