I have regularly written about finding your dogs’ ‘currency’ in order to make positive reinforcement training work. A reward is only going to work if your dog values, over and above, anything else, what you are offering them. Usually, it’s food, but if food is not working you can try play as a reinforcement for any behaviour you desire.
The key to using play as a reward is that you must create what professional dog trainers call ‘play drive’. Play drive means that your dog is motivated to work for the reward of a game with you. Play drive comes naturally to many puppies but is often something that is lost if it is not nurtured. If you have a puppy I would strongly recommend maintaining their play drive. Strong play drive will simply be another tool in your toolbox for motivating them to pay attention to you. If you have a dog that loves food rewards and will work for a game, it will make training so much more interesting and progressive.
The best game you can play with your dog is tug. I play tug with Ben many times a day, and have just purchased a heavy-duty (police dog style) tug toy. Tug is great because the toy keeps moving in your hand, and your dog cannot play tug on their own- they need you for this game. Tug develops play drive because the dog desperately wants the toy, it also develops a strong inclination to hold on to an object, this is perfect for retrieving.
You should know that it is OK to play tug with your dog, and it is even OK for them to win tug. Tug is meant to be a game where both of you are happy and enjoying yourselves. Sometimes dogs will growl when playing tug, this is usually OK too. However, you should be familiar with canine body language just to be sure the growl is playful. If you think of tug as a test of dominance it adds an adversarial tone to the game.
There are two rules that I have for tug. First, Ben must not make any contact with his teeth to my body, even my hands, even by accident. If this happens the game stops instantly. This means I drop the toy, even if he has it, give a high pitched ‘ouch’ and walk off calmly giving him an ‘all done’ signal. Second, when I say ‘all done’ it means the game has finished. Often I allow Ben to keep the toy if he wants to. Ben’s play drive is so strong that he does not need a toy to be new for it to be interesting, I could play with a bit of timber and he would love it.
Chase is another great game for increasing play drive. Chase is so good because you will have your dogs’ undivided attention. However, you still need a toy in your hand in case they decide to make chase a contact game, you will have something to put in your dogs’mouth. Remember that dogs’ play with their mouths, and we tend to play with our hands- the two don’t go well together without something in between. When Ben and I play, chase and tug are used together within the same larger game. Chase can work both ways, you can chase your dog, and they can chase you. Simulate a play bow by bending low with your head up during this game and your dog will not be able to resist the invitation to play.
It’s OK to chase your dog, it will not make them run away from you when you need them. Your dog wants to be focused on you while playing this game, and while you have their focus you should be able to get them to come to you if you need them. So long as you’re not chasing them, and asking them to come to you- that would be ruining the recall.
If you are having recall problems, chase your dog, then run away from them with the toy in your hand, as soon as they catch you, engage in a bit of tug, this encourages a great recall. The whole purpose of playing with your dog is to build a strong bond, where it is you they want to be with at the park, no one else. If you play with your dog in this way every day at the park they will always want to be close to you, and you should have no problem getting them to come back to you for a game.
If you are having trouble even getting your dog to play with a toy here are a few tricks that may help. Sit down and think about only having fun with your dog. Don’t worry about what you want in the end, just enjoy the moment. Wriggle the toy along the floor, not in front of your dogs’ face, you need to get the chase instinct happening first. If your dog shows any interest in chasing the toy continue to wriggle it until they are making contact with the toy with their mouth. You will need to give your dog lots and lots of verbal praise during this time for even wanting to interact with the toy. Tease your dog with this toy as much as you think you can get away with without them losing interest.
You can also try tying your dog up and teasing them with the toy until you get a response. Another technique is to take the toy with you when you know your dog will be excited- when you get home, when you get the lead out for a walk or first thing in the morning.
Be mindful of the kind of toy you think your dog may like. Some dogs like rubber, others prefer soft toys, and others still like squeaky toys. You may even like to use the toy to play tug with other dogs in front of your own dog to create drive. Whatever toy you use it must be a toy that you can interact through with your dog. Tennis balls are no good, you will never get a good grip on one in your dogs’ mouth, but a tennis ball on a rope is perfect. Remember that the toy is supposed to create drive with you, you are going to be the other player in this game. Without you, the game ceases to be interesting for your dog.
Once you are getting consistent interest from your dog, your next few months should be spent on tug games. Avoid asking your dog to do anything for you like ‘give’ (that’s an article I will write for another day), allow them to win, bring the toy back to you, and play more tug. While you are building drive, just play. Once you can get a good game of tug happening anywhere, you will have created a dog that has good play drive.
Any time you see the progression of your dogs’ interest, end the game. If your dog does not have a strong play drive or you are trying to build drive, you should put the toy away until the next time you play. The game should end when your dog is at the height of excitement, or high in drive. This will set the scene for the same feeling next time you bring the toy out.
In order for play to be successful, both you and your dog must be in good (as a minimum) physical shape. Playing with your dog is very labour intensive, you and your dog need to be strong and fit. It is great exercise, 30 minutes of intense play with Ben leaves me and Ben tired.
Once you have a dog that has a high play drive you can use the toys and games as a reinforcement for any behaviour you like.
It amazes me that Ben can play with me for such long periods, during which time he has been concentrating fully on me and the game. What a great way to build brain cells, build fitness, and build a bond.