No Stimulus Goes Unconditioned: Thinking out of the NILIF box

10419603_10103916647748397_2792827974898225307_nWhen I first read Kathy Sdao’s book, Plenty in Life is Free, I cried. I cried because her words made sense. I cried because she described the incredible impact, negative and positive, we can have on our dogs’ lives through what we choose to reinforce, and through the contingencies we place on those reinforcers. It’s a daunting responsibility, but one that is so rewarding if done correctly.

As you can probably guess by now, I do not recommend Nothing in Life is Free (NILIF) protocols for my training clients. Sdao explains the pitfalls of NILIF much more eloquently than I ever could, so I will refer you to her book for those details. At times, depending on the severity and urgency of a behavioral problem, I will “close the economy,” meaning I ask owners to feed their dogs a certain portion of their food via training, either via classical or operant conditioning. But this is different from NILIF, and this difference is critical when working with fear-based behaviors.

If I could give fearful dog owners one training mantra to carry with them at all times, it would be this: “I will do everything I can to help my dog feel safe in a chaotic world.” This mantra is where the NILIF protocol is contraindicative to a fearful dogs’ training plan.

When dogs are afraid, they view stimuli in their environment as dangerous. Their behavior reflects their desire to gain greater distance from that perceived danger. Operant conditioning is important (see my article on relevant scenarios), but only gets us so far. Before focusing on any behaviors, we need to use classical conditioning to change dogs’ emotional states in the presence of stimuli they perceive as dangerous.

Dogs don’t have to produce a behavior in classical conditioning to receive a reward. Instead, they learn by association. A stimulus appears, followed by a high-value food item like tripe. The same stimulus appears, again followed by tripe. And so forth. If done correctly, dogs realize the stimulus is a tip-off to tripe, and voila, dogs develop a positive emotional response to a previously scary thing.

Let’s return for a moment to the mantra I mentioned earlier: “I will do everything I can to help my dog feel safe in a chaotic world.” If we institute NILIF protocols on fearful dogs, we break this contract. For classical conditioning to work effectively, dogs must realize their triggers are sure-fire, no-holds-barred, no-fail tip-offs to high-value rewards. If we impose conditions on that reward – “you must sit and look at me for two seconds,” or “you must heel at my side to receive a treat, even if you’re really scared” – we create confusion. We weaken the strong association between stimulus and positive event needed to successfully change dogs’ emotions.

In lieu of NILIF, I tell clients with fearful dogs to create a different protocol: “No stimulus goes unconditioned.” Every time their dog encounters a stimulus (be it scary, anxiety-provoking, or slightly suspicious to the dog), I tell them to make something good happen. Whether it be a high-value treat, a game with a much-loved toy, or anything else the dog finds immensely rewarding, I tell my clients to maintain a religious 1:1 ratio between stimulus and the good stuff. Later, when the dog is less fearful and has a strong conditioned emotional response to the environment, they can bring in various operant behaviors and contingencies. But creating a sense of safety, and protecting trust between owner and dog, comes first.

Susan Friedman and Steve Martin describe this beautifully in The Power of Trust: 

“Each of us has a trust account with every animal and person in our lives. It’s unfortunate that there is no bank insurance fund available (like the FDIC) for trust accounts. The best way to protect a trust account is to ensure that you make many more deposits than withdrawals.”

By shifting your training focus to No Stimulus Goes Unconditioned, you will ensure your trust account with your dog remains intact, and you will truly be doing everything you can to help your dog feel safe in a chaotic world.

For excellent support and resources on working with Fearful Dogs, visit 

– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC

Maureen is the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and owns Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco, CA. Get in touch at