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Dog Training: "Nothing in Life is Free", "Say Please" and "Learn to Earn" Programs

Updated on April 28, 2013

My dogs waiting to get their teeth brushed


What is the "Say Please" Training Program?

Formerly know as "nothing in life is free" "learn to earn" or "say please", this training program offers a non-confrontational approach for establishing guidance and giving dogs a "job". A better understanding of dogs and the way they learn has revealed that dogs are more likely not being "dominant", but as opportunistic beings, are rather simply engaging in behaviors that have a history of being reinforced. So say your dog is pulling the leash, jumping on you, or placing his paw on you to be pet, most likely this is not due to a predisposition for being dominant and wanting to rule the house, but more likely is attributed to the fact that such behaviors have a history of being reinforced by the owner or the dog's environment. For more about this read: "Dog dominance debunking the myth"

The dog, therefore, pulls because by doing so he got to sniff that spot he was curious about, he got to meet his friend or got to say hello to your neighbor. Pulling brings rewards! The dog jumps because he gets pet when he jumps or alternatively he gets scolded. Dogs who crave attention will appreciate even the occasional scolding, because negative attention is ultimately better than no attention at all! Placing a paw on the owner's lap was very likely reinforced because at some point he was pet, or he got attention from other people when he did this. Many dogs start engaging in this pushy behavior after being taught to give paw, for this reason, when I train the trick to give paw in classes, I warn owners to be very careful, as this behavior may easily get a bit out of hand! No pun intended!

Benefits of Say Please

The "say please" training method gives owners many advantages. This method was initially called "nothing in life is free" but with a better understanding of dogs and learning theory, "say please"(as respected dog trainer Pat Miller likes to call it) is much more appropriate because it does have a kinder feel than the militaristic "nothing in life is free" which sounds like the poor dog has to pay for every single thing in life. An interesting read for dog trainers or anybody who loves dogs is the book "Plenty in Life is Free - Reflections on Dogs, Training and Finding Grace" by Kathy Sdao. The book emphasizes that being a "feeder" is preferable to being a "leader."

What are the benefits of teaching "say please"? The say please training program is based on the Premack Principle also known as "Grandma's Law". The philosophy of this is the equivalent of a grandma saying "you will get ice cream if you finish your broccoli first". It teaches dogs self-control and discourages pushy behaviors.

If you own a working dog, "say please" will keep the dog's mind stimulated and will fulfill part of his needs to get some work done during the day. The program also benefits owners of new dogs that need the reassurance of a routine and helps gives some confidence to insecure dogs. The program also benefits greatly owners of spoiled dogs that need to make a change in their dog's lives because things are getting a bit out of hand.

*Note: If you own a previously spoiled dog, expect some initial extinction bursts; we will go over what these exactly are at the end of the article.

*Note: a word of caution needs to be incorporated in using this program. If your dog at any times reacts with aggression to your requests to "Say please" or if your dog is aggressive in any way before starting any training, please consult with a professional.

How to Train Say Please and Learn to Earn

Whether you call it nothing in life is free as coined by Dr. Victoria Voith or "No such thing as a free lunch" or "Learn to earn" as called by William E. Campbell, or "Say please" as positive reinforcement trainer Pat Miller calls it, you will basically give your dog what she wants after he/she does what you want. So instead of "eat your broccoli first and then you can have cake" you will be telling your dog "sit first and then I will put your food bowl down".

The great part of the Premack Principle, which is at the core of the say please program, is that your dog will start enjoying complying because he or she knows it will lead to something reinforcing afterward. Those broccoli indeed do get more appealing if ice creams follows! The best part of the say please training program is that more often than not you will not even need treats, because often you will be using using life rewards. Life rewards are things your dog automatically likes without teaching him to like them. For instance, access to the back yard is a life reward because you did not have to teach your dog to like it. A clicker instead is a conditioned reinforcer because you had to train your dog to associate each click with a treat. Following are some examples of how you can incorporate the say please program in your dog's routine, I promise, once you get it down it will become second nature!

  • Ask your dog to sit before putting the food bowl down (access to the food bowl is the reward for sitting)
  • Ask your dog to sit before clipping on the leash (putting the leash on for most dogs is the reward for sitting)
  • Ask your dog to lay down before tossing the ball or giving a toy (the toy is the reward for sitting)
  • Ask your dog to heel if he wants to get meet the other dog (getting to interact with the other dogs is the reward for heeling-if he is a social dog)
  • Ask your dog to sit before being pet (getting physical attention is the reward for sitting)
  • Ask your dog to sit before snapping off the leash at the dog park (interacting with other dogs is the reward for sitting-if he is a social dog)
  • Ask your dog to "go to his place" before getting to greet guests (going to his place is the reward for interacting with guests -if he is a social dog-)
  • Ask your dog to sit before running out the door that lead to your yard (sitting is the reward for running in the yard which is a reward for many dogs, so many things to sniff/get relief from holding bladder and bowels for some time/ release pent-up energy )

Of course, to reap the benefits of this training system it would also help to combine it with other rules. As we mentioned earlier, dogs are opportunisitic beings that behave in the way they do because they are reinforced for it. It is Thorndlike's law of effect principle that "responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation,.”

As such, behaviors that are not reinforced should automatically extinguish. Therefore a consistent training program invested in telling the dog what to do and ignore what not to do would pave the path to a better relationship between dog and owner. Following are some examples:

  • The dog that pulls should be taught the Premack principle that "we walk ahead only if you are in heel position or on a loose leash". The forward movement is therefore the reward for heeling or walking on a loose leash. However, at the same time, pulling on the leash should no longer be rewarded. If the dog pulls, the owner must stop. The dog should then be asked to heel for the walk to continue. This makes it clear in the dog's mind" loose leash equals walk, pulling does not yield nothing. The equation loose leash walking =walk and pulling=stop walking, should reinforce loose leash walking and extinguish pulling.
  • The dogs that jumps should be taught the Premack Principle "you get attention only when all four paws are on the floor". The sitting is therefore the key that unlocks the life reward of petting the dog. However, at the same time, jumping should no longer be rewarded. If the dog jumps remove the reward (in this case is attention) by turning your back and ignoring your dog. Then, turn around, ask for a sit and and love on your dog. This makes it clear in the dog's mind that sitting equals attention, whereas, jumping yields nothing. The equation sitting =attention and jumping=no attention should reinforce sitting and extinguish jumping over time.
  • The dog that paws for attention should be ignored when it actively paws. When the dog gives up pawing, it may then be called "asked to sit" and pet. The attention should be on the owner's terms and not the dogs'. With time, the pawing behavior should extinguish, however, owners must be aware of potential extinction bursts which we will talk about below.

Ask polite manners before being let out the door


A Word of Caution About this Training Program

So we know that dogs are opportuntists that behave in the ways they do because of reinforcers. The reinforcers are not always what we consider good, it is what the dog considers good. As mentioned, some dogs who crave attention will likely find scolding or pushing reinforcing so they often will continue jumping/barking/pawing because touch, eye contact and scolding may be reinforcing to that particular dog. This explains why some dog owners say " I keep scolding him but he does not listen", the truth is, the dog may be enjoying the scolding, especially when the owner is away for half of the day and ignoring the dog for the remaining half!

Lots of attention must therefore be paid to reinforcers. I had a client once use a water gun to punish her dog for barking. The dog in question was a Labrador. The barking did not stop but actually got worse with the water gun. I went to evaluate the case, only to notice the barking was distinctly high-pitched when she squirted the dog. So I asked her to see the squirt gun, she brought it to me and I squirted it and here came the Lab barking. Truth was, for this Lab the water gun was reinforcing and once I started using it, he was barking to get squirt more! This Lab loved water, and the owner claimed this Lab actually used to play with the sprinkler in the summer and now that she remembers he was also barking at it! The water gun therefore was reinforcing the barking rather than punishing it because the dog loved water! The dog was saying "do it more! it's so fun"! The barking subsided greatly after I told her to stop using the water gun and provided her with a different behavior modification program.

Therefore, keep in mind that reinforcers are personal and vary from one dog to another. A water gun may be a reward for dogs who love water, while it may be hated by a dog who dislikes water. By the way, do not use water guns to punish dogs unless you want a dog that hates water and will make you miserable in trying to give him a bath!

Access to other dogs may be a reinforcer for dogs who are social butterflies but may be intimidating for shy dogs. Access to a yard may be a reinforcer for dogs who romp and play in it but may not be for a dog who is wary of the neighbor dogs barking and so forth....Keep this in mind as your requests for behaviors should always be followed by something your dog likes and not something your dog dislikes; the Premack principle after all is " you can have ice-cream if you eat broccoli" but not "you can have more broccoli after you eat broccoli":(

A Word About Extinction Bursts

This mostly applies to dogs who have been spoiled. If you have been always or periodically giving attention to your dog when he barks, paws at you, jumps, nudges etc and then you suddenly start ignoring your dog for engaging in such behaviors, the behaviors will initially increase in intensity right when you start ignoring them.

The cause for this is the dog's thinking "my owner always gave me attention when I did this in the past, so why is it not working any more? I guess I need to intensify the behavior".

And there you have it, more barking, more nudging, more jumping....some dogs may even get creative and try other things. DO NOT GIVE IN. These bad behaviors do not mean the training is not working, actually it is proof it is working, and very well! After you ignore more and more your dog will eventually give up trying. This takes time though, so be stubborn. If you give in any time during this delicate phase, your dog will go back to zero, and this time, the behavior will be even more difficult to eradicate.

Say please will ultimately reward calm behaviors while encouraging self-control and stimulating the dog's mind using positive owner-pet interactions that will help increase the bond between dog and owner. Ultimately, the say please program offers a win-win situation for all!

Alexadry© all rights reserved


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    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      8 years ago

      Thank you Jay, this training method has helped countless dog owners.

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 

      8 years ago from Deep South, USA

      Great hub! Voted Up, Useful, Awesome and Interesting.

    • wetnosedogs profile image


      8 years ago from Alabama

      Beautiful pictures of your dogs.

    • Nare Anthony profile image

      Nare Gevorgyan 

      8 years ago

      This is really interesting and the dogs are so cute :) Thanks for sharing!


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