Learn to Earn - Is Nothing In Life Free?

A modern evaluation of the use of resource control in modifying dog behaviour

David Ryan PG dip (CABC) CCAB 

The concept of controlling a dog’s access to resources in order to improve their behaviour has for many years been a core component of many behaviourists’ treatment programmes. “Learn to Earn” is one term among many that is used as a label for this concept. It lends itself to adaptation and exists in many guises, such as “Nothing In Life Is Free” (NILIF), “Say Please Programme”, and “Integrated Compliance Training” (ICT). 

Used at its best, Learn to Earn is a vital addition to many behaviour modification programmes. However, if the mechanism behind the concept is misunderstood, and it is implemented inappropriately, it can impact negatively on dogs and their guardians. In particular, the pervading but misplaced preoccupation with “dominance” and “pack leadership” has meant that the mechanism underpinning resource control programmes has been misattributed to “status” or “rank” reduction, which can result in ineffectual or harmful implementations of the Learn to Earn concept. This article aims to clarify the rationale and effective application of the Learn to Earn concept, and outline how its use can improve both the welfare and behaviour of pet dogs.


What is Learn to Earn? 

Learn to Earn is simply the day to day control of resources that a dog values, to teach them that looking to people for direction is worthwhile. It increases the predictability of a dog’s life, enables them to obtain important resources in an appropriate way, and teaches dogs to exercise impulse control. The more enlightened illustrations compare it to teaching a dog good manners, using “lifestyle rewards”, or teaching a dog to work with the owner to get the things they want. Learn to Earn works by establishing leadership via controlled resource facilitation rather than through resource restriction. 


The Core Objectives of Learn to Earn

Learn to Earn is about teaching a dog that the most successful way to obtain the good things in life is to respond to specific directions from people. It is about changing a dog’s perception of their owners as pushovers, or handbrakes, into guiding facilitators.

Teaching a dog to automatically offer a sit for resources is a great first step, but not as powerful as a dog thinking, “How does he want me to behave so that he will facilitate my access to the ...?”. 

It is a mindset where the dog thinks “How can I work with my human to get what I want?” rather than, “What do I have to do to prevent her stopping me doing what I want?” or even worse, “What action makes her do what I want?”



A resource is something a dog needs or desires. It is something that a dog will be happy to expend time and effort in acquiring. It could be as simple as an item of food, or as complex as the ability to get out of the door so they can get into the car so they aren’t left alone as the owner leaves to go shopping. A resource is something valuable to a dog.

In a generic Learn to Earn programme resources are often broken down into categories such as: food; toys/games; and attention. While this is a simplistic approach, it can help owners to focus on what their dog values. 

What is regarded as food is mostly obvious, but includes things dogs value as food but we don’t. Toys/games again include the obvious, but also breed specific behaviour such as herding, chasing, biting/holding/shaking, and even things such as rummaging about in a hedgerow. Attention is contact from people, including petting, being talked to, and eye contact. There are many other valuable resources that don’t necessarily fit neatly into a category, such as social interaction with other dogs, and access to comfort such as lying on the sofa or in front of the fire. 

Each dog will place different values on different resources. For example a Border Collie may place massive value on the opportunity to chase a ball, and less value on food. But this balance is flexible, so if the collie is hungry the opportunity to chase a ball might be relegated to second place. 



The more experience a dog has in controlling resources that they value, the more they may expect to control resources that they value. 

Many of the resources that dogs value are of little concern to us humans. For example, we may throw a ball whenever it is dropped onto our lap by our dog, stroke them whenever they shove their nose under our hand, or allow them to eat food dropped on the floor without permission. 

It should be emphasised that none of these things are necessarily problematic or should by default be avoided by the owner. However, if a dog has a history of successfully controlling many situations that are of no concern to an owner, their interactional expectations may increase the possibility of inappropriate attempts to achieve what they desire. Unfettered access to resources can also result in dogs who do not view requests from their owners as meaningful, as these requests often serve to restrict access to resources rather than facilitate access. Finally, unfettered access to resources can result in dogs who lack impulse control and are more likely to become frustrated when expectations of control and access are not met. This frustration can result in escalations of intrusive or inappropriate behaviour, and in a small proportion of dogs may even bubble over into a loss of emotional control and aggression.

Therefore, to resolve many problem behaviours it can be advantageous to alter the dog’s interactional expectations by taking control of resources that do not necessarily constitute part of the problem behaviour. 


Motivation – not intimidation:

Learn to Earn emphasises that thoughtful rather than forceful control of resources is both an effective and compassionate way to control a dog. Pet dogs have limited opportunities to control their own lives, and benefit from guidance to ensure that their attempts to fulfil their desires are consistent with human expectations. 

Learn to Earn is about using motivation rather intimidation to control dogs. If a dog achieves access to many of the resources they desire by following the directions of their human, life becomes more harmonious for both dog and human. The owner gets a dog that is more responsive to instructions as the dog begins to see these as opportunities to fulfil their desires, rather than something that might compete with or restrict access to resources. From the dog’s perspective things improve as they begin to have a consistent way in which to obtain the things they value – looking to their owner for direction. This can greatly reduce the daily frustration experienced by a dog, which has significant benefits for both dog and owner. The effects of a Learn to Earn programme are also desirable from a welfare perspective, as the motivation to behave appropriately stems from a desire to obtain the good things in life, rather than a desire to avoid pain, fear, or intimidation.


Awareness of a dog’s requirements and emotional sensitivities

Fulfilling the motivational needs of a dog is important to prevent emotional problems such as profound frustration, conflict, or anxiety. Controlled facilitation of the mental, physical, and social desires of a dog forms the core of an effective Learn to Earn programme. Seeking opportunities to facilitate the desires of a dog, rather than restricting them is very important.

Dogs’ requirements for access to resources differ between every individual, and within each individual over time. It is therefore impossible to lay down hard and fast rules for fulfilling a dog’s requirements, but a skilled behaviourist is able to make value judgements based on a dog’s breed or type, current lifestyle, personality, and emotional sensitivities. 


Practical application of Learn to Earn

One of the criticisms of Learn to Earn is that any withholding of resources can cause anxiety and frustration. But if a dog is provided with clear, achievable behavioural alternatives to obtain what they desire, anxiety and frustration is seldom a problem. An important initial step when introducing a Learn to Earn programme is to train acceptable behavioural alternatives out of context, and only then cue them in situations where a dog desires something that their owner controls. Reinforcement for inappropriate behaviour and lack of compliance is stopped, while delivery of the resource occurs if the dog behaves appropriately or responds to a request. During this training process a dog should not be taken beyond the point at which arousal and frustration makes learning difficult, but over time the situations where requests are made before a dog obtains what they desire is broadened. As there is clarity as to the behaviour that “works”, frustration is reduced rather than exacerbated. Over time a dog becomes more likely to exert self-control in order to achieve things in their life that they value. 

Examples of this process include:

* Opening of the front door at the start of a walk may be delayed until a dog moves to their bed on request. 

* A dog is not allowed up onto the couch for a cuddle if they jump up of their own accord, but they are invited up if they respond to a quiet “sit” request given once. 

* A dog may be kept on lead and prevented from getting to other dogs they want to play with while they continue to pull towards the other dogs, but allowed off-lead to play once they “down”. 

* Midway through a tug game with a rope a “drop” request is quietly given, and the rope brought in to the owner’s legs so it is “dead” and boring, the owner than waits until the dog decides to let go, and the rope is immediately presented for the dog to play with again.

A key part of this process is that the dog makes the decision to respond to a quietly spoken command given once, rather than being forced to do so. For example, simply holding a dog back from the door and walking out first teaches a dog virtually nothing (other than to pull and compete physically with their owner). But asking them to sit and stay while the owner opens the door and moves outside is an excellent exercise in impulse control.

It is important to note that a Learn to Earn programme should NOT advocate that all resources are controlled all of the time, but that situations where a resource can be controlled by an owner are opportunitiesto become a meaningful facilitator. There is nothing wrong with allowing a dog to obtain resources for free some of the time, as long as their behaviour is acceptable. Some things in life should be free! For example, at the start of a walk it is perfectly acceptable to sometimes open the door and allow a dog to rush out without doing anything to “earn” it!


Being proactive with the programme rather than reactive:

It is important to note that the focus of a Learn to Earn programme should not be to always wait until a dog wants something before making a request. Initiative needs to be taken to identify the things that a dog loves, and look for opportunities to provide these resources if the dog behaves appropriately or responds to a request. Learn to Earn should be about helping a dog achieve what they desire rather than the draconian control of everything that they show interest in.


Should cuddles and pats be free?

Many dogs learn from a young age that intrusive behaviour is most effective way to obtain interaction with people. One common recommendation to deal with dogs that jump up, bark, or mouth, is to simply ignore such attention-seeking behaviour. However, dogs that have received reinforcement for their own attention-seeking initiatives tend to be very persistent, and can increase the intensity of their responses if their behaviour is simply ignored. This often results in occasional reinforcement of some kind from their owners. Simply removing attention also provides no guidance for the dog as to what behaviour might be more successful. As a result, attempts to ignore dogs for attention seeking can often result in the development of more persistent, proactive, and intrusive attention-seeking strategies, and a continuation of perceived control on the part of the dog.

In a Learn to Earn programme it is important to ensure that undesirable attention-seeking behaviour is not reinforced, but it is even more important for owners to take the initiative to identify and reward a dog with interaction when they behave appropriately or respond to a request. To state that attention-seeking should be ignored in a Learn to Earn programme is valid to some extent, but a vast over-simplification which, if implemented dogmatically, can backfire for both owner and dog. Cuddles can, and should be free some of the time, as long as a dog is behaving politely.


A warning about inadvertent chaining of behaviours:

It is important not to respond to inappropriate attempts to obtain resources by then cueing a behaviour followed by provision of the resource. This can result in inadvertent reinforcement of inappropriate behaviour. For example: a dog barks because they want a ball to be thrown – the dog is then asked to “sit” – the dog sits – the ball is thrown. This chain of events reinforces the dog for barking. The “sit” cue essentially acts as a positive reinforcer for barking because it is a very good predictor of impending access to the ball. Pre-empting the inappropriate barking by providing guidance with the ‘sit’ request before it happens, or at least once the dog stops barking, would prevent inadvertent reinforcement of such barking.



Because it is a popular and catchy phrase, the term “Learn to Earn” has been adopted and interpreted in different ways by different people, which adds to some disparity of opinion regarding the concept. Its association with misguided attempts at “pack leadership” and “rank-reduction” further muddies the waters. 

However, if the mechanism behind the concept of Learn to Earn is understood, and the focus of the programme is on facilitating access to resources rather than restricting access, it is the most compassionate and effective method of controlling dogs, and is in the interests of both dogs and their owners. It can and should be applied by every dog guardian who wants to work with their dog, rather than against them to establish desirable behaviour.