By providing problem-solving exercises every day, you give your dog the strength to restrain himself in situations where he otherwise would react.
By Laura Pakis, Certified Professional Trainer and Cynologist
Self-control in dogs is the ability to override the instinct to obtain a delayed reward. It is significant because it allows the dog to alter their behavior to follow the rules, maintain social bonds and cooperate with others. It is the foundation of good behavior and why so many dogs that don’t have it exhibit bad behaviors.
The importance of Mental Exercise
Letting a dog do whatever he wants whenever he wants turns him into an unruly mental mess. By providing problem-solving exercises every day, you give your dog the strength to restrain himself in situations where he otherwise would react.
Studies have shown when human beings make efforts to control themselves in one part of their lives—even simple ones like maintaining good posture, using proper grammar, or using a non-dominant hand to do simple exercises—their ability to exercise self-control in difficult situations increases in a measurable way. The same is true with dogs.
Research also shows that the mental processes involved in making choices use the same resources as those that control our self-control powers. Physical exercise has also been documented to improve high-level mental processes like those involved in exercising self-control.
Self-control is a dog’s tool to resist chasing a squirrel or stealing food, or even not pulling on the leash during walks. It stops unwanted behaviors and replaces them with good manners.
Does your dog get on the furniture and refuse to get off? Nudge your hand, insisting on being petted or played with? Refuse to come when called? Defend its food bowl or toys from you? “Nothing in life is free” can help. “Nothing in life is free” is not a magic pill that will solve a specific behavior problem; rather, it’s a way of living with your dog that will help it behave better because it trusts and accepts you as its leader and is confident knowing its place in your family.
One of the best exercises a dog owner can do is the program “Nothing in Life is Free” or NILIF. By following the owner’s thought process of being the leader or “one in charge” and implementing these tasks properly, we take away the dog’s opportunities to make choices, leaving more resources available for executing self-control. NILIF increases a dog’s ability to exercise self-control, allowing the dog owner to solve many behavior problems.
And research supports a combination of NILIF, obedience training, and physical exercise are the key to improving a dog’s ability to being well-mannered. And isn’t that what we all want? A well-mannered dog.
Why this technique works
Pack animals, like dogs, establish a social structure within the group called a dominance hierarchy. This serves to reduce conflict and promote cooperation among pack members. For your home to be a safe and happy place for those living there, the humans in the household should assume the highest positions in the dominance hierarchy.
How to practice NILIF
Practicing “Nothing in life is free” effectively communicates to your dog that its position in the household is secondary to yours. From your dog’s point of view, children also have a place in this order. Since children are small and can get down on the dog’s level to play, dogs often consider them to be playmates rather than superiors. Under the supervision of an adult, it’s a good idea to encourage children in the household (age eight+) to exercise “nothing in life is free” with your dog.
Here are a few suggestions:
Teach your dog a few commands, such as “WAIT,” “SETTLE,” “LEAVE IT,” “TAKE.”
Once your dog knows a few commands, you can begin to practice “nothing in life is free.” Before you give your dog anything (food, a treat, a walk, or even petting), it must first perform one of the commands it has learned.
YOU: Put your dog’s leash on to go for a walk
YOUR DOG: Must “WAIT” before going out the door
YOU: Feed your dog
YOUR DOG: Must “LEAVE IT” until you’ve put the bowl down; then “TAKE” when you want it to eat
YOU: Play a game of fetch
YOUR DOG: Must “WAIT” each time you throw the toy
YOU: Rub your dog’s belly while watching TV
YOUR DOG: Must “SETTLE” before being petted
Once you’ve given the command, please don’t give your dog what it wants until it does what you want. If it refuses to perform the command, walk away, come back a few minutes later, and start again. If your dog refuses to obey the command, be patient and remember that eventually, it will have to obey your command to get what it wants.
Make sure your dog knows the command well and understands what you want before you begin practicing “nothing in life is free.”
Most dogs assume a neutral or submissive role toward people, but some dogs will challenge their owners for dominance. Requiring a dominant dog to work for everything it wants is a safe and non-confrontational to establish control.
Dogs who may never display aggressive behavior such as growling, snarling, or snapping may still manage to manipulate you. These dogs may display affectionate, though “pushy” behavior, such as nudging your hand to be petted or “worming” its way onto the furniture to be close to you. This technique gently reminds the “pushy” dog that it must abide by your rules.
Obeying commands helps build a fearful dog’s confidence; having a strong leader and knowing its place in the hierarchy helps make the submissive dog feel more secure.
Why this Technique Works
Animals that live in groups, like dogs, establish a social structure within the group called a dominance hierarchy. This dominance hierarchy serves to maintain order, reduce conflict and promote cooperation among pack members. For your home to be a safe and happy place for pets and people, the humans in the household should assume the highest positions in the dominance hierarchy.
By raising your standards, enforcing rules, and setting boundaries with your dog, your dog will better understand what is expected of it and be much happier for it.
©2002. Adapted from material originally developed by applied animal behaviorists at the Dumb Friends League, Denver, Colorado. All rights reserved
About the author
Laura Pakis is an experienced Certified Professional Trainer and owner/founder of Acme Canine. Having trained thousands of dogs and run a boarding and daycare facility for over 15 years, Laura currently focuses her training knowledge and the care and understanding of dogs on Spike’s Dog Blog by Acme Canine.
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