Posts Tagged With: play

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.

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Are Dogs Who Love To Train Born That Way?

Many people see my dogs perform tricks or see a video of them running agility and assume that they were just born that way. (My coworkers are convinced that whippets must be one of the smartest and most trainable breeds around.) That they were born loving tunnels, that they were born knowing how to focus on me and do tricks while there are a gazillion other tempting options around: other dogs and people, ground to sniff, birds to catch. They think their dogs could never do it because they are not like mine.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say “we tried agility one time, but she just didn’t like it”. Really? You tried one session and already concluded your dog doesn’t like it because she doesn’t run through tunnels when you ask her to?

Agility is something that dogs learn to love if you do it right. Sure, some dogs love obstacles from the get go, but not all of them. Most dogs start out liking some obstacles, but they only start liking the others once we build value for them. That means we find ways to make it lots of fun for the dog.

But not all humans want to do agility and that’s fine. Back to reasons why people think their dog wouldn’t like training. They say he doesn’t like to play so much or he takes the toy and runs away or he just can’t focus around other dogs or he doesn’t care about treats. Guess what? Ruby had all those problems (and then some). He loves training now.

My dogs like training so much because I take the time to observe what toys and treats they like, and what type of play. Imagine a special someone would observe your preferences for months so that they could arrange a perfect date for you, cooking the favorite meal for you, taking you to all the places and doing all the activities that you love the most… Would you be impressed? My dogs are, too.

Training in this way is not a duty for a dog, it’s a joy and a privilege. Something that they look forward to and they are disappointed when I don’t have the time to do it. I have never forced or begged my dogs to do agility. During first agility sessions my dog might work for 2 minutes and then have a break for 15 minutes or more. If they’re not interested in working, they don’t have to. Another dog will get their turn. Soon, they find out that I will not beg for their attention and that if they’re not ready when I am, they will loose the opportunity to have fun. However, if they do give me their attention, all their favorite treats, toys and games will rain from the sky and life will be AWESOME. We will go on that special date. Thus training becomes a privilege, not a chore.

Of course to prepare a perfect reward for my dog I have to do my homework before I ever show him agility equipment. I train tricks to see how he likes to learn, what treats he likes and what gets him excited during training sessions. I play with him several times per day. My favorite time to play is on a walk and just after the dog has come inside, which means that as I’m doing my homework we play at least four times per day. I teach him some toy games, such as tugging, Two Toy Game and retrieve. Now that we have some activities that my dogs loves to do with me we are ready to take that training in public, among other dogs.

I don’t start training agility until I know I have some reward that my dog will go ga-ga over. For many dogs that reward must be built through time, so the dog might start out just mildly interested in play, but as we play more and I learn to play better, it will become a better and better reward. So don’t worry if your dog isn’t already crazy about something. Just take what he likes the most and do short, fun session with it. Even treats can become more rewarding with time if used correctly.

After my homework is done we can start with agility, with no obligation for the dog to participate – but of course now they WANT to, because I know what makes them tick.

This is Aki. He likes jumps, absolutely loves the dog walk even though it’s narrow and high, but he says there is something sinister about those tunnels. And yet, from this video you would never guess it, because his owner took the time to bring out his playful side and to find the toy that is worth going through the tunnel for.

Does Aki love tunnels now? Not yet, but with patience and keeping it fun… he will 🙂

This is a wonderful read as well:

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Two Crazy Dogs

I’m so proud of little Java 🙂 She is determined to catch up on everything she has been missing out during this long, snowy winter.

This is a part of training we did yesterday:

What I like about this video:

  • She gets so excited about the two toy game, doesn’t matter what toys I have! I wanted to challenge her a bit by choosing two toys of unequal value – ball on a rope which she likes and ring on a rope which before this session she didn’t even recognize as a toy.
  • She switched from toys to food and back to toys without any problems. We have been working on this since the day she came home and it has paid off!
  • She continues to bop my hand even though I pretend I’m going to deliver food with the other hand.
  • She followed my body really nicely when I turned for 180 degrees (called “post turn” in agility or “follow the RZ in Recallers course)

We also did some restrained recalls with dogs barking less than 5m away and she was completely focused on me! In the past I would have used food in such situation, but yesterday I chose to play two toy game instead and I think she was more focused than she would have been with food. Toys are winning!

Today we went to play on agility equipment.

Java did some lightning fast jump wraps (Cik&Cap):

Then we played a tunnel game that I found on Silvia Trkman’s Foundations Fun DVD. Java looooooved it!

Ruby had an exciting day as well though not in the way I hoped. I took him to a really nice, wild place where he could romp around on a flexi (a luxury he didn’t get in months). I got him out of the car, taped his toes in case he would start runing, put his coat on. He was excited and I had to repeatedly ask him to calm down since I don’t want him to run just yet. Two minutes later he decided to jump over a stream, but flexi wasn’t long enough and he fell in the icy water. Huh, it seems I have forgotten what a crazy dog I have and not to let him near water in the winter because he always manages to fall in. So I took him back home to dry in the comfort of his crate…

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Two Toy Games

I recently got a question about improving tugging with a dog that prefers thrown toys (and doesn’t necessarily retrieve them 😉 ) and I thought it would make an interesting blog topic.

Note: This is not how I teach retrieve, but it is how I teach the dog to not play keep-away with the toy I have thrown. I never, ever chase the dog once she has the toy – I run in the other direction!

My Toy Is Better Than Yours

I learned the basic two toy game from a dog disc site, but I forgot where… The intention of this exercise was to teach the dog that the toy in handler’s hands was more interesting than the one the dog has. The two toys should be exactly the same so the dog doesn’t prefer one over the other. The game is simple:

  • Make toy 1 come alive, entice the dog to grab it
  • Release it and make the toy 2 come alive
  • Pick up toy 1, release toy 2 and make toy 1 come alive…

This is a lot of fun and my dogs love it! Once they’re really into the game you can also throw in a Sit or other cues to practice their listening skills while in drive 🙂

Tugging For Retrievers

In its basic form this game can be just about chasing and grabbing the toy, no tugging required. But if you have a dog that will hold on to the toy for as little as a second you can start reinforcing tugging with it. First just tug a little before releasing the toy and grabbing another one. If your dog goes crazy for a thrown toy you could also try throwing it in between, so the game now looks like this:

  • Make toy 1 come alive, then tug for a second or two when dog grabs it
  • Say Yes or another marker
  • Throw toy 2 (this is reward for tugging)
  • Make toy 1 come alive as the dog is returning with toy 2 (she will probably drop it somewhere near you)
  • Dog tugs on toy 1
  • Say Yes, throw toy 2

Or, if the dog releases the toy when you say Yes you can also throw the toy you have been just tugging on. Mix it up!

If you want a better tugger make sure that you always start with a little tugging (even if it’s just a tiny tug) before you throw any toy.

Ruby and Java were really happy to demonstrate this game for you 🙂 And the grinding noise in the beginning of video? That’s Manners Minder keeping Java occupied so she doesn’t have the time to voice her disagreement over me playing with Ruby…

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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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Eye-Mouth Coordination and Playing With Toys

I love seeing Java developing a good eye-mouth coordination! Beyond just being very entertaining to watch a dog catch food in the air the eye-mouth coordination is important when catching frisbees and for not biting my hand too often when I run away with a toy. I saw Java trying to catch kibble in mid-air a couple of times. I thought it’s unlikely for a 4 month puppy to be able to do it, but decided to test her anyway. Sure enough, she learned how to catch them really fast. Superpup 🙂

It’s exciting to see how her view of toys is expanding and maturing. In the beginning toys were primarily something to chew on and occasionally something to catch, tugging was just means to win the toy so she could chew on it. Then she learned that it was usually more fun to play with the toy I chose to play with and to drop a toy in exchange for another one. About a month ago I started teaching her two training games using toys and now they are not just objects to chase and to chew on, they are becoming a way of interacting with me. I love training with toys. There is just nothing better than seeing a whippet smile because she is playing with you.

We are also working on some easy retrieves. For some reason she particularly likes retrieving pine cones 🙂 Here she’s retrieving them at almost 3 months old (currently she is 4,5 months old):

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