Building Java’s Toy Drive

I love playing with a dog who goes crazy for a toy. We can tug, play chase, hide the toy or fetch… it’s all so much more interesting and thrilling than training with food. I love seeing Ruby’s eyes get wide with excitement when I bring out a ball or a frisbee, and sometimes the arousal gets so high it’s hard for him to think. That is a fun challenge to have.

I remember wishing that Ruby would learn to play fetch when he was a little pup. I knew very little about dog training and was in awe of labradors that would tirelessly retrieve tennis balls. It took Ruby many months before he would retrieve anything outside and when I talked to other whippet owners at the time this seemed a common problem to have. It took a bit longer still before he learned to love it. But learn he did and these days he will recall from deer for a chance to play fetch.

One of the biggest goals I have for Java is that she will learn to love toys so much that she will give me her best when training with them and I will be able to train agility without food. When I picked Java from the litter I knew that she preferred food over toys, but she did have a lot of interest in chasing/grabbing a toy so wasn’t worried about it.

However playing by herself and being jazzed up about playing with me (not just winning the toy and running away with it) are two different things. I want her to go crazy again and again so that I can do at least 10 repetitions of a behavior per session. And I want her to bring the toy back so I don’t have to wait for her to get tired of it first.

Through trying different things I settled on these games:

  • Playing with toys “just because”, without teaching her anything – this usually ends with Java sprawled over my legs chewing on the toy 🙂
  • Play with the toy I’ve got 1 – I take two identical toys, play with one, ask her to drop, play with the second one etc.
  • Play with the toy I’ve got 2 – I dump five different toys on the floor and decide which one we’ll play with. After a while I choose the next one and so on until we’ve played with all five. Of course sometimes Java doesn’t agree with my choice of toys, but I work on it until she does 🙂
  • Tugging on a toy for a few seconds, then run away so she chases me with the toy. Tug some more.
  • Retrieving toys for food.
  • Playing training games with toys (no food involved).

I would never have guessed that playing training games with toys could build love for playing with me. It seems like trying to put the cart before the horse: how can you reward with play if play is what you’re trying to build? But this is exactly what happened with Ruby when we started training agility, so I gave it a try with Java as well. And it works. With very easy, ultra short, very exciting training sessions both dogs began asking for more play. First we did 1-2-3 game where Java sits while I move away, release her and run. Second game was Cik & Cap around a cone. Both games can be seen on her 5-months video.

With these games the gap between food and toys is closing fast. She loves to fetch squeaky balls and almost doesn’t have time to eat food when she brings one back, she is so eager for me to throw the other one. I take that as a sign that she will soon start to refuse the food in this situation – the balls will win!

The other day I tested her understanding of a simple retrieve by having her fetch a bone she has been chewing on previously. How did she do? See the video 🙂

I love how she is retrieving straight into my hand, which is something that I struggled teaching to Ruby. The trick was to teach her to target my palm with her nose whenever I present it. At first we did it when she didn’t have a toy in her mouth, later with a toy and finally we got the retrieve. (Thanks Susan Garrett for the idea!) Another trick was to put the reward into the palm to which she retrieved instead of feeding from the other hand. This way the feeding hand is not competing for her attention.

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