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?