Structured Toy Play
Updated: Nov 30, 2020
Toy play can be incorporated into your obedience training just like food. Toys, along with food, are considered primary reinforcers. Toy play triggers prey and play drive in dogs, which is crucial to their survival.
Some dogs have more prey drive than others, however, toy play can bring out the drive in most dogs. The more vigorously and naturally you move a toy object, the more the dog believes it is a prey object to chase and/or engage with (ie a bunny or squirrel). Tying a string to your dog’s favorite toy to make the toy more lively is a good way to produce more natural movement.
Playing a short game of keep away, or teasing your dog with the toy without giving it right away, will create urgency for the toy and produce more interest and desire to get it in the first place (we want what we can’t have type premise). By the way, hackles by the tail exclusively can be observed in some dogs when a toy comes out. This is excitement and is different from hackles by the shoulders.
Once you “primed” your dog with brief keep away and you actually play tug-of-war, there are several natural behaviors which can be observed during play. These behaviors are instinctive and should be paid attention to:
Pulling back/tugging away from you Diving in deeper to get a fuller grip Leg wrapping Growling Shaking of the object back and forth
All of these behaviors are instinctive mechanisms to possess the object and to make sure it doesn’t get away. It is important to pay attention to these behaviors because the dog tries all it knows instinctively to possess the object and we must respond to this with an eventual defeat on our part to preserve the toy drive in our dogs. If my dog tugs very hard, over and over, and I won’t let my dog “win” the toy (give it up and let the dog have it), my dog will eventually no longer try to fight for the toy.
In many dogs, motivation to a toy is stronger than to food, only highlighting the benefits of using toys to get behaviors we want.
Phase II of toy play, then, is to pay our dogs with a toy instead of food for a behavior we liked, and then incorporating toy teasing games to get faster, more intense obedience before we actually pay with the toy.
There are limitless variations to structurally playing with our dogs while we can reinforce highly desirable behaviors.
Who wants to play?!