Brito has a series of skills that he does reasonably well, indoors, when working for a food reward.  We’ve also been working on reducing his curiosity about the environment so that we can get work done outside as well.  To do that, my focus has been on developing his enthusiasm for toys without requiring any work at all in a challenging environment.  This has been quite a process but we’ve turned a corner. I can get a few minutes of continuous toy play – outdoors in lizard territory – with a high level of attention.  Kind of.

Now I’m putting the two concepts together – skills working for food in the house need to be attached to his enthusiasm for toy play outdoors.

The answer to “how do I do this” is simple – start rewarding simple, known behaviors, outdoors, for a toy reward.

I like it when I can say something is simple.  Instead of saying “Sit” and giving a cookie, say “sit” and throw the ball.  I like this approach because  1)it’s theoretically true and 2) it’s easy to understand.

Unfortunately, there is a 3.  Specifically, 3) the dog might not go along with your plan.

Here’s what can happen:

Handler:  “Fido, sit”

Fido:  Sit? No problem!

Handler gives Fido a toy reward rather than the anticipated cookie.

Fideo:  “oh my god!  My ball!  My ball!  I am so happy!”

Handler:  This is great; let’s do it again.  “Fido, Sit”

Fido:  “I’m am so happy!  She threw my ball!  I love my ball!”

Handler “Fido, sit!”

Fido: “Let’s do that again!  Throw that ball!  Life is good! Ball, ball, ball!  I am looking and waiting and so very happy!”   Hey, why aren’t you throwing my ball?”

Fido: “Hey, why aren’t you throwing my ball?”

And while this goes on, the handler is very likely repeating “Sit” and getting nowhere.  Fid0 acts like he has never heard that cue in his entire life.

The fact is, switching motivators can be tricky.  Dog brains sometimes fail to function when they are excited.  They see the handler mouthing words but under arousal, they really can’t cooperate, and the longer the whole failure to succeed thing goes on, the more frustration the team experiences.  Some dogs figure it out, but others just start throwing random behaviors or worse, walk away out of frustration.

Now what?  Well, there’s good training.  That would mean either using a low-value toy to try to mimic the arousal of food, or work with higher value food to mimic the value of the toy.  There is also location; introduce the toy where arousal is likely to be lower, wherever that is.  But sometimes that is quite difficult to set up.

Here’s a video with Brito.  This is within a few days of starting “perform known cues for a toy rather than a cookie.”

This isn’t good training at all.  I have not broken down the pieces small enough so that he can have success after success while performing perfectly.  I’m repeating cues, using tons of body language and getting involved well past what is generally considered “good training.”  I’m also rewarding downright sloppy work.

On the other hand,  I’m keeping him willing and in the game.  What I want for him now is to make a simple connection – the way to get the ball is to cooperate and listen for cues.

I’ve edited this training video down to two things – heeling (with lots of help) and a “down” cue. I’ve made the decision to help him out and keep him in the game; not taking anything too seriously while we work out these very beginning learning steps.

Good training?  Not really.  But it preserves my number one interest of keeping him in the game, excited for training, and learning that he can work for a toy.  Might I create issues long term by training this way?  Yep, but I know this dog.  It won’t be a problem for him.  He’s generally a clear headed dog, not very driven, and certainly not inclined to stress up and lose his brain.  That gives me a degree of flexibility that I might not have with a different dog.

We’ll progress.  That’s good enough for me.

Next week I’ll show a video to demonstrate a simple way to regain my heeling criteria – adding a hand touch in heel position before throwing the toy. But for now it’s just about having a good time.

If you want to develop your toy play, join me at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy; I have a class on Building Relationship Thru Play starting on April 1st.  Registration is open now: