Nothing in Life is Free has been a centerpiece of dog training since long before I first picked up a leash – but I’ve recently dropped it in favor of SMART x 50 as one of my favorite dog training games. Nothing in Life is Free requires a dog to “sit to say please” or otherwise do your bidding before you bestow any affection, food, or adventure upon your dog. At its extreme, Nothing in Life is Free means that a dog spends much of his time in a crate, earning his water and freedom with obedience.
Is that how I told my clients to practice Nothing in Life is Free? Absolutely not! When I told clients to implement Nothing in Life is Free, I generally expected them to ask their dogs to sit at doorways and stand still while their owners clipped on their harnesses. That’s reasonable: it makes your life easier, and it keeps your dog safe.
But teaching your dog to sit at doorways, greet strangers politely, and stand still for basic grooming is a far cry from traditional Nothing in Life is Free.
It’s unreasonable and unfair to expect people to require that their dogs sit before receiving any affection at all! I don’t know anyone with a dog who wants to force their dogs to obey a command before showing any affection. That’s just not how relationships should work. Most of us love loving our dogs!
If you’re struggling with a dog who jumps on guests, check out our e-book on teaching polite greeting behaviors instead!
Granted, teaching manners is an absolute must for many dogs. My "niche" as a trainer has long been working with challenging dogs that certainly need some serious training. I am not advocating a free-for-all for our dogs. I'm simply echoing the sentiment of Kathy Sdao in her amazing book, Plenty in Life is Free: there is a better way.
Here's what's wrong with Nothing in Life is Free:
- Sheer difficulty. It's almost impossible to achieve. Who hasn't tried to implement Nothing in Life is Free, only to realize with a surge of guilt that they accidentally just petted their dog without asking the dog to sit first?
- Nothing in Life is Free is simple, but not easy. It's an easy-to-remember framework that's almost impossible to pull off.
- Potential to make things worse. If you can't get everyone on board with Nothing in Life is Free (or you yourself can't be consistent), you set up an intermittent reinforcement schedule (think gambling). You can actually end up with a dog that's pushier and more skilled at "gaming the system" if you rely on Nothing in Life is Free.
- Restrictive. It's so restrictive that it borders on changing positive reinforcement to negative reinforcement. Bear with me here: but if you are starved for food, water, freedom, or affection, getting relief from your desire falls more in the camp of negative reinforcement than positive reinforcement (Murray Sidman breaks this down beautifully in Coercion and its Fallout). In other words, Nothing in Life is Free doesn't really fall nicely into the "positive reinforcement" world.
- This is also restrictive for you, the person. If I'm feeling love-y with my dog, I don't want to ask him to sit before I give him a butt scratch. I like that he feels comfortable enough to hop on the couch and sit with me. Nothing in Life is Free takes away from my relationship and my happiness, too!
- Based on hierarchies. Implicitly or explicitly, Nothing in Life is Free suggests that humans are on top and dogs must obey to earn things. The human must control all the resources, and the dogs must earn the right to them. This sure sounds a lot like the big bad wolf of dominance and pack theory, does it not?
- Is that what most trainers have in mind when they tell clients about Nothing in Life is Free? Probably not - but the overtones/undertones of dominance/pack theory are important to consider.
Kathy outlines several more reasons she dislikes Nothing in Life is Free, but you should really just read her book to learn all about that.
Pro tip: I downloaded the e-book version and read it on my phone instead of checking Facebook. I finished its 100 pages in about 4 days.
If I'm Not Using Nothing in Life is Free, How Do I Teach Basic Manners?
This is where SMART x 50 comes in. SMART stands for See, Mark, And Reward Training. The x 50 means that you do it 50 times per day.
WOAH - a training method that requires 50 repetitions per day?
Yeah, but don't worry. It's super easy.
Here's how you can implement SMART x 50:
- Set a goal. Pick out two or three behaviors you'd like to see more of from your dog. These can be useful or cute. Many people start with lying calmly at your feet and looking up at you during walks. You can also pick the "least bad" behaviors that your dog has. Be sure to pick something that your dog does pretty regularly at first.
- Prepare the treats. Count out 50 pieces of kibble. If your dog isn't all that into food, count out 50 tasty treats (they should be smaller than a kernel of corn) and reduce his breakfast rations accordingly.
- As you get more skilled with SMART x 50, you can also incorporate "real life" rewards. For example, if I notice Barley politely playing with his toy by himself rather than pestering me with the toy, I'll ask if he wants to play fetch. His response? "I thought you'd never ask!" You can similarly reward your dog for lying at your feet with some petting or affection - you can move away from food rewards if you pay attention to what your dog likes.
- Set the stage. Set the treats somewhere central and easy to access.
- Pay attention to your dog. Any time you "catch your dog being good," (See) say "yes" or "good boy" (Mark), and then Reward your dog.
- Rinse and repeat. You'll quickly start noticing that your dog is deciding to do things that you like - without any input from you. This is the ultimate joy of good dog training: dogs that can make good decisions without your prompting.
It's pretty easy, really. I love SMART x 50 because your dog initiates the training session by doing something awesome. This is vastly different from the human prompting the dog to do something, then refusing to reward the dog until the dog complies. SMART x 50 gives your dog some agency and control over his life - and you get to reward his awesome decisions.
Does this mean that I don't ask dogs to sit at doorways or stand still while I clip on their harness? No! Does it mean I'll feed a dog if he's jumping all over me? Nope!
SMART x 50 doesn't mean you can't give your dogs cues - it just means that you're allowed to give affection and basic care away for free. If a dog is behaving poorly, I won't put his food bowl down at that moment. But rather than starving him, I'll reward his "least unpleasant" behavior and shape him to be polite around food.
SMART x 50 is particularly great for dogs that:
- Have short attention spans.
- Get easily frustrated in training.
- Live with busy people who don't have time for a full training session.
- Don't have many "skills" yet - your dog doesn't need to know how to obey any cues for this to work!
- Have lots of bad behaviors - SMART x 50 helps you see the good in your dog.
- Live with more than one person. SMART x 50 avoids the confusion of poorly-implemented Nothing in Life is Free.
In short, SMART x 50 is a far kinder, easier, and more sustainable way to teach your dog manners. You can easily get the same (or better) results with SMART x 50 than with Nothing in Life is Free - and you avoid all of the potential fallout.
Kayla is from Ashland, Wisconsin but lives in Missoula Montana. She holds a degree in biology from Colorado College and has spent years working in zoos, animal shelters, and as a private dog trainer. When not working on Journey Dog Training, Kayla works at Working Dogs for Conservation. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. She shares her life with her border collie Barley.