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Balance – food and toys

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For every one person who asks me about building food drive, nine people will ask me about how to build toy drive.  Why is that?

For starters, there is probably a strong genetic component.  A newborn puppy has the drive to eat or it dies.  That’s a pretty simple evolutionary way to ensure that a drive stays in the gene pool; hard to reproduce if you’re dead.    While it’s true that in a wild situation a dog without prey drive would also die, the reality of the modern dog is that we take care of them and they will survive just fine regardless of their prey drive – they just have to make it through the first few weeks.  Since prey drive is behind a good deal of toy play, it makes sense to me that our dogs consistently show greater food drive than toy interest.

My experience is that almost all dogs have stronger food drive than prey drive as puppies.  That’s not to say that puppies don’t play – on the contrary.  Puppies of almost all breeds will play with toys when they are very young, and the best way to nurture that interest is to keep it going as the dog grows into adulthood.  What I mean is that if given a choice 98% of puppies between the ages of 6 weeks and 4 months will choose the food.  And since most modern trainers train a dog at an early age, we tend to gravitate to whatever the dog seems to want, and what they work hardest for.

Here’s a common scenario.

A trainer buys a promising young puppy that shows both toy and food interest.  As long as the trainer starts with a toy, the puppy learns and plays nicely for the toy and shows good energy and contact with the handler.  But then the trainer wants to work on some clicker work, or luring, or refining common behaviors like position changes.  Because it is easier to teach these things with food (for many reasons but the sheer number of reps possible is the primary driver), they put the toy away and start working for food.  At that time an amazing thing happens.  The puppy’s focus sharpens, the ability to work for a long period of time increases and the rate of learning goes through the roof.  After a few fabulous minutes of training with food, the trainer picks up the toy and tries to go back to play skills.  The puppy refuses, steadfastly looking for that elusive food that was so available only a minute earlier.

How one chooses to proceed at this point is critical.

If the handler finds the rapid success with food to be highly gratifying, the tendency is to go back to the food while wistfully thinking about how much they’d like THIS dog to show better toy drive.

If you look back at Lyra’s puppy stages, you can see that her interest in food wasn’t very strong but her sustained interest in toys was even less pronounced.  I, too, found myself making decisions about how I wished to proceed, with the long term interest of “balance” fresh in my mind.

In the end, I want a balanced dog.  I want a dog that will work for food, so that I can train in crowded spaces and work on details that are easier to perform with food than toys.  I also want a dog that loves to play tug, for the energy and interaction that I can get from a tug toy.  And I want a dog that wants to play fetch, both for the ring objects that will come to be very important over time, and also for the opportunity to get in distance rewards.  And lets face it, when I’m feeling a bit lazy a ball is a lot easier than a tug.

With these considerations and interests in mind, I moved forward with each training session – always considering the balance between learning new skills (often with food), encouraging play with me (often with a tug) and rewarding movement (with either a ball, tug or food).

For some people, you will also want a balance between drive and precision, but I come down squarely on the side of drive – I will get precision over the very long run so it gets relatively little attention int the early puppy work.

So…how to proceed when your dog likes toys until….the food shows up?

Remember that your dog is likely to live a nice long life – training is not a race.  You do not need to get several new behaviors every day; you have time.  What you need more than anything is to get the attitude and focus; the love of interaction between you and your new puppy.  Over many months you can use food to shape your new behaviors, but for interaction and fun…..

Toys win.

If you train 15 or 20 times a week, each session will be five or ten minutes.  That is A LOT of training time for a young puppy, but only amounts to about 15 minutes total per day.  Divide these sessions up; no more than half will be food training sessions and the remainder will be a combination of toy and personal play.  Better yet, 75% of your sessions will be toy and play and only 25% will be food.  If you train this  much, your pupppy will know a ton of behaviors by six months of age but most important, your puppy will have had many many opportunities to play with toys.  If you cannot go back and forth (most puppies cannot), then separate out the sessions; one session only uses food and the next is only a toy play/drive building session.  If your dog loves toys, go ahead and teach a few things with that toy.  If puppy is not ready for that, just play.  Play and run and play and run some more.  Play.  Learn how your dog likes to play.  Learn to wrestle and tug and interact with your puppy, all at the same time.  Teach your puppy that running around with you for ten minutes a day is about as much fun as is possible.  At first you might find that your puppy hopes for food, but if you do not combine food and toy sessions, you will see what you can accomplish with each.  Do not go back and forth unless your puppy is willing, or you will teach your puppy to “hold out’ for the preferred resource.  Amazing how our dogs get us trained, isn’t it?

I have such a strong preference for toys over food that I am willing to let my food training slide altogether if my puppy will play with me.  Over the long run, I know the behaviors will all be taught easily and quickly, and then what is left is building up the attitude and speed – that is much harder with food than a toy.
Given a choice, I’d rather have a two year old dog who plays beautifully with it’s handler but knows no formal behaviors, over a two year old dog trained through Utility but completely dependent on every cookie.

In addition to working on toy play every day and not combining toy and food training sessions, get in the habit of using new toys all the time – you want your puppy to see you as the common element rather than a specific toy.  Learn about drive building toys vs. training toys, and use toys that your puppy finds highly motivational.  When you go in public, be prepared to go back to easier toys or switch back to food.  It’s ok if you use food to train in public or challenging locations while you work your toy play at home, but make sure you also make a point of going places without too much distraction specifically to work on your toy skills.  You may not care today, but you will care over the long run.

If you can get your puppy focused on a range of toys – whatever you offer – then work on getting your puppy focused on you AND the toy; not simply winning the toy and taking it away.  You can go back through this blog of Lyra’s development and see plenty of examples of how to do that. To test this, ask your puppy to do simple behaviors while holding the toy; if you get the behavior then play with the puppy. You then know that you MATTER; owning the toy in not enough for your dog – good for you!

I think the main reason trainers lose their puppy’s play drive is because they get tired of working hard….food is so easy compared to toys, and it works so well.  But this is a short term perspective wtih long term costs.  Over the long run, you want a balanced dog, or one slightly heavier on the toy interest.  Be prepared to invest yourself in the process. You’ll have to run, wrestle, play, laugh and interact – in a very real manner – if you want your puppy to learn to focus on the package of interaction which!

About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.

20 responses »

  1. Thanks for writing about this! It was great to listen to at the seminar, and having it in writing helps me remember, too. I plan on getting a collie puppy this year, and they are not known for their play drive or their desire to tug. So I’m going to be playing with him a LOT and working on relationship, and food to a lesser degree than I ever have before.

  2. lilacsanddarkness

    What if you are new to these concepts and you’ve had your dog for 2 yrs and he is now 3 yrs old… same concept? Play and make those associations? Will just take longer cuz he is older and more used to food??

  3. Ah, on Balance between food and toys, so wish I’d read this 6 or 7 years ago!!!!

  4. Awesome post! I also prefer to work with toys, and thankfully my puppy does too! Though if needed be we can use treats as well!

  5. Amy Greenwood

    One of the all-time best and most useful posts EVER on any blog for comp dog training. I have a keeper folder and a **do-not-ever-delete-under-any-circumstances* folder and this post is going in the latter.

  6. Good post. I admire your ability to train with either play or food, and to get the dog to view you as the reward. I’m envious, though, of trainers who get to start with a puppy! What would you recommend for an adult, rescue dog that has basically no toy drive? If you can’t start from puppyhood is there any hope to build toy drive?

  7. One thing i did when Arie was young was work specifically on switching between reinforcers- as separate sessions, not when i wanted to be working on something else. So i worked being able to switch her between different toys, and type of toys, and between different types of food. But I also switched between toys and food- so a 3-5 minute training session might start with me tugging with one toy, switch to another, then give her a few treats, then toss the toy for a few retrieves, give a few more treats, then tugging again. I’ve heard too many BC owners complain/brag that their dogs won’t take treats once the toy is in play, or at agility, or whatever. I completely agree that having both in your arsenal is important!

    • Oh, and she’s got great drive for both food and toys!

    • Yes, I have also worked specifically on being able to switch between the two. Now I can switch freely between them, which is wonderful for keeping training interesting and being able to use different kinds of reinforcement (rewarding distance behaviors with thrown toy, heeling with food fed in position, etc).

  8. Wonderful article! You have eloquently phrased my own training beliefs.
    Thank you for such great articles on this topic.

  9. Oh what a wonderfully HELPFUL post, and Thank You! Sure hits home with us here as I have been struggling for a long time with this concept of proper balance between food and toys as training tools.

  10. Georgia wants to THANK YOU for this post and for her great tug/fetch/play session tonight!

  11. Denise, this is excellent. Would you be kind enough to grant permission for our agility club to publish an abreviated version of this in our newsletter, with a link pointing to your blog, of course?

  12. I love this post! I’ve never read a better discussion of how to balance toy and food rewards.

  13. Your posts are so enjoyable I find myself staying up later then I should, to read and re read..then go over older blogs!! I’m very fortunate, the doberman I adopted at 16 months has awesome play and food drives, I find us playing, and training without food because I use playing with me as Dillon’s reward……or his water buffalo tugs……..he was having such a blast tonite and I totally forgot to use food. Dillon at 6 y o has even a stronger play drive then when he moved in!

  14. I had issues with my first dog only working when there was food visible. New dog trainer/first dog syndrome. I had to wait for an eternity for dog number 2 to arrive but when she did I made sure early on she would play and tug. She wasn’t particularly foodie as a baby and I didn’t push it. Food drive I think is the easiest to manipulate and I let it develop naturally.

  15. Sounds like you wrote that about me and both of my dogs Denise, because that’s exactly what I inevertenty did with Ayla took a dog with good toy drive and completely lost it when I over used the food~ but then with Kiptin as you’ve seen a tug or toy is what he lives for!! In fact if you recall ALL ring articles might be considered toys to him? I just hope I remember how and what I did right with the next puppy I train? I can use his toy to keep him contacted whenever & wherever I need it better than with the food. Thans for the great article!!!!

  16. I hear so much about this topic with puppies, but I don’t get my dogs as puppies, I rescue adults or near adult dogs. I would love to read a blog post on how this translates to the new-to-you adult dog. I’m not a fan of asking my dogs to “only” play with me…meaning that I will never withhold access to toys in my house, as my dogs need to be able to entertain themselves at times. Thoughts?

  17. “I think the main reason trainers lose their puppy’s play drive is because they get tired of working hard….food is so easy compared to toys, and it works so well.”

    Agreed. I also learned from Susan Garrett that another ‘biggie’ is trainers inadvertently rewarding their dog for refusing to play with a toy. Oh, you don’t want your toy? Okay then, have some food instead. The dog pretty quickly learns they can pick and choose what they would like to be rewarded with at that moment. If you never give in to that, and don’t reward a dog for not taking a toy in the presence of food (at first, perhaps, a good distance away from the dog), and your dog has previously ‘told’ you they find that toy rewarding in that environment, then it’s pretty easy from then on to switch between food and toys within a training session.


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