top of page

NILIF for Problem Companion Dogs: Nothing in Life is Free


Livestock guard dogs are often described as being independent in nature. That means that, in contrast to the herding dogs that look to the human herder for commands, the livestock guardian assumes all responsibility, expecting no help or guidance. The result can be a dog that resents intrusion into its “territory” – psychological or territorial.


When people become owners of large breeds, particularly, they are often told that they should establish "dominance” over them. It is as much a matter of establishing respect as dominance. To do so is important, and it is done on a gradual, step-by-step basis.


When the puppy is told to do something, the owner should try to be sure that it does what it was told. Simple commands such as “No,” “Come,” “Down,” and “Sit” can make life easier and even be life-saving for a young dog. If a pup is chewing on something inappropriate (say a shoe or an electrical cord) and if it does not respond to “No,” the owner will naturally try to remove the object from the pup’s mouth. If the pup growls and resents the “boss” trying to take away his “toy,” a degree of physical force must be used. At this point, the typical recommendation is to remove the object from the pup’s reach and then roll the pup over on his back, reminding him that he is not THE top dog, that you are, but that you are also fairly benevolent.


When reprimanding a dog, remember that a high pitched voice indicates play, submission, or lack of authority. Develop a deep, serious, growling word or sound for reprimand. (This works with many animals, not just dogs.)


When we hear of problem dogs that challenge their owner’s (or owner’s family’s) authority, they are almost always family companions. Many have been family members since the age of 6 or 8 weeks. They came into the family as "babies" and were often treated as such for a period of time.


Rarely do owners realize they have a problem dog on their hands until the dog is six months old or even older. By that time, the dog is already quite large and difficult to physically correct or restrain. Problem behavior, especially with the livestock guarding breeds, is often seen as aggressive behavior, such as when a dog growls or barks or otherwise threatens people or other dogs. This behavior can be the result either of fear or of dominance. In some cases, the owners may discover that they are fearful of their own dogs, which have somehow been transformed from the family’s “baby” to some sort of monster. Their fears are usually unfounded - but their dog is big and it is barking at them.  The humans here failed to recognize the need for guidance and discipline that the Akbash Dog needed. 


Once the dog is older and larger, it may become much more difficult and may, in fact, be unwise to try the alpha rollover approach to establishing your dominance over the dog. This is especially true with a dog that is not accustomed to this type of handling. When an older dog is aggressive, for any reason, there is another approach that has been used successfully by owners of many different breeds, including Akbash Dogs. It should work very well for Kangal Dogs as well. This article is based on information from an owner of Chows and Akitas. It works as well for terriers (who can be terrors!) as the large dogs.

It is based on the principle of no cooperation = no interaction (no food, no water, no "rewards!").


This approach, called “Nothing in Life is Free” (NILIF), can help the owner gain the control and trust of his dog. The following explanation of the NILIF re-training method was taken from an electronic mailing list and was written by Lynda Oleksuk (, who first gave me permission to reprint it about 1998 (in the Akbash Dog Bulletin). She stresses that this method is not original with her and that she does not know who first developed it. This behavior modification technique was prescribed to her by a veterinary behaviorist. The training technique is printed here, including some of Lynda’s own suggestions.


Nothing in life is free!


  1. Avoid circumstances that elicit the aggression -- at least temporarily. Later you'll be able to work on desensitization, but only after you've gotten the dog's cooperation, not resistance.

  2. Maintain an aloof attitude toward the dog. This is accomplished quite easily by crating the dog (or isolating it in a small area in the house or barn). This crating will be 90% or more of the time for a few weeks. You will find your dog will be much more willing to do what you ask when it means he will have some attention. 

  3. Two or three times a day for 3-5 minutes maximum practice QUICK sits and downs for food. (If you don't know how to train this, go to a class.) You are working for speed and attitude here -- so reward correct behavior generously with praise and food. If your dog has fear problems, ignore or minimize the need for corrections. Don't make these training sessions a chore -- they should be fast and fun, not a battle. When the dog is IMMEDIATELY and CONSISTENTLY and with ANTICIPATION obeying the commands, she is ready for the meat of the NILIF program.

  4. At first, privileges are still restricted, but you'll gradually be able to add privileges. Don't rush things -- if you have a bad day, just go back to the prior level where things were successful and start over. Don't go from confinement/isolation to full house privileges in a day -- keep doors shut, start with limited amount of "free time". (This step is Lynda’s modification to the program, but it worked for her, so she recommends it. Her Akita, Gypsy, got 20 minutes her first day -- twice.)

  5. NILIF -- Nothing in life is free. This means the dog must PERFORM to get anything it wants. For Gypsy, because Lynda was trying to reduce dominance that was already present, she chose to use the "down" command because it required her to throw herself into the most submissive posture available. Then she started peppering "sits" into the program, just to keep Gypsy paying attention – but once the dominance problem is long gone, she becomes less concerned with how submissive she is. "Wanna cookie?" -- nothing in life is free, so the dog must "down" on command for the cookie.

  6. Lynda tells us, “When you start introducing NILIF, carry food AT ALL TIMES -- you're still rewarding the dog for submitting - this is NONCONFRONTATIONAL.”


A number of Akbash Dog owners have reported that food does not motivate their dogs, so it may be necessary to be creative in finding what does motive your dog. Praise or physical touch may work for our breeds. Judy Nelson, long time Turkish livestock guard dog owner, recommends “massage” sessions. As an old livestock breeder and friend of mine told me said, “If you scratch an animal where it can’t scratch itself, you’ve made it a friend.” Massage!


Lynda goes on to tell that we should give rewards for a LONG time, then wean off food sporadically, but still praise the behavior. When you ask, ‘Want to go outside?,’ the dog must ‘down.’ ‘Want a drink of water?’ That’s right. “Down.” The dog gets NO freebies. He or she must EARN everything, food, play, petting, water, going out, going for a r-i-d-e, getting T-R-E-A-T-S, coming inside. Gypsy even had to “earn” the right to work on the agility equipment ... partly because Lynda felt it helped her attitude (‘Oh boy oh boy oh boy, Alpha-mom made me down, I must be about to do something Good’), and partly because she's so excited to be there that she needs the extra control.”


These additional non-confrontational ways to establish dominance (respect!) are suggested by Lynda :


  • Ignore a dog when it tries to initiate play -- and as soon as it gives up, you initiate the game yourself. Alpha dogs decide when the pack plays and when it hunts.

  • Do teach a puppy or a dog to roll on its back and accept petting ... but it doesn't have to be a battle. Gypsy LOVES to lie on her back in Lynda’s lap ... for a time, she was too frightened because of the more violent alpha-rolls Lynda was using to correct her ... but after starting NILIF, she started flopping down in Lynda’s lap more often (which is really cute for a nearly 80 pound dog).


I hope this information will give you some insight into how to help your dog be the companion you want. The dog that you have allowed to come into your home needs to respect you and your rules, just as another human would. That dog needs to first earn your affection. Dogs are NOT children. Dogs or puppies have already had a completely accepting parent. Now they are making the adjustment to your world and your responsibility is to treat them as the intelligent unique creatures they are -- not surrogate children, not 4-legged humans. Your obligation is to help them learn how to be respectful. Only on that basis can a rewarding relationship be established, one in which you are able to appreciate the dog's unique abilitities and in which the dog understands that it has become a part of a wonderful relationship with its humans.

bottom of page