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Have you heard of the “No Free Lunch” training method for dogs? The NFL method isn’t necessarily a new idea, but it’s a new way to think about a training method that has been very popular among trainers for years. If you’ve been around the blog for any length of time, you’ll know I’m a fan of clicker training, positive reinforcement, and similar training methods. One thing I’m not a fan of is dominance training or teaching your dog that you are the “alpha”. How does the NFL method stack up? Here’s what you need to know.
Last update on 2018-11-18 at 13:15 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
The No Free Lunch method, also called the “Learn to Earn” method or the “Nothing in Life is Free” method, is essentially just a rewards-based training method. The idea is that you reward good behavior, and ignore bad behavior. There is no punishment involved. There are multiple studies that have proven that punishment does not work with dogs. However, we do know that positive reinforcement of desired behaviors works like a charm for dogs, which is why rewards-based training works.
What makes the NFL method special? Well, it’s mostly because those who use it advocate for making dogs earn their meal. That is NOT to say that they starve their dogs if they don’t get their commands right. Their dogs will get their full meal regardless. But every meal time is training time, and the dog will be given some commands to perform before being fed. The faster they perform correctly, the faster they earn their lunch. It’s a good way to put routine training into your day.
Whether you realize it or not, you are training your dog. Even if you aren’t “training” him, you’re still teaching him how to act based on your reactions to his behavior. Dogs are smart, and the way they learn is by observing cause and effect. If they jump on you, and you touch them, this makes them happy. So they will jump on you again to get your attention again, to feel happy again. This soon becomes a habit.
Likewise, if they are bored, and you only pay attention to them when they’ve torn something up, guess what they just learned? Tear something up, get attention! Dogs are being trained constantly by the way that we act. So it’s pretty important to react in ways that encourage your dog to repeat the behaviors you want. If you use the NFL program to reward your dog with food or treats for good behaviors, she’ll quickly learn to repeat those behaviors.
So now let’s talk about how this method actually works, and some tips for using it with your dog.
These seven tips will help you use this training method with pretty awesome results. If you’ve ever wished that your dog was like the well-behaved dogs you see on TV, you may find that this training program is the answer you’ve been looking for.
One of the first things people ask is how they can keep their dog from gaining too much weight with a training program that requires constant feeding. One way is to perform the training sessions right before meal time and use part of their meal as the reward. Another is to simply keep a small amount of their daily meal set aside to use throughout the day, and feed them the rest at the end of the day if they haven’t yet earned it. You can also search for low-calorie treats, or even make your own. Completely plain cooked chicken bits, or pieces of vegetables, are great options for DIY training treats. I’ve even known some dogs that will perform for ice chips – just be careful that the chips are small enoughso the dog isn’t going to choke. You’ll see in a later tip that you don’t have to commit to rewarding your dog with treats forever, so don’t think this is a long-term concern. The training method does involve weaning your dog off food rewards if you wish.
The next thing tip for using the NFL method with your dog is to always have food on you – always! Keep small baggies of kibble stashed around the house, in the car, with the leashes, in your bag, wherever. Make sure you can always grab a treat nearby because you’ll want to reward good behavior when you see it. The trick with the NFL method is to teach your dog to earn what they want. So if they want attention, don’t give in and pet them when they beg you and jump around. Wait for them to calmly sit at your command, reward them for this, and then offer the attention they craved. In the early days of using this training method, the extra reward of food will drive home that the polite behavior is extra, extra desirable. You’ll want to be able to do this anytime your dog needs or wants something from you, which is why having food on you everywhere is such a good idea.
If your dog is trying to get something from you, it’s important that you don’t engage with them till they are calm. Here’s where you’ll really need to focus for the first few weeks with this training program. The key is to get your dog to exhibit calm, polite behavior. If they start to jump, get excited, beg by whining or running around, or doing anything other than sitting calmly and waiting for you, they aren’t cooperating. You shouldn’t punish them – just ignore them. Dogs are motivated by your attention and food. If they aren’t getting either, they’ll get bored and try something else. At the very least, they’ll learn that this behavior won’t get them anything in the future. So be sure that you’ve ignored anything other than sitting quietly before you hand out a treat! While you don’t want to ignore your dog entirely throughout the whole day, don’t give him attention during training time specifically if he’s acting in a way that isn’t the picture of model behavior.
The NFL method relies on the basic command of “Sit” for everything. The reason the program uses this command is that it’s an easy thing for a dog to master, and it’s a great place to start building more complex commands. The goal is to teach your dog how you want them to follow commands (calmly, quickly, without fail), not the command itself. So the program has you start with something that most dogs already know. This is the first thing your dog would learn in a puppy kindergarten, so start him with this command for the NFL program as well. When your dog wants something (a meal, to play, a walk, anything), command him to sit. When he does so calmly and quickly, reward him and give him whatever it was that he wanted. Use this process any time you interact with your dog. Again, this isn’t an excuse to withhold walks or attention – just don’t add the extra incentive of the treat if they don’t cooperate.
Once you’re getting on okay with the process so far, you’ll probably want to start weaning your dog away from the treat rewards. Before you can do that, you need to teach your dog to associate the treat with some specific phrases. For example, when your dog follows the Sit command perfectly, calmly, and quickly, give him the treat and say something you wouldn’t say for other situations. Instead of “Good job”, which you may say all the time, try “Well done”. If they don’t do the command quickly and calmly, try something like “Next time”. This phrase shouldn’t be angry, just an audible cue to let them know that they missed out. You can eventually start using the rewarding phrase in place of a treat as time goes on. You can also use these phrases to help make the training moments stand out for your dog, who again, is learning all the time.
Now that you’ve got an audible cue you can start using in place of treats, you can start backing off on rewarding your dog for every little instance of good behavior. When you first start with this method, the key is to be on top of your dog all the time, rewarding every time they follow a command or behave in a way that “earns” food (something you want them to do, like not jumping on a visitor). But as time goes on, and they are comfortable being on their best behavior, you can save the treats for times when they really needed to focus. This includes specific training times with you, as well as in places where it was harder for them to be good (such as at the dog park, or if they got loose off their leash and came straight to you instead of running off). Make the rewards special for instances like these, and just give your dog audible praise and petting when they act right otherwise.
Finally, the NFL method transitions you and your dog to treating other things as rewards. The goal is to teach your dog that if they act correctly, they get your time and attention. So if they are able to sit nicely while you get the leash and your shoes, they get a great walk. If they are able to wait to be introduced to other dogs at the park, instead of barging towards them, they get to play. If they wait to be told they can get on the bed, they get to get on the bed. And so on. So as you are weaning your dog off the constant treats, you can start using praise and other “treats” (getting on the bed, extra long walks) as rewards. Trust me, your dog is totally smart enough to understand what’s going on. He’ll pick it up fast once he’s learned that he has to earn rewards through this training program.
The No Free Lunch method isn’t meant to be a punishment for your dog. You aren’t trying to suck the fun out of him by making him sit instead of jump. You’re just teaching him that if he wants something, he can control his behavior in order to get it. This is actually an empowering thing for your dog because he will learn that he can count on you to follow through with something he wants if he does a certain thing (sit calmly, for example). This can be a huge help for anxious dogs, dogs that were previously abused, and dogs that are just naturally skittish or shy. They’ll come to trust you much faster through this process.
Last update on 2018-11-18 at 13:15 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
We’ve talked about a lot of training methods on this blog, but I have to say that this one seems to be the most sensible of them all. It uses the way a dog learns, combines it with a very easy thing for humans to remember (tell him to sit, then treat him if he does), and that’s basically it. I’m impressed with how easy it is for us, and I’ve heard great things about the results. Next time I have a dog to train on my hands, I’ll be giving this method a try.