By Anthony De Marinis, CDBC, ADT, LFDM, FFCP, CBATI, VSA-DT
Over the past couple of years my Kelpie, Journey, has really taught me the importance of toy play and using toys as rewards. At first it was a bit of a struggle for me to have a dog who was motivated by toys rather than food. Even to this day at least 60% to 70% of the time Journey will NOT work for food, but he will work for toys 100% of the time.
Using toy rewards in certain situations can be very challenging, but as I have learned, using toy rewards can make you a much better trainer with your dog(s) and if you’re a professional, it can make you a better trainer with your clients and their dogs. I will admit, there are some times I wish that Journey would work for food rewards when training because sometimes it might make things a little bit easier and/or quicker to teach. Of course, this is very dependent on the individual learner as each dog learns differently and each dog finds different things reinforcing.
The two situations that I have found the most challenging when using toy rewards is teaching behaviors with a maintain criteria such as Sit Maintain, Down Maintain, Wait, Stay etc. The reason is because with a food reward you can reinforce your dog for the behavior without them breaking their position. Whereas with toys once you reward the dog, they will break from their position to play with the toy that you reward them with. Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t teach a dog to maintain their position using toys, because I have done it both with Journey and my puppy Quest, as well as client dogs, but it can make it more challenging. And the second situation I have found it challenging is certain shaping senario’s because when shaping (depending on what you are teaching) you might want to toss the reward away to reset the dog and their position quickly, whereas with a toy this process can change a little bit. Now, I am not saying you can’t shape. A lot of what I teach Journey is through shaping with toy rewards. Just some food for thought as I present you with what I have learned through the use of toys and play.
The Power of Toy Rewards & Playing
What I have learned overtime with my own dog and my clients, is the power that toys and play can really have with building a relationship with a dog. Although food rewards can create a relationship, toy rewards can make things much more fun, light and much more engaging. The use of toys and play has the power to create an enjoyable and lasting relationship with a dog. In this video you will see me playing around and goofing off with my puppy Quest during a road trip we took to North Carolina together (click here). For some dogs, toys and play can help build confidence in dogs that lack it or shut down during training. I experienced this with Journey first hand! Toys & play can also help build levels of impulse control for dogs that need to learn to control and regulate themselves in certain situations.
When Do I Use Toys & Play With My Dogs?
Personally for me, I use toys when I am teaching new skills at home and during agility sessions with Journey. I also have a toy with me whenever I go hiking off leash with my dogs so that I can practice random skills while hiking and reward them with play. On hikes I generally will practice skills like: name response, recall (coming when called), as well as hand targeting, collar grabs and walking by my side when asked.
Each Dog Will Teach You Something…if you let them
Each dog I find becomes a teacher in our lives for something, whether it’s about owning and training a dog, living with a behaviorally challenged dog or some thing else in our life on a human level. Journey has taken me on a ‘journey’ by introducing me to agility, sheep herding, the kelpie breed; and because of these experiences he has allowed me to meet many new friends and colleagues that I might not have met without all of these experiences. He has also taught me about dogs who are not motivated by food. He has taught me to look beyond food rewards as the only motivator and how to tap into those motivators. Journey has become a great teacher for me in the use of toys as rewards and toy play and so much more.
My Video’s With Toy Rewards & Play
Restraint Recall with Toy Reward (PLEASE NOTE: In the beginning of this instructional video the owner was using food. As the video moves on, you will find that we use toy rewards to reinforce the dogs coming to us when called.)