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Food Play – “Prey Hand”

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In my new book with Deb Jones titled: Dog Sports Skills Book 3: Play!  we discuss a food play technique that uses food called “Prey hand game”.  Those of you who have taken seminars with me may recognize this as “Wiggle Wiggle”.  You can find it on page 198.

To help readers visualize this food play technique with movement, here is a video of Brito and Lyra.

This is one of my favorite ways to get a dog moving and it is extremely well suited to dogs that are tentative or who have lower food interest.  With the emphasis on quick finger movement, many dogs who enjoy prey activities more than food options really enjoy this.

Note that this is a technique for building drive and energy, not precision.  Pick the reward strategy that makes sense for your dog!

This video shows the technique.  You might want to give it a try; most dogs love this!

If there are other techniques from any of our books that you would like to see demonstrated in video, put a comment below and I’ll see what I can do.





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I recently asked for blog post suggestions and several of my facebook friends suggested exploring the topic of ‘play’.

Great topic!  Important!  Teachable!  But way too big to attempt in a blog post, so if you’re really interested in developing your understanding of Play (with toys, food or just your charming self), then you’ll need to pony up $65 and take a class that I teach on-line.

This class is designed for all sports – agility, obedience, flyball, etc.  Actually, it’s designed for anyone who wants to have a more playful relationship with their dog, whether they compete in dog sports or not.  We’ll explore possibilities for playing with a variety of “types” of dogs, and hopefully you’ll leave the class with a much greater arsenal of options than you started with.    This class won’t spend much time talking about applying your play skills to performance – it’s about using play to develop a relationship with your dog, hence, the rather dull title, “Building Relationship Through Play”.   Remind me to work on that.

You can read more about the play class here:

I’m also teaching a class just for little dogs.  It’s called, “I’m just little!”.  Which suggests that I can come up with catchy titles if I’m in the right frame of mind.

As I hope you know, a dog is a dog – size does not affect how a dog learns but there are challenges specific to the trainers of small dogs.  If you need help building up confidence in your pint-sized pup, want to learn how modify your play style so that your diminutive dog is more comfortable, or are looking for the secrets to making distance work easier for your itty bitty, then this class may well be for you.  We spend time on play in this class as well – just like the play class but with modifications for the littles, and I’ll also give you a variety of foundation behaviors to work through.  To be honest, you’ll learn quite a bit of useful stuff that can be applied to dogs of all sizes, but the focus will be on the smaller or less confident set.

So…that’s it for this blog.  Shameless advertising.  And if neither of those classes gets your pupils dilating, check out the rest of the schedule; we’re offering more than twenty classes this term.

The school has a clear mission; to support kind and respectful dog sports training.  From there, you can design a route that works for your team.  There aren’t a lot of rules.

Hope to see some of you there!

Building Engagement Through Play!

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If you’ve been following my blog, then you know I’m a huge advocate of playing with dogs regardless of your sport or personal interests.

I also know that many people are a bit stuck.  Stuck on where to begin.  Stuck on how to progress. Good at one type of play (maybe with toys) but mystified by another type (often personal play).

Starting Dec. 1st, 2013,  I’ll be teaching a class on this topic; if you’re struggling then maybe it can help you.  Registration for this class is now open.  Gold and Silver spots have already filled but you’ll learn tons at Bronze level and heck…it’s only $65 to read all of the lectures and watch all of the videos (about 65 of them at last count).  Plus you’ll watch the Gold students as they submit their videos and recieve feeback in the forums.  You’ll be a silent observer:).

To help you understand what the class will cover, the rest of this blog is the first lecture from the class. I hope to see many of you there!

Lecture #1: Three primary types of play (Toy, Personal and Food Play) 

The topic of play is vitally important to me.  My goal in this class is to give you very detailed and specific information – to provide mechanical, mental, and emotional skills that set a stage where excellent play can flourish.

Good play should not be measured by which techniques you choose to use; all forms of play can be useful and helpful.  Good play should be measured by the amount of enjoyment it generates between you and your dog.  If specific techniques generate energy, engagement, enthusiasm and stress relief, then they are the “right” technique for your team.  There are many different ways to play with toys, food, and physical interaction to appeal to the greatest range of dogs possible.

Play will give you another way to appreciate your canine friend.  It will allow you to do the same things with your dog that people like to do with each other (play games, share food and interact personally).  It takes your relationship with your dog to another level!

Do you absolutely have to play with your dog in order to be an effective trainer?  No, but you are limiting your options if you don’t take advantage of the many forms of play that are available to you.  Play can elevate your training in ways you never imagined.

The more play skills you are able to develop, the greater your chances for developing a  training program that will be highly enjoyable for both of you.  Each type of play brings different benefits to your work and to your relationship, and therefore are worthy of your attention.

Let’s look at the three types of play that will be covered in this class:

Toy Play:

Few topics have created more argument, confusion and anxiety between trainers than discussions of playing tug with their performance dogs.  It is hard to overstate what a good game of tug can do for you in terms of increasing intensity and focus for work in your dog.   Dogs that enjoy tug bring very high levels of energy, enthusiasm, and joy to the game – all of which can be used to motivate and refine performance work for that dog.  This is most obvious when the dog begs the trainer to play – and refuses to be denied.  These dogs often teach their trainers how to play rather than the reverse.  They are highly forgiving of play errors on the trainer’s part because the game is so important to them.  Dogs bred from working lines or for working sports (IPO, herding, terriers, sporting dogs, and so on) can be very powerful and persistent in their games of tug.  It is not a coincidence that these dogs make up a high percentage of dogs at the top performance levels in IPO, agility and obedience.

On the other hand, there are some dogs that are low in innate toy interest, or are simply lower energy dogs altogether.  Sometimes trainers who have limited experience with these less driven dogs are highly judgmental of those teams that have not learned to play, leading to significant pressure to MAKE the dog play. These trainers seem to suggest that if the dog cannot play then the owner is at fault – they simply haven’t tried hard enough.  Furthermore, the implication is that the dog cannot succeed in performance competition without this skill, so the pressure mounts on the owner to make it happen.

If you MAKE your dog do something that he doesn’t really want to do, you’ll have exactly the opposite effect of what was intended.  Best case scenario:  the dog learns to find joy in the game in spite of the methods used to teach it.  Worst case scenario:  the dog develops anxiety at the sight of the trainer or a toy.  Regardless, there is simply no reason to approach any activity involving your dog with this type of preexisting pressure.  Rarely does a stressed out and pressured trainer produce a confident and happily playing dog.

On the other hand, if trainers lack the mechanical skills to make tug a rewarding activity for their dogs then they will struggle to make interactive toy play fun regardless of how much the dogs might want to play.

Good tug play is a mechanical skill.  Good tug is also an emotional and interactive skill.  If you do not make a point of investing yourself in the game, then you will lose the benefits of the relationship building aspects of toy play.  Ideally the dog learns to love to play tug.  Then the dog begins to associate you with this fabulous game, adding value to your smile, movements and personal interactions with your dog.  This side effect of classically conditioning YOU with the fun of the game is huge, especially if you plan to compete in sports where you will not have access to your external motivators for long periods of time.

Most of the dogs who compete in AKC performance events (agility, rally, and obedience) fall somewhere in the middle.  The trainer states that their dog cannot or will not play, but these dogs WILL play if presented with the game in a positive and interactive manner by a trainer with good mechanical skills.  They have the genetic capacity to play, and to truly enjoy the game, but they require some help to recognize how much fun interactive toy play can be for them.   A trainer that understands the subtleties of play, or who is naturally inclined toward it, can often bring this playfulness to the surface where it can be used to significantly enhance time spent working or training together.

While these “middle of the road” dogs don’t always express the intensity and commitment shown by the “natural players”, many of them WILL develop a love of toy play which can surpass their interest in food as a motivator.  This alone makes interactive toy play a game worthy of attention.  Even if a dog does not reach this level of commitment (preferring food to toys) there is still significant value to toy play as an addition to food in training – making it well worth the effort.


What is it?

Personal play is play that occurs between you and your dog – and nothing else. There are no toys, balls, or food to provide a focal point.  All of the interaction occurs directly between the two of you.  This skill is difficult to master because each dog is a unique individual, requiring careful attention and study to know how best to engage; there is no formula or shortcut.

Puppies tend to take to personal play extremely easily.  The easiest way to learn this skill is to practice with a puppy, and then take on your adult dogs.  Like humans, dogs can lose the skills of play if they do not practice them as they mature.  This does not mean you cannot bring the interest back but you’ll have to work harder and more thoughtfully to bring out your dog’s playful side.

Why we do it

Personal play has a tremendous range of benefits for both the dog and trainer. Teams engaged in personal play almost always generate a good deal of shared energy.  Rather than a dog leaping and jumping alone, the team is leaping and jumping together!  This energy is highly usable and trainer focused; an excellent physical, mental and emotional state for the dog to be in when training.

Personal play relieves stress.  When a team is engaged with each other, smiling and laughing, it’s hard to be nervous.  When a team that can normally play well is unable to do so, it is also an excellent barometer of distress.  It is possible that something needs to be done to help the dog (or trainer!) feel more comfortable in that given environment.

Because personal play is so individualized, trainers must watch their dogs carefully to have a sense of what works.  If a specific sound causes a dog to “smile” and cock his head sideways, listening, then the owner must make a mental note that this is a possible play trigger for that specific dog.  Trainers that appreciate personal play spend a good deal of time simply studying their dogs, watching interactions with children, strangers, and other dogs.  This time spent watching your dog is excellent both for general relationship building and also for finding the keys to engage your dog’s playfulness.

Personal play encourages natural focus.  When a dog is not sure what you are going to do next, he tends to pay attention, simply because you are interesting.

One of my favorite uses of personal play is to reduce the use of ‘classic’ food and object based rewards.  This is particularly valuable if you participate in dog sports where routines can be long and the opportunities for food or toy play do not exist in competition

Because personal play has no rules beyond enjoyment, the sky is the limit in terms of what you can think up that might work for your dog.  Some dogs love to play “foot” games where you reach out and pretend to grab their feet (or take hold very gently).  Some dogs enjoy light pushing and shoving.  Other dogs do not want to be touched, but they love to come towards you and into your space.  Because personal play is so customizable, trainers can spends months or years learning how to best engage their dogs – an enjoyable process for those of us who really value our canine relationships.

play vs. praise/approval:

Play is energizing and praise is soothing – both build your relationship with your dog.  Both are very important but for different reasons!  Praise and approval tells your dog that you are there for support and that you enjoy her company.  Praise in the form of stroking, belly rubs, massages, and hugging is wonderful for your relationship.

Even more important, the ability to praise your dog and express your personal approval often needs to come before a dog will be relaxed enough to play with a person.  Play takes more than a dog who is interested in engaging; it takes trust.  Just as people rarely “let loose” and play with people that they do not have a relationship with, the same is true for dogs.

Never discount the value of praise and personal approval.  Indeed, I would suggest that many people start their “relationship through play” journey by taking a hard look at how they praise their dogs and express approval, beyond handing over a cookie.  If you cannot praise, you will truly struggle to play.


What is it?

Let’s start by considering each word independently:  “food” and “play”, and discuss what each brings to the table for dog training.


Food is a primary motivator for all organisms.  It is the most innately powerful choice of reward for many (but not all) dogs.  Food drive is closely linked to survival of the newborn and very young puppy.  The successful puppy aggressively seeks out the source of food (mom) and competes against their litter mates to survive.  A puppy with low food drive is not likely to survive.  As a result, even after thousands of years of domestication, most dogs have at least a minimal level of food drive which we can then harness for performance work. At this time food is the most popular motivator for many performance trainers


For our purposes, I’m going to define play as interactive (play between dog and handler), enjoyable, and requiring movement, energy and focus. “Food play”, therefore, combines the elements of play (movement, energy, focus and fun) with the act of eating (primary reinforcer and highly motivating for most dogs). Using food does NOT mean you are using food play.  It takes conscious choice and effort to make play a part of your food use.

Why we use food play

When we combine play with food, we pull together the best traits of play with the very strong motivating value of food.

A dog that is handed a cookie may or may not express energy to get the food.  For example, a trainer that approaches her dog and places a piece of food in his mouth is not playing with her dog, but she is using food in training. The dog is eating without putting out effort to get the food.  There is no motion, interaction, or “fun” involved, but he will still enjoy the food.  This is not always a bad thing.  It might be exactly the right approach for training that dog to do a particular task, but it is NOT food play.

On the other hand, a dog that runs across the yard at full speed to chase down a trainer with a cookie is showing many qualities that we associate with play in performance training.  The dog is engaged with the trainer and moving with speed, energy and focus towards the goal.  This dog and trainer are engaging in food play.  The trainer has become more than a simple cookie dispenser.

Food play builds interest in food as a reinforcer because it combines food with prey and hunt interests.  For example, when a piece of food is tossed away from the dog, the dog “chases” the food in order to eat it.  The chase is a clear aspect of predatory behavior and is intrinsically motivating for most dogs.  If a piece of food is placed under a sofa cushion where a dog must sniff it out in order to eat it, we can see the behavior of a dog that is using his nose (hunting) to get that piece of food.  If a dog chases his trainer and then leaps high into the air to grab the food, the dog is interacting closely with the trainer in play to get that cookie.

Handing over a cookie is certainly satisfying on a basic level for a dog, but engaging in play behaviors to eat builds the “fun” into your interactions and training.  Using one’s body – running, chasing, leaping — is fun for dogs.  And for people too!

Food play can make each piece of food much more valuable, due to the energy and interaction that each piece requires. Rather than food being an event which takes just seconds to complete (into the mouth and down the hatch), each piece can take twenty or thirty seconds from the start of the ‘reward marker’ until it is totally consumed.  This entire period is part of the reinforcer and adds great value to the food reward itself.

Food play encourages stronger and more direct dog trainer interactions.  It is close to impossible not to get personally involved when food is used in a highly active manner.

Best uses of food play

Food play is an excellent way to build love of work and trainer interaction in puppies.  Most puppies have strong food drives.  By using the food in play you are building in interaction and relationship with the trainer.  The dog learns that it is more than food; it is also about the game.  Later we will call this game “work.”  Food play is one of the first games most puppies will play with their trainers.

Food play brings energy to work for dogs of all ages.  It is very difficult for a dog to chase you for food and not put out energy.  This energy can then be channeled back into work.

The more you play games with food, the more you will build value in the food itself. When a dog has to work hard for a bit of cookie, that cookie develops value both for itself (yum!) and for the process that led to it (effort and energy!)  In this way, you build effort, energy and food desire simultaneously.

Food play is also an excellent choice for dogs that simply do not value (or have not yet learned to value) toy play.  The games that your dog comes to enjoy with food can be transitioned into the same games with toys.  Using food play in training is a good option while you work on teaching your dog to interact with toys, since one should never try to teach behaviors using a motivator that your dog does not actually want.  Teach the dog to love toys, but in the meantime, train with food play if that is your dog’s clearest interest.

Food play guarantees that you will get actively involved with your dog.  Use food play to develop your working relationship with your dog.  As with so many aspects of “play”, we use food play in training to have fun.  The more fun you have with your dog in training, the more both of you will look forward to your working sessions.  Dog and trainer teams that are enjoying their training are a good deal more likely to find success in dog sports and to have fun doing it!

Food play/control:  If you’re reading this and the LAST thing you want is to teach your dog is to chase food and love it even more, then you can emphasize “Control” over drive.  Let’s consider this.

Control based games allow the dog to be rewarded quickly and directly with food – after they perform a task of self control.  When self control is added within the context of a game, dogs quickly recognize that they “need” their handlers – listening and responding to cues leads to what they want – the cookie!

Control and drive building games are two sides of the same coin; the primary difference in in where the control is being supplied – if you physically hold your dog back, then you are building drive (and eroding self control).  If you ask the dog to hold themselves back through self control, then you are building impulse control – and the explosive release to the reward maintains the dog’s interest in the activity.

Which ones should you focus on?  I’d suggest that you strive for balance; as much as possible, you want a 49/51 split.  I like to see a dog that is ready and willing to spring forward at any time, but that has the ability to turn on self control as needed or desired before they “spring”.  I do not think that dogs need “one or the other”.  I believe that dogs need to be evaluated constantly as they grow and mature in both age and their work.  Select games that give you what you want more of.  If you think your adolescent male is getting a little out of hand, emphasizes self control games.  If you think your wallflower needs to let loose, emphasize drive building games.  There is a also a matter of personal choice about what we each like to see in our dogs.  I like dog closer “to the edge” so I train in a higher state of arousal – often sacrificing control.  Other handlers prefers dogs in a more thinking state – so that handler would train with a greater emphasis on a clear head and lower levels of arousal.  Both are fine.

First Written Assignment:

Having read the prior lecture, I’d like you to consider your dog for a moment and answer the following questions.  Think in terms of your dog’s behavior in a comfortable and quiet space, such as home or wherever you normally train.

  1. On a scale of 1 to 10, Rate your dog’s current interest in each form of play (food, toy and personal).  Feel free to expand beyond a number.
  2. How much time have you put into playing with your personally?  With toys? With food?  Use a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “almost never” and 10 being “all the time!”  Consider each element separately.
  3. What percentage of your training time do you reward with food?  Toys? Personal play? (this may not add up to 100% if you frequently combine motivators)
  4. Review the above information.  Do you see any patterns?
  5. Does this information provide you with any goals for this class?

Homework Example (Lyra)

  1. Food interest – 5; Toy Interest – 8; Personal Play/praise – 5.  Food  and personal play interest are non-existent under many public circumstances but overall, food and personal play interest is increasing with age and experience.  Over the last couple of months I’ve been focusing on using food more in training and it’s definitely increasing her food interest.  The first time I considered Lyra’s food interest, I had her at a 3 – that was about a year ago.  Today I have her at a 5.  So..progress!  Lyra’s toy interest is high.  I’m working hard on using personal play and praise and we are slowly progressing.
  2. Food – 3; Toy – 10;  Personal Play – 6  It is not a coincidence if  you find that these numbers closely correlate to the numbers above for your dog – what we emphasize is often what grows to be the most powerful motivator.  In Lyra’s case , I emphasized toy play heavily – and I continue to do so!  I  am also also making a point of spending time on personal play.  Food play is the most challenging for me because I enjoy it the least, but I am making an effort to stick with it.
  3. Food Training – 85%; Toy training 50%; Personal Play 75%; In an “average” five minute training session, I use all three motivators . I almost always combine personal play with toy play at this time; I like what I’m seeing in terms of engagement but I try to focus more on the personal play and less on the toy (touching the dog while she holds a toy).  I do need to mention that the life motivator of “swimming in the pool” is Lyra’s most powerful motivator – the pool is used at the end of many training sessions when she does a particularly difficult exercise or works for a longer than average period of time without reinforcement and with high quality.  I also use food a good deal when we train details in the house – normally this is not food play as much as food for rewards – given to her in position.
  4. Patterns:   A few months ago, based on the patterns that I was seeing in my training, I made major changes to Lyra’s training.  I began to spend a good deal more time on both personal play and food in training – and it’s helped!  While not yet at the levels of interest that I might like, she is much stronger in both of these areas and we have not lost anything in terms of toys because that interest is already so strong and I maintain it while working on personal play.
  5. My goal for this six weeks:  continue to increase the amount of time I spend on Food training and personal Play.   I’d like to practice more personal play without the toy – but without losing the quality of her personal play when she’s holding a toy.

Review this lecture.  Think about it!  Ask questions and feel free to talk to me about what you’d like to see in your dog at the end of the class.  Tomorrow I’ll ask you to submit a baseline video and after that we’ll get to the nitty gritty details of toy play.

And we’re off!

To register for this class, go to:


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I know that 90% of you take food training for granted.  Food shows up and your dog gets happy.  For most people that is a good thing, since food is the easiest way to rapidly acquire a range of behaviors needed for a performance dog.

I have one of the 10% that doesn’t care all that much about food.  She eats to live rather than living to eat.  It is possible to acquire behaviors without pronounced food interest, but it brings challenges.  The environment needs to be tightly controlled, sessions need to be very short, and patience must be in abundance.

On the plus side, lack of food interest pretty much forces a person to develop the dog’s alternative interests and to learn the absolute best ways to manage the dog’s behavior.  Lots of trial and error is required here since each dog is an individual.  Indeed, even with the same dog, strategies should change frequently, depending on the dog’s skill level, maturity and focus at any given time.

I’d pretty much given up on training Lyra with food.  I had found ways to work around it and she had a high percentage of the skills that I normally use food to acquire.

And then I found myself teaching an on-line class, where I made statements like: “the more motivators you have, the more options you have” and ” a dog with balanced drives in all areas gives the most flexibility in training” and “building up all of a dog’s drives to their maximum levels allows the most flexibility in training” and “the drives you use are the ones you build.”

The first homework assignment included a few questions such as:

“What are the motivators you use the most?” and “which of your dog’s motivators are strongest?”

Not surprisingly, there was a very strong correlation between a dog’s strongest interests and the motivators the trainers chose most frequently.

Since I’m using Lyra as my demo dog for class, I did the homework assignments as well.

So here’s what this esteemed professional trainer discovered – the one who assigned the homework:

I’m guilty of exactly what I tell people to avoid – I abandoned training and playing with food altogether.  I spent so much energy on toys and personal play that I built them up very nicely, and I probably hadn’t used a cookie in a month.

Wake up call.

After completing the homework assignment a few weeks ago, ,I got the food back out.  I worked on her play skills in a dull environment with nothing else to do.  I used the food as  a toy – I used it to reward simple behaviors in the house where we rarely work.  I reinstated some clicker training work – high reinforcement schedule and a couple of new behaviors, shaped entirely with food.

And guess what?  When I said “cookie” the other day, she snapped around and looked at me with her ears up.  She CARED.  When I locked her out of my bedroom to train another dog with food, she sat by the door and complained -she wanted her turn.

And for those of you who love to train with food – I sure see why.  It’s easy.  Effective.  Takes no time and space.  Hell, I didn’t  even stand up.  And my dog has much better shaping skills than I realized – watching her tail gently wave as she tries to understand what I want – very nice.

Pretty sad when you have to teach a class to take your own advice: Aim for balance.   Better late than never.

Play. And….shameless advertising.

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On and off I’ve talked about play on this blog.  Maybe more on than off.

I happen to find the topic completely fascinating – You and your dog; interacting in a manner that is interactive, rewarding and joyful.  Maybe using toys or food but often with nothing at all.   How can a dog person not be fascinated?

Indeed, so fascinating that Deb Jones and I ended up writing a book about it, titled “Dog Sport Skills:  Building Relationship Through Play”.

That’s the good news; a book is in the pipeline.  The bad news is that it isn’t likely to be ready for awhile, as it is the second book in the series.  While written, we’d like to publish the first book….first.  Hopefully you’re waiting on pins and needles.

So…what’s a person to do while waiting?

Well, step in Tracy Skenlar from Agility University, who has asked me to teach an on-line class for her.  Any topic I like.  Obedience, relationship, Focus, etc.

And I picked play, because it is so completely cool.

Deb Jones agreed that I could use elements from the book to simplify my life….so this class will borrow heavily from the chapters in the book that cover the skills of tug, food play and personal play (just you and a dog).  Thanks Deb!

If this topic interests you, I’d love to have you in the class.  While the working and auditing spots have been taken, there are observing spots available.  As an observer, you can do all of the reading, watching, listening and learning that you can hold.  Indeed, you can keep on reading for six months, twenty four hours a day.  Seven days a week.  Soon you’ll be teaching me!

And when the book comes out?  Well, I hope you’ll run right out and buy it!

But in the meantime, I hope to give potential players lots and lots of lots of help getting their companions to play and to interact in the most positive way possible. I’m putting a fair amount of time into designing this class, so hopefully you’ll get your money’s worth and then some.

Intrigued?  Check out Agility University; Building Relationship Through Play, at:

The class starts October 31st.  You’ll notice that the class costs money; $75 for an observer spot.  And I usually just give it all away for free right here, which is totally fine and I will continue to do that.  But hey; I’ve got a couple of kids to put through college, so this time you’ll have to pony up some money if you want to play.  I sure hope you’ll join me!  If it’s fun then I hope to teach another class in the spring – I have a totally different topic in mind:).

Play – Give and Take

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Today I began my student’s lesson with the following directive:

“Heel with your dog for two minutes without using a food or toy reward.  You may talk, play, put hands on, and make the heeling as interesting as possible.  At the end of two minutes, you may reward with food or toys, assuming the quality of work is good.  Go!”.

At the end of two minutes, I saw an overwhelmed dog and an exhausted handler.  What went wrong?

In an effort to follow my direction, the handler tried to use her intensity, energy, motion, and high pitched, fast paced cheering to “pull” energy out of the dog.  Unfortunately, the end result was that she 1) overwhelmed the dog, and 2) failed to notice the subtle changes in her dog’s behavior which she could have used to improve the session.

The amount of energy you give to your work must be a reflection of your dog’s energy – both what he is giving and what he needs or wants to perform well.  Instead of thinking in terms of speed, quantity of noise, and erratic motion, think in terms of ENGAGEMENT.  Are you 100% engaged with your dog?  Is he responding by engaging with you?  How have you communicated that engagement?  Are you using “bursts” of intensity and energy to reward your dog’s efforts, or are you frantic?

What can you do if your trainer tells you to use personal interaction to keep your dog working for you?

Ideally, your dog does SOMETHING to start the game of work.  Eye contact?  Smile at him!  Ears up?  Tell him he’s a fine boy!  Wagging tail?  Admire how nicely it wags!  Strong eye contact?  Make an erratic move in your heeling that rewards him for his good focus….because he was watching he saw your quick tap on his shoulder followed by a spin to the right.  Good boy; look how your handler can’t fool you!  Laugh at his efforts!  Make silly sounds!  Get slow and “stalky” in your posture, and take off running; then snap back into heeling!  Think about how adults play with children; dogs aren’t so different.

Now you have a game; a dance.  The dog and the handler should be subtly shifting the balance of engagement back and forth; you offer a play move and your dog responds.  Your dog asks to play and you agree with the right amount of energy for your dog and his stage of training.  In my mind, work and play are the same, so your dog can either offer a work based behavior or a play behavior – I’m ok with both.

If you need more raw energy from your dog to get started, go ahead and use a toy or a food game to wake your partner up; then try out your play moves.  By waking your dog up first, you’ve made it likely that SOMETHING will happen which you can acknowledge and respond to. As a general rule, I give less as my dogs give more – I expect more and more work of a higher quality before I engage in play – but when I play, then I give a lot to the game.  100%.   It’s up to me how long I play; a function of the age and developmental level of the dog, the difficulty of the work, and how I’m reading the dog on a given day.

My handler took responsibility for following my directions, but she failed to follow her dog’s cues.  In her efforts to please me, she missed the effect her energy was having on her dog.  It’s always ok to ignore your trainer; it’s never ok to ignore your dog.

At one point in the session, the handler made little “shhhh” sounds at her dog; his ears came up and he cocked his head.  THAT was an opportunity to lower her body and cock her head back at her dog; complete with a smile and wide open eyes.  Who knows where that might have gone?  Maybe he would have offered a play bow?  Or wagged his tail a little harder?  I cannot know because she did not respond to his interest; she continued on her path.  That was a lost opportunity to engage in genuine personal play.

Over that two minutes, the handler worked harder and harder, and the dog pulled back.  In a short period of time, the dog was giving almost nothing, and the handler was miserable.  If you ever feel miserable or frantic when you play, then you need to stop; you are on the wrong path.  If your dog ever disengages or shows active avoidance behaviors like sniffing, turning away from you, leaning away, etc, then it’s time to re-evaluate.

I’ll admit that this particular dog brings challenges.  He has high environmental awareness and minimal food/toy drive with his handler.   He knows all the work but is not terribly motivated to perform, regardless of the tangible rewards.   We’re exploring a new route – personal play – and waiting to see where it goes.  Not too far, in this first lesson.  But we talked, and the next lesson will be better.

Regardless of how you motivate your dog – food, toys, or play, you must remember that this is a game of give and take.  We give and take cues, games, and energy to bring out the best in our team. Initially it’s fine for the handler to start all or most of the sessions of work, but over time the dog should be attempting to engage you as soon as he sees that work is an option.

If you can, go out and train a dog today.  Study your dog.  Watch his reactions to your movements, noises, and facial expressions.  Try hands on play and hands off play. What captures his focus?  How can you blend that into your work, to get a stronger picture?

Today, allow your dog to train you.  It’s fun!

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!

Lyra 5.5 months – play as ????

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Playing with a mouthy puppy is different than playing with an adult, and takes a fair amount of trial and error to figure out what works best.

I don’t get upset with Lyra for biting when we play; I simply stop moving and wait for her to let go.  At this point, she tends to go for my jacket.

I’ve learned that if I keep my hands open and push the sides of her muzzle while she is in between my legs, she is the less likely to bite than when she is facing me.  This lasts for about ten seconds at the most, after which she gets too wound up and the teeth start flashing.  When Lyra was a very small puppy, she was good for no more than three seconds before the teeth came out, so we’re heading in the right direction.

My end goal is personal play with me rather than toy play, but this will take time and lots of practice to get there.  What I am looking for now is happy, interactive engagement.  I want her looking up at my face and interacting with me as much as possible, whether or not one of us is holding a toy.   To get this, I use unusual noises, clapping and body movement.  I also use the movement of the toy or food – this will keep her engaged in the game for a  greater length of time than I could get with personal play alone.  My experience is that if you play silently, most dogs will focus on the toy over the total interaction, so talking, clapping, and praising are really important right now.  If your goal is to improve your dog’s toy play, you might find that playing silently is a better choice for you, at least initially.

To help Lyra focus on the total interaction rather than the toy, I alternate between playing tug with the toy, playing with her while she holds a toy in her mouth, and playing directly without a toy.  The toy normally winds her up and leads to biting, so sometimes I’ll work her for a food reward before trying personal play.  Regardless of what I am using, I encourage her to focus on my face, hands and movement.

Lyra is starting to put some of her energy into leaping and running instead of biting – small bits of improvement over time.  Leaping and running are normally how we start our training sessions.

I have included two videos.  In the first video, Lyra is being trained in the morning when she is in a relatively good mood.  Because she is “giving” to me, I don’t do a lot of chase games; I opt for more personal interaction and toy play.

This second video was taken in the afternoon; it appears that Lyra simply wanted to nap.  This is not unusual for her – she has to grow older and develop her drive on her own schedule.  To offset her quiet behavior, I’m doing more running away chase games.

I cannot know what her adult personal play style will be.  I know that when Lyra plays with my other dogs, her preference is to wrestle and bite, and I hope to redirect that behavior into opposition reflex.  I also see some chase games, depending on who she is playing with, so maybe that interest will become  jumping up in their air and other activities that allow her to use her body.  She has too few skills to know how she’ll feel about games that involve personal contests between the two of us.   ‘

Lyra does like personal “hands on” contact in the house (petting, thumping, hugging, etc.), and I hope that I’ll find a way to incorporate that interest.  Maybe I’ll end up with a combination of jumping at my hands, direct physical contact against my body from the front or side, chasing me, pushing her muzzle or neck, and thumping on her sides and chest.  She might also get to the point where  she grabs my hands but does not bite down.

This is the last in my play series of blogs.  Now I would very much like to hear from other people who practice personal play.  How do you play with your dog?  What response are you looking for?  Can you take this behavior into the ring as a reward, or modify it somehow?  If you have a personal play style that really works for you, I’d love to see comments and video responses that demonstrate what you are doing.  Or if you have thoughts about other reasons that dogs play besides love of physical interaction, movement or contest, I’d love to hear about it – maybe that can lead to new games and a better understanding of how to interact positively with our performance dogs.   I’m looking forward to your replies!

Juno – play as movement

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Juno’s style of play is yet again different from Cisu or Raika; her style incorporates elements of each of the other dogs.

Juno’s natural style of play with other dogs is chase; chase and be chased.  Since I choose not to chase dogs, Juno has to chase me.   She is also very happy to grab hold of whatever is being chased and drag it to the ground – not my idea of a good time, so I modified that in her play by initially allowing her to hold objects when we played together.  At this time, she can chase me and body slam without biting.  I’m ok with that, but if that doesn’t work for you then redirect your dog’s energy back into work before the impact.

Juno tends to bark in play, but only if I run away from her.  I would never do that in competition, so it’s not a concern and I make no effort to change this response.

This video shows several specific play based games that I use with Juno:

1)  I give myself a head start and then allow Juno to chase me down.  If you aren’t comfortable with the body slam, ask for heeling when your dog arrives.  An easy way to set this up is to ask for a high hand touch and then take off running while the dog is still in the air.  You can see that Juno loves this game.

2) I use opposition reflex after I ask for heeling – this keeps her driving along next to me.  Basically, you are pushing the dog out of heel position so that they can drive back into it.  This is most successful with dogs that already love to heel, but if they are not there yet then use a cookie when they catch up.   If you do too much of this, you will induce crabbing and wrapping in heeling, so be careful.  Some dogs bite when they get back to you – be prepared to redirect to a toy while teaching the game.

3) I use a “race to the object” game.  In this example, I’m using her dumbbell.   As soon as it is clear that she will arrive first, I back up and call her in.  This is a great way to increase speed and drive to objects, as well as to play with your dog.  Notice that I encourage her to drive back into me by turning my back on her as she returns.  This should remind her of the chase games we played earlier.

I ended this session with more structured play; chase and hand touches followed by heeling work.

If I were to use a toy or food in her training session, I would have added that in as part of the play, rather than using the toy to reward specific exercises.  Juno is fluent on most of her obedience exercises, and I no longer want her thinking in terms of toys for correct work.  I want her to expect interaction for correct work,which may or may not include a toy. Juno has not had a toy in training for several days, but as long as she will play without one, I’m comfortable reintroducing it at this time.

If Juno had her way, she would work strictly for the ball – I think that is somewhat typical of young dogs.  But as a dog destined for competition, she has learned to accept that play is a fair substitute for hard work, and in about half of her working sessions she does not receive any other form of reward (ball or food).

Cisu – Play as Physical Interaction

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Here is a video of personal play with a physical, interactive dog – she has strong opposition reflex and likes “hands on” play.  This video shows my dog Cisu playing with me; we play a ton in the ring between exercises.  The only thing in this video that I would not do in the ring is push her with my knees or stop moving.  Always move to your next exercise as you play, unless the judge in not ready for you.

Note that Cisu always comes to me; I do not pull, prod, grab, or restrain to keep her attention.  If it is painful or irritating to the dog, it is not play – it’s a person being annoying.  To use these skills in the ring, make sure you keep your body relaxed with your hands open, high and visible, so the judge can see that you are not grabbing your dog.  You may need to tone it down depending on your dog’s behavior.  Before you try playing in the ring, videotape yourself with your dog so can gauge the appearance of your play.  Never never never grab your dog’s ruff or collar in the ring, no matter how much fun your dog might find that interaction.

I teach my dogs that open hands are an invitation to play.  To encourage a jump up, my hands are held high.  To encourage movement, I move the dog from my left to my right side, simply by varying which hand is available and changing my body postion.  To encourage the dog to push back at me, I place my open hands against the sides of their muzzle or neck.   If I need the dog to be quiet and contained, I hold my hand close to my side with my palm facing me – my dogs are trained to come into that space between my hand and my body, but they don’t’ have to heel.  They can jump if they wish.   Sometimes I pull Cisu in close to my body so I can pet or hug her, but most of the time I encourage her to move around so she can release any nervous energy that has built up during work.

Cisu is always either working or playing; there is no dead time.  This is how we trial – 100% structure.  Play is highly interactive and fun for the dog, but it is still focused and structured.

When training the beginnings of interactive play, remember to always move away from your dog.  If your dog turns away from you, your job is not to follow but to back away.  Most dogs will turn back when you do this and you can praise, cheer, and offer another opporunity to interact.  If your dog is prone to running around when excited, you’ll have to keep this sort of play toned down and highly structured.  Try teaching in a small space so “zooming” is not an option.  Feel free to use food in the beginning to keep your dog close, unless your dog begins to focus on the food – then practice short bits of play simply for the fun of the interaction.

Here’s a video of Ali in his first play session.  For those who are interested, Ali is the grandson of Cisu, the dog shown above.  He is also Lyra’s sire.