Using treats to train is tried-and-true, because food is innately rewarding to dogs. However, when it comes to building enthusiasm for dog sports, toys can be very effective. Incorporating play into training helps boost a dogs confidence, because it helps them see the "work" of training and practice as part of a fun game. So I encourage the students in my flyball class to build their dogs' "toy drive" so that they can incorporate their dog's favorite plaything--whether it's a ball on a rope, a tug made out of fleece or a squeaky toy--as a motivation/reward. Many dogs don't need much encouragement--tug-of-war is a game puppies play with each other and their humans quite readily, and if encouraged they will keep it up through adulthood. Indeed, the key issue for these dogs can be convincing them to let go of a toy so training/competition can continue. This is where an "out" or "drop" command comes in handy, and this can be quickly taught with food, as my friend Barb demonstrates with her border collie pup, Twyst:
Simply put a tasty treat (make it VERY tasty--real meat or cheese is best) in front of the dog's nose, and when he opens his mouth to take the treat, he will necessarily relinquish the toy. Start pairing that action with the desired command ("drop it," "give," "out"--whatever you like best will work as long as you consistently use the same word), and your dog will quickly learn it. Then, once the dog has given up the toy, offer it back and start play again--it's important that the dog learns that giving up the toy doesn't always mean that playtime is over.
But some of the dogs that show up for my classes haven't been encouraged to maintain their enthusiasm for toy games or for whatever reason have become a bit shy, withdrwawn or disinclined to play. These dogs can often be encouraged to play again if the handler makes a committed, enthusiastic effort to draw the dog into play. Valerie Olszyk, the owner and lead trainer of PBH, has written a short guide to toy training that I hand out to both my flyball and puppy class students. She has given me permission to reprint it here. (Please note that the following is Copyright Pet Behavior Help, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this document may be used or reproduced in any manner without written permission. For permission, please contact Val-- you can fine her contact info at her web site):
- Improve relationship with the handler by teaching interactive games for the dog and handler together. We are not trying to create a dog who likes to play with toys alone or play keep away from the handler.
- Increase attention, motivation and fitness through games.
- Start where your dog is comfortable and happy. Move into new environments after your dog is already happily playing
- Pick a time when your dog is already happy and energetic. For many dogs this is when you get home from work. Not after you get home, change your clothes and read the mail. The instant you arrive your dog is at its highest level of excitement for the day. Take 5 minutes and play right away. Keep toys in your car or by the door.
- Don’t baby your dog and hold it in your lap, carry it or rub and massage it before you ask it to play.
- Don’t do “kissy’ face or baby talk your dog when you are trying to play. The two types of behavior are incompatible.
- Stop playing before your dog loses interest or energy. Two great minutes is much better than 10 minutes of play where the energy and intensity are dwindling in the last 5 minutes.
- If your dog fails to engage after a few tries, do not nag or beg. Put your dog in a crate for a few minutes. This is not punishment, you are simply signaling the dog that the only type of interaction you are available for is play and if the dog prefers not to play then you prefer not to interact.
- Leave no toys for your dog to play with when you are not around. This includes play with other dogs. While you are trying to build toy drive with the handler, that should be the only time the dog has access to the toys. Later you can relax these rules if the dog is committed to play with you.
- Match the toy to the dog. Small dog = small toy (mostly); Large dog = large toy. However if you have a very submissive large dog, you may need to use a smaller, softer toy. If you have an intensely crazy JRT, you may need a very large, durable toy.
- Some dogs like soft things to bite, others like harder toys. This is not related to the size of the dog. Try different toys to see what your dog prefers.
- Switch toys often – don’t let your dog choose only 1 toy.
- Put one or two toys in the house where your dog can see it but can’t touch it. Play with the toy by yourself in a very excited way a few times each day where the dog can see you, but not get to you. Don’t let the dog interact with you or the toy until it is getting very excited watching you each day.
- If your dog likes food, use a round Tupperware container as a ball. Take the stuffing out of a soft toy and fill it with food. Use a food tube as a toy. Tie a rawhide to rope and pull it on the ground for your dog to chase (make sure not to swing it in the air and hit the dog).
Games without toys to initiate play with the handler:
Find out what your dog likes and what “agitates” your dog. Slight irritation which arouses the dog to interact is a good start and is they way many dogs initiate play with each other. If the dog cowers or backs away, ease up a little. If your dog rolls on his back, walk away.
Things to try:
- Bounce the dog gently from side to side with your hands
- Push the dog backwards away from you.
- Play “tag” by touching your dog on the side and running, encouraging the dog to run next to you.
- Grab your dog's feet (try all 4)
- Grab your dog's tail (only if you can’t see the dog’s eyes). Cheer when the dog turns back to you
- Get on the ground and play bow at your dog. Make your head and body lower than the dog’s.
- Growl, yip and bark at your dog.
Games with toys (use only after have initiated play as above)
- Always give more energy, attention and enthusiasm to the dog when it has the toy. Do not put more effort into getting the dog interested in the toy and then become less involved when the dog actually takes the toy.
- Do not shove the toy in the dog’s face.
- Dogs prefer things that move rapidly away from them across the ground (like prey animals would).
- Tug is a fantastic game – encourage it enthusiastically.
- Submissive dogs will not take a toy if they think it is “yours”. Tie a string to the toy so that you can interact with the dog and the toy from a distance.
- For submissive dogs, do not lean over the top of the dog or play with the dog face-to-face. Play tug and chase from the side.
- Try tapping your dog on the side or the rear with the toy and pulling it quickly away.
- Mix the hand games from above with toys to keep your dog interested in you.
- In the early stages of toy training, there are no “controls” on the play. Any type of interaction with the toy and you is great. Control comes only after the dog is addicted to the game. Then it is easy to add.
- If your dog likes to tear up stuffed toys – let him, but only during the game with you. You can re-stuff them several times or use old socks and cheap stuffing for a new toy each training session.
- If your dog grabs the toy and runs away, cheer for the moment the dog grabs the toy, then turn your back on the dog and run away as fast as you can. Most dogs will turn to chase you. Do NOT try to catch the dog or take the toy. When the dog gets to you, cheer and run 180 degrees away again. Repeat 3-4 times then stop. If the dog comes to you with the toy, cheers and play hand games without trying to take the toy.
Types of toys:
- Food toys for dogs who love food more than anything
- Throw food to encourage the dog to chase
- Fill a round Tupperware container with food and throw it
- Use a Kong or other toy that you can fill with peanut butter or cheese and throw it.
- Use a food tube (pyrex tubing filled with cheese) to throw for your dog and tug for small dogs
- Use a stuffed toy and fill it with food
- Use a sock and fill it with food
- Chase toys
- Anything tied to a string
- Balls rolling on the ground
- Cat toys on strings for submissive or small dogs
- Tug toys
- Fleece tugs
- Rubber hoses (car hoses work best)
- Follow the toy
- Move the toy on the ground or pull it on a string. Cheer for any following behavior. Gradually move the toy faster as the dog gets more excited.
- Build up to throwing the toy just a little farther than you were moving it. If the dog shows any following behavior, cheer!
- Remember, the dog does not have to pick up the toy at first – any interest is great. As the dog is rewarded for interacting with the toy, it will increase the interaction to touching and picking up the toy.
- Have 2 identical toys. Play follow the toy until the dog is happily chasing the toy 5 or 6 feet from you and putting it in his mouth.
- As soon as the dog puts the toy in its mouth, tease it with the other toy and throw it to your other side. Your dog with either keep the toy and chase the new toy or drop the first toy to chase the second. Right now, either is fine!
- Play this back and forth chase game until the dog is really enjoying it. Now, wait to throw the second toy until the dog had picked up the first toy and has taken 1 step towards you, anticipating the throw of the second toy.
- Gradually increase the number of steps the dog is taking towards you with the toy until the dog is bringing the first toy back to you before you throw the second.
- Play the follow the toy game and keep holding the toy or string once the dog has grabbed it with its mouth. Cheer for any duration of time in which both you and the dog have the toy.
- Put just a little pressure on the toy and cheer if your dog holds it.
- Gradually increase the amount of pressure and cheer for your dog.
- Try teasing the dog by grabbing his feet or touching his side while you tug.
- Dogs must win to enjoy tug! For submissive dogs, let them win (you let go first) 75% of the time early in training.
- To build enthusiasm, snap the toy out of the dog’s mouth and encourage them to jump up and follow the toy (remember we are building toy drive here – control is added once the dog is addicted to playing). For every time you snap the toy away, you must let the dog win the toy away from you at least twice.
If all else fails, you can actually teach a dog to play with a toy like training a trick.
- Teach your dog a “touch” command by rewarding your dog for touching its nose to a target or your hand.
- Once the dog understands the touch command, you can use it to teach the dog to touch a toy and reward it.
- Gradually increase the amount of time your dog must maintain the touch before being rewarded.
- Increase the criteria so that the dog must grab the toy to be rewarded.
- Finally, shape the dog to bring the toy to you to get the food reward.
- If you play this game for your dog’s meal everyday, they will quickly learn to look forward to their food game. Over time, the dog starts to associate the toy/retrieve game with fun and will work just for the toy.
- Once your dog is playing with one or two toys well, practice switching from one toy to another. Play the fetch game and cheer for your dog when it chooses the toy you are holding over the one it already has. Try to add new types of toys using this game
- Dogs need to learn to switch from working for food to working for toys. Start to ask your dog for some simple obedience exercises which you treat with food, then initiate play.