Everyday Dog Training: Tips to Training with a Toy instead of a Treat

We have all heard the term "Positive Reinforcement Training". We associate this term with a reward-based system of training. The reward  referred to is usually a dog treat. But did you know you can train your dog just as effectively, and some arguably even better, with a toy instead of that treat.

While treats motivate dogs by accessing their primal food drive, toys access their primal prey and play drives. Dogs that learn to play, really love it.  Have you ever watch agility competitions? You will usually see a dog go through a series of obstacles and at the end of the round, the owner plays with them - usually a tug or ball. Why, because dogs love playing and interacting more with their owner than just getting food bites.

What are the benefits to training with a toy?

1. You don't have to worry about your dog gaining weight or being allergic to the treat.
2.  Play will endear your dog to you. They want to engage with you because they want to play!
3.  You will never get frustrated if your dog doesn't want a specific treat. If you have a toy they love, it is easy to encourage them.
4. Your dog will develop a focus that you will not be able to achieve when training with a treat. Why? Because some toys, or games like retrieve, access a dog's prey drive. They start to think about how they can get what you have.
5.  You don't have to have the toy in your hand. It magically "appears" to the dog after they perform what you want.  They start to offer behaviors because they want to play!  This is actually my favorite phenomenon.  I love it when my dog starts to do fun stuff for me without asking. They sit, or lay down, or bounce off a tree!
6.  As dogs grow to adulthood, they generally become less treat oriented. Some folks with adult dogs might have this issue.  But as treat drive goes down, toy drive generally stays consistent.

Rules to training with a toy (to me, there are 3 major rules)

1.  You must find a favorite toy. Some it's tennis balls others it's a tug.  My dogs love the kong or a tug.
2.  You can not let your dog play with your training toy without you present.  What does this mean? This means you must NEVER leave your toy out in the open. It only comes out when you train. Then it becomes SPECIAL.
3.   Your dog must be trained to release on command and play on command.
  • This means, in fetch, they must fetch the ball and bring it back to YOU. Not 20 feet from you and lie down or over to the shade and lie down. They must bring it to you. 
  •  If you play tug, your dog must release that tug when you ask them to, then start tugging again when you give them the cue words.  For my dogs, the release word is OUT. To start the tugging game, I say YES.

Here is Nanook, demonstrating her new trick: BOUNCE. Notice these three items as you watch the video:
  1. I used a Kong to train this trick.  
  2. I place the Kong against the tree to show her where I want her to go. 
  3. When she performs the trick, I say YES and toss the Kong.
A little bit about Nanook:  She came to me as a foster in September 2013.  At the time I write this, I have had her little less than a year, about 9 months.  She came to me as a victim of neglect.  She did not know how to play. She was an only dog who had no one to interact with. She was severely malnourished and had a host of infections.  In the past 9 months, I have encouraged her play/prey drive to the point that I can teach her things like this.  It has deepened our relationship.  Because she has a high drive, we are now an agility team and we practice at a local dog club.

I am telling you about Nanook's background because even if your dog is an adult, you can play with them and train them using a toy. You just have to make sure you get the toy back!  If your dog has a hard time playing, they only need your encouragement and consistency. I am NOT a dog trainer.  I am your everyday dog owner and dog sport affeccionado.  I love my dogs and I love interacting with them.

Do you currently train your dogs? What do you prefer - treats or toys? How do you use them?

This post is part of the Training Tips Tuesday blog hop, hosted by DOGthusiast and Tiffany's Diamond Dogs.