Use It Or Loose It

The popular saying holds true for play skills, too. For a while as I wanted to prevent Java’s wrist from swelling I didn’t dare to play much with her. I was afraid that movements from side to side and quick turns as she’s chasing the toy would put too much stress on her wrist. The vet told us that we should be careful with that wrist for four months and during this time we almost completely stopped using toys in training, only food, which is Java’s favorite anyway.

What happened? The same thing that happens to all dogs with whom their handlers only use their very best reinforcer – Java’s love for toys diminished and so did her play skills. She was still very happy to play outside (dogs can have different rankings of reinforcers depending on location), but not so much at home. If I initiated play in the living room she would grab the toy and tug halfheartedly and hope that treats are going to appear soon.

The solution for a dog who doesn’t like to play is simple: play more! Very short and fun sessions, ending in what dog likes the most. This is what worked for Java:

  • Playing before each food training session, therefore transferring value from food to play.
  • Occasionally reward the best play with food which I don’t have on me at the beginning, so the reward is a surprise. This is not the same as teaching play as a trick. I am just following what she already enjoys (play) with what she enjoys even more (food), as a surprise. Who doesn’t like a nice surprise? 🙂
  • Playing with two balls, teasing her.
  • Lots of toy chasing. This is the type of play she likes the most.
  • Restrains to a toy in which I pretend to race her. She gets VERY intense, speeds like a bullet and her turn back with the toy is just amazing. She would make a great Flyball dog.
  • She loves surprise downs and sits in the middle of Two Toy Game and she’s pretty darn good at them, too. Yes, playing becomes higher value if she has to work for the toy 🙂

I don’t have many rules as we play, but I do expect her to play with which ever toy I offer even though there might be more exciting toys within her reach. This rule is important to me, because it means that she is willing to ignore distractions while playing. In this case the distraction is a better toy than I have, some other day it could be treats in the grass or another handler playing with her dog nearby.

Here is a clip in which we’re brushing up on Play With My Toy and just building up the value of toy play:

It took a few sessions for her to stop hoping that I will play with The Beaver if she carries him around long enough. Now she will drop The Beaver immediately as I reach out for the other toy, even if it’s just old fleece.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “Use It Or Loose It

  1. MaryHope Schoenfeld

    That was inspiring! What a wonderful relationship you two have 🙂

  2. Molly has a cow and a fluffy bed sock with a ball in the toe she has been enjoying short sessions training and it helps her motivation for agility. Megs is a different story no tugs but when she at least chases the toy and touches with nose I give her food rewards Got to love those whippets beautiful dogs. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Yeah they have their preferences. Even if they just chase a toy it’s still fun 🙂 Actually for both of mine the best game by far is a game of fetch with a ball thrower – not something I can play in my living room 😛

  3. Linda

    Thanks for this – you must have read my mind :-). I’m working on the same with my pup but the other way round he is toy driven so working on building his value for food rewards. Also finding he has his favourite toys and not to so excited about the lower value toys so working on that too, thanks for the tips. My whips also love their ball thrower, Lacey to chase the ball and Basil to chase Lacey chasing the ball :-). By the way, liking your new rug!

    • Yes! The new rug makes the first appearance 🙂 We were all a bit sad without a rug, I think.
      I’m glad you found it helpful 🙂 It can feel a little daunting sometimes trying to sort these things out, but I find it very worthwhile. Some day your pup will be a pro and you will forget that there ever was a problem 🙂

  4. joycejaskula

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE this video….my ideal kind of training and bonding. joy You only live once-but if you work it right, once is enough.

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