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“No Free Lunch” Dog Training

Posted by Jenn on 08/18/2016

To your dog, you are the source of everything awesome: food, treats, toys, attention, trips to the park, etc. The “No Free Lunch” dog training approach (also known as “Nothing in Life is Free”) recognizes that those things have tremendous power as motivational tools. If you dole out these rewards at random, your dog may come to expect them for doing nothing. She may even learn to expect rewards for being stubborn and wearing you down!

A Retriever Waits Did someone say lunch?

The concept of “No Free Lunch” is really simple: Anything your dog wants, she has to earn. The follow-through is the tricky part, because showering our dogs with treats and affection “just because” comes so naturally to us dog lovers.

Following the most literal version of this approach means that you wouldn’t even pet your dog unless she has done something to earn that attention. You may think making your dog jump through hoops for a belly rub sounds a bit extreme, but the basic idea can be very useful – especially if your dog is a puppy or an adult who has developed some pushy habits. Here’s how it works:

Choose a command your dog knows.

“No Free Lunch” works only if your dog actually understands what she’s supposed to do to get the reward. “Sit” is one of the easiest commands, but feel free to use any command your dog knows. Have you used a dog bed as a “place” training tool, for example? If so, you can absolutely use that as part of “No Free Lunch”!

The next time your dog wants you to do something for her, like throw a tennis ball, give her the command first.

Say you tell her to sit. Sitting politely should be the only thing that makes you throw the ball – not looking pathetic, not scratching at you with a paw, and definitely not barking. If she doesn’t sit and you throw the ball anyway, you have demonstrated that she doesn’t really have to cooperate to get what she wants.

Remember that every interaction with your dog is a training opportunity.

Once you get the hang of it, the opportunities to practice “No Free Lunch” are endless: going for walks, getting in the car, playing Frisbee, having dinner, being invited up on the couch, pretty much anything your dog likes! Consistency is the key to all dog training, so don’t wait for a specially designed dog-training session to practice.

“No Free Lunch” may seem like it’s about punishing your dog by withholding things, but it’s a actually positive reinforcement method: you’re rewarding your dog for following directions. Like people, dogs feel secure and empowered when they understand how to get what they want. And please don't take our headline literally; we would never suggest withholding meals from your pet. We only use the "no free lunch" expression to refer to treats and other motivators.