Deer Run Animal Hospital

308 E. US Hwy 30
Schererville, IN 46375



Creative Commons Photo by Jonathan Deamer

Also Known as
(This program is successful when dogs discover they "Love to Earn" and realize this approach is fun!)



Veterinarian and Behaviorist, Dr. Ian Dunbar explains the premise:

 "You don't train a dog in a training hall, jerking his neck or even giving him food treats. You train him using life rewards. You ask him to sit and you let him come up on the couch. You ask him to sit and you pet him or give him a tummy scratch.You ask him to sit, you throw a tennis ball. You ask him to sit and you let him get in the car. Before you know it, when you say "Sit" the dog says "Good call. I love it." When you do this, you end up with a dog that enjoys doing what you want him to do."

Learn to Earn or NILIF is one of the basic foundations of dog training.  It also often serves as a foundation for behavioral modification programs that are used to help resolve existing problem behaviors.  In very few words, it involves teaching a simple behavior such as sitting before giving your dog anything he wants.  In reality there is a bit more to it, the links at the bottom of this page will guide you on how to introduce it to your dog. 

  • It is an enjoyable and effective way of teaching your dog to make good behavioral choices without force.
  • It teaches your dog that everything good comes from you!
  • It will teach your dog basic skills to stop and listen to you; without yelling or having to repeat yourself!
  • Learn to Earn stabilizes behavior and helps establish calmness.
  • It differs from "obedience training", perfection is not required, relaxation is desired!
  • NILIF is similar to teaching a child to politely ask for things by saying "please"!
  • The concept is used by positive method trainers and veterinary behavior specialists. It is a deference training program that has been given many different names. 
  • Every trainer or behaviorist may have a slight variation on the theme, but the basic message is the same--to stop and ask politely for everything in life!I

When using a Learn to Earn Program to help behavior problems such as anxiety or reactivity, behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin tells us that, "the first thing that we often have to do is address the dog's impulsivity (lack of impulse control) and his lack of ability to look to the owners for guidance, especially when he's scared or highly excited. How are these things important?"

"Impulsivity is the tendency for animals to perform behaviors without first thinking and evaluating the situation. Dogs with high impulsivity or low impulse control tend to rush towards items they want (food, people, dogs) and react in an extreme manner when excited (jump, whine, pace, bark, lunge). The more they practice acting impulsively, the more likely they will react impulsively when scared. These dogs also have an inability to look to their owners for direction, especially when they're scared or distracted."

Dr. Yin explains that in her version of the Learn to Earn Program, "dogs are required to automatically say "Please" by sitting for everything they want - every bit of kibble, petting, praise, attention, getting their leash on, going out the door—dogs learn that they can have what they want if they ask politely by sitting and looking at their owners for permission".

"The trick is that the humans need to learn to reward the dog's good behavior consistently and must be aware of their every interaction so that they don't accidently reward unwanted behaviors, such as jumping, whining, and pushing for attention. So, at the same time, this program teaches owners how to give the right body signals and cues that their dog naturally understands and how to actually provide leadership and guidance through skill rather than force. As an added benefit, once owners have these skills they are better bonded to their pet and their pet feels more comfortable looking to their owners for guidance in the scary or highly exciting situations".

Teaching to "Say Please" works beautifully for shy or fearful dogs. Each reward they earn, by responding to you, is a success for them!  An animal who knows a set of consistent, workable rules for life, experiences a feeling of competence and safety. Establishing a routine helps a an anxious dog gain confidence. This is how we feel when we understand what's expected of us on our jobs. It is like the feeling of satisfaction we all know for a job well done. Teaching a fearful dog to feel safe helps change an uncomfortable emotion and may prevent the fear from escalating into aggression or destruction.

NILIF does not mean your doggy has to be in "Boot Camp", if taken in the right spirit, NILIF functions as a teaching program based on reciprocity and exchange between you and your dog. Done correctly it can actually be fun and build your dog's confidence!  If a 24/7 hour program seems daunting or too harsh, start by asking for it consistently on a few easy behaviors each and every day and build up the "Say Please" habit a little bit at a time. 

Consistency will be key!  People who teach manners erratically have dogs that remain clueless about human rules. The program needs to send a consistent, clear, and reliable message to your dog.  This may seem strict, but giving your dog consistency gives him security and removes the fear and anxiety of the unknown.  Dogs want and need their people to be predictable!  This is not about being dominant over the dog but offering leadership without force. Everyone who interacts with the dog needs to be part of the program, this includes family, friends, and neighbors.

There is no force or punishment in this program.  If your dog does not say please by sitting, or performing an alternately trained behaivor, he simply does not get what he wanted at that moment.  He does not get petted, he does not get the treat or the meal, you stop putting the leash on, he does not get to go out the door or go after the ball.  You simply stop, ignore the dog, or walk away.  Give your pet a moment to reconsider.  If your pet then chooses to sit, instantly reward the behavior and move forward. Behaviors that are rewarded will be repeated!  Scoldng or shoving down a jumping dog, or a dog that skipped "saying please", is often misinterpreted by the dog. Giving any kind of attention, even if meant as negative, my still reinforce the undesireable behavior. Worse yet is that punishment may escalate fear and confusion for the dog.  

To start to teach your dog the Learn to Earn Program you have to have the proper "currency" to pay him!  When teaching something that is new, and that might be difficult at the start, you have to find a fabulous currency your dog is willing to work for!  This might mean something like cooked bits of chicken breast, liver dog treats, cheese, or peanut butter.  It may take some experimentation to find that special treat that your dog is willing to do anything for.  

Over time, once your dog perfects the skill, and can easily perform the task; rewards can be pieces of your dog's regular dog kibble, dry cookie treats, praise, or just being given permission to go out the door or chase the ball! 


The Proper Use of Food in Dog Training great advice from the force free trainers of the Pet Professional Guild

Dogs: Positive Reinforcement Training  The basic steps outlined from the Humane Society of the United States

Ten Quick Dog Training Tips  Some quick tips from Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist, Dr. Lisa Radosta.  She gives great advice to help your pet learn to earn.  Be sure you have your pet's favorite currency (reward/treat) ready when teaching something new. 

Dr. Sophia Yin's Ten Training Tips Handout  More great tips from another great expert.  Review these tips before starting your training plans with your pup.


Protocol For Deference by Karen Overall VMD, PhD, DACVB, CAAB  Dr. Overall's protocol sets the standard for the ideal way to humanely teach dogs to stop, relax and look to us for guidance.  This is not about obedience and Dr. Overall resists using the terms Learn to Earn and NILIF .  Properly applied the Protocol for Deference leads to preventing over arousal and impulsivity. Rather than demanding obedience it is about providing pets with a consistent and humane rule structure. Dr. Overall's description on how this works and why it is important is exceptional. This truly is the gold standard!

HSUS Nothing in Life is Free Info from the Humane Society of the United States

Say Please!  From the AHIMSA Dog Blog, a great professonional training website in Seattle

The Simple Elegance of Sit is an article from Kelly Gorman Dunbar from the Daily Woof.  It's about more than just your dog's "bum" touching the ground.  How well does your dog sit?

David Letterdog's Top 10 List of Things Dogs Cannot Do While Sitting

Plenty in Life is Free Behaviorists and trainers continue to evolve thoughts on the philosophy of "Nothing in Life is Free".  Read how acclaimed trainer Kathy Sdao has changed her thinking on the subject just a bit.  NILIF and Learn to Earn Programs remain a solid foundation for behavior modification protocols.  Every trainer puts their own input into the plan. But one thing great trainers agree upon is, learning needs to be fun!  

So when using NILIF or Learn to Earn with your dog, remember Kathy's advice:

People should learn how to be a skilled, generous, creative "feeder." That is, they should understand and embrace the fact that their main role, if they want to be a great trainer, is to reinforce repeatedly any dog behaviors they want to see more of. This reinforcement is a much greater priority than being a strict leader, a "commander-in-chief."

Dr. Sophia Yin, internationally acclaimed veterinarian and animal behaviorist, has written a great blog on her website describing her version of Learn to Earn.  In chapter 5 of her book, Perfect Puppy in 7 Days, you will also find a complete and thorough discussion of the topic. You can purchase or download her book at the link.

Click below for links to Dr. Yin's blog entries and to learn how to teach this to your dog! 

Dr. Yin's website also provides some great video examples linked below.

Dr. Yin's Video: Say Please by Sitting

Dr. Yin's Video: Say Please by Sitting-Part II

Dr. Yin's LEARN TO EARN POSTER  This is a handy illustrated poster from Dr. Yin that you can print out and hang up for a quick and easy reminder system for the entire family on the basic rules of the Learn to Earn Program.