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Dog Training: Nothing in Life is Free

The Humane Society of the United States

dog and man hugging


You're relaxing on the sofa reading the paper when your dog bumps your leg to get your attention. You ignore them so they plop their ball in your lap.

You ignore them again so, being a persistent pup, they stick their head under the newspaper, making it impossible for you to read that story about what your neighbor was caught doing. Exasperated, you toss the ball for your dog. Boy, have they got you trained!

Do you wish the roles were reversed?

If so, a training technique called "Nothing in Life is Free" may be just the solution you're looking for. "Nothing in Life is Free" isn't a magic pill that will solve a specific behavior problem. Instead, it's a way of living with your dog that will help them behave better because they trust and accepts you as their leader and is confident knowing their place in the family.

What is "Nothing in Life is Free"?

You have resources—food, treats, toys, and attention. Your dog wants those resources. Make them earn them. That's the basis of "Nothing in Life is Free." When your dog does what you want, they get rewarded with the thing they want.

You may also hear this aspect of training called "No Free Lunch" or "Say Please." Those are just other names for "Nothing in Life is Free."

How to practice "Nothing in Life is Free"

1. First, use positive reinforcement methods to teach your dog a few commands and/or tricks. "Sit," "Down," "Come," and "Stay" are useful commands. "Shake," "Speak," and "Roll over" are fun tricks to teach your dog.

2. Stop giving away resources. Do you mindlessly pet your dog for no reason? Stop. Your attention is a valuable resource to your dog. Don't give it away. Make them earn it.

3. Once your dog has mastered a few commands, you can begin to practice "Nothing In Life Is Free."

Before you give your dog anything (food, a treat, a walk, etc.) they must first perform one of the commands they have learned. For example:

  • In order for you to put your dog's leash on to go for a walk, they must sit until you've put the leash on.
  • When you feed your dog, they must sit and stay until you've put the bowl on the floor.
  • Play a game of fetch after work and make your dog sit and "shake hands" each time you throw the toy.
  • Rub your dog's belly while watching TV, but make them lie down and roll over before being petted.

4. Once you've given the command, don't give your dog what they want until they do what you want. If they refuse to perform the command, don't give in. Be patient and remember that eventually they will have to obey your command to get what they want.

5. Make sure your dog knows the command well and understands what you want before you begin practicing "Nothing in Life is Free."

The benefits of this technique

Requiring your dog to work for everything they want is a safe, positive, non-confrontational way to establish your leadership position.

Even if your dog never displays aggressive behavior such as growling, snarling, or snapping, they can still manipulate you. They may be affectionate to the point of being "pushy," such as nudging your hand to be petted or "worming" their way onto the furniture to be close to you. This technique gently reminds the dog that they must abide by your rules.

Fearful dogs may become more confident by obeying commands. As they succeed in learning more tricks, their continued success will increase confidence and ultimately lead them to feeling more comfortable and less stressed.

Why this technique works

Dogs want good stuff. If the only way to get it is to do what you ask, they'll do it.

Good leadership encourages good behavior by providing the guidance and boundaries dogs need.

Practicing "Nothing in Life is Free" gently and effectively communicates to your dog that you are the leader because you control all the resources.

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