Book Review: Plenty in Life is Free

Book Cover

Plenty in Life Is Free: Reflections on Dogs, Training and Finding Grace, Kathy Sdao

This isn’t the easiest book to review, because I am the choir to whom Kathy Sdao is preaching.

Plenty in Life is Free is a response to the training program commonly called “Nothing in Life is Free,” or NILIF. NILIF argues that the dog should get nothing from you–affection, attention, food, play–without it being on your terms. Dogs should ask politely for everything by performing a behavior you like, such as sitting, before you give them anything they want. Sdao argues, and I agree, that NILIF is just the positive version of dominance-based training. It trades in the active aggression of alpha-rolls for the passive-aggression of constant denial. She goes on to claim that it is both unethical and bad training to make the bare necessities of a dog’s life contingent upon a behavior plan. Every dog should get at least some affection, some food, some play, and some freedom without having to perform for it.

The problem I had with this book is that NILIF she argues against most persuasively is something of a straw man. In one of her examples, an owner tells her that “free access to water is the first step in having a dominant dog.” Many of Sdao’s arguments position themselves against that level of training. In real life, I have never heard anyone who suggested a NILIF program and really, truly, meant nothing. Instead, they’re using a handy training title to suggest things that are, in fact, reasonable lifestyle parameters. Asking your dog to sit before you put down the dinner bowl means that you don’t get knocked on your rear by an enthusiastic eater. A down before you play ball keeps the dog from jumping all over you trying to catch the ball before you throw it. And so on. These behaviors are so reasonable that Sdao herself both believes in and recommends them.

In my experience, most people who say NILIF mean something more like “I use some lifestyle opportunities to train my dog.” Not “I never pet my dog when he asks, because that’s giving in to dominance.” Maybe I just haven’t been around as many uptight dog owners as Sdao has. A more extensive refutation of the dominance-based training pattern that produces hard-line NILIF might have made more sense for me.

On the other hand, I really loved Sdao’s contention that positive training can bring with it a lot of baggage from its predecessors that trainers often don’t examine. Compulsion is compulsion, whether it comes with a cookie or a pinch, and it’s worth thinking about whether the behavior you want is worth that ethical price. (My personal take: in addition to the fact that some behaviors are worth a fairly high price, I would also suggest that some–maybe most–dogs legitimately enjoy their positive training. Silas thinks a good round of “touch your nose to my hand” is a top-5 contender for coolest game ever.)

I also enjoyed Sdao’s proposed alternative to both NILIF and traditional request-receive-reward training. Sdao outlines a brief, but workable, practical, and interesting, system based on letting the dog choose behaviors. I loved how this dovetailed with my reading of Suzanne Clothier’s book. Clothier voices (much more expansively) a similar ethical hesitance about dog training, but left me a little frustrated because she was never willing to look closely at the “brass tacks” of her training philosophy.

I was never personally tempted by NILIF-style training, for the easy reason that it never made sense for Silas’s particular problems. I’m not sure what a pushy, bossy dog looks like, exactly, but Silas is not one. Have you all had any experiences (good or bad) with NILIF? This book is fairly new–have any of you read it?

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5 thoughts on “Book Review: Plenty in Life is Free

  1. I haven’t read this book but NILIF helps us with 2 of our dogs. Maggie is a bossy gal and benefits from being asked to sit for whatever it is she wants. Hurley just went through his teenager behavioral period and using NILIF helped get him to a point where he was listening to us better. I think the confusion over NILIF (which I used to have for sure) was that it doesn’t mean you don’t give attention, food, toys, treats, etc. It just means that you ask your dog to ask nicely for those items by sitting. NILIF also shouldn’t be used indefinitely (in my opinion) and I think it absolutely ridiculous to restrict water. I’ve never seen it as a dominance thing but rather a learning polite behavior thing. I have had both positive reinforcement trainers and dominance-based trainers recommend this program. They each spin it to fit their training philosophies; my personal philosophy is that 99.9% of dominance-based training is bull. My dogs aren’t trying to dominate me. And I’m not trying to dominate them by asking them to sit and ask for what they want. It’s just polite behavior.

    I find my dogs really enjoy the asking nicely/get rewarded aspect of it. They would all prefer for me to hand them a toy and play a little fetch or tug rather than that toy just sitting in their toy basket for whenever they want to play with it. And they receive just as much play time, toys, treats, etc as they do when we’re not consciously asking for a sit before giving those items to them. In fact, they usually get more during those times because I’m actively working on training, which always means more treats.

    Now with Sadie, we’ve never seen any need to use NILIF to help her behavioral issues. Asking nicely is a cornerstone of her personality and always has been. She’s not bossy, always listens to me and, with a history of fear issues, the goal with her was always to encourage her to be more confident about the world. NILIF just didn’t fit what she needed training-wise.

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    1. You’re absolutely highlighting what I saw as the weirdness of the book–most people are rational beings, using rational limits. It’s absolutely a fact that whatever the dog wants at any given moment is your most powerful reinforcer for learning. Most of us are capable of using that in a benevolent way that fits the needs of our individual dogs. I don’t ask Silas to sit before he eats, because he lies on the sofa and waits for me to call him, or to sit before I pet him, because he isn’t much on an attention seeker. Having him sit before I throw his ball, and a few times while we play, is a total game changer. It reminds him to listen to me while we play, which is essential to helping him stop playing before he gets too excited.

      I thought it was a more interesting argument, that got much less space in the book, that NILIF very rarely solves the problems it’s touted as solving–aggressive dogs are often put on NILIF as a substitute for treating the real problem, for instance. NILIF as a panacea is a training myth well worth refuting.

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  2. This book is new to me but I’m definitely interested. I too have come across some pretty dogmatic NILIF trainers so I understand where the author is coming from.

    I agree that allowing dogs safe places to make choices is ideal. In fact, today I reviewed the book Following Atticus about a man who hikes in NH’s White Mountains with his mini Schnauzer. He never “trained” his dog but brought him everywhere with him, giving Atticus many chances for socialization and bonding.

    I don’t know if every dog would thrive in the life depicted in the book. But I suspect most could benefit from a bit more freedom.

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  3. Unfortunately i do live in a household with exactly one of the people that believe in strict adherance to the NILIF rules/guidelines so believe me they are out there, probably more than we see. No affection toward the dog unless the dog performs first…It will not go out unless i say it is time and then it must do something for me first etc. I see this completely breaking the spirit of a previously loving and happy puppy. why? The only explanation i can come up with is plain old fear. This person has bought into the idea that any large breed dog is an agressive dog and needs to be under complete control and know that it is only allowed to have the necessities of life due to this persons “good will” so I am definitely an enemy of NILIF and an advocate for PILIF

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