Friday, June 10, 2011

It's all about me

Today I want to address Patty’s question about “Isn’t replacing a cookie with a toy just substituting one reward for another and won’t you still have problems when you go in the ring without either one?”

I admit, I’m having a hard time putting this concept into words! Please bear with me.

It’s not a matter of substitution (toy instead of cookie.) It’s a matter of building ME as the reward. I want my dog to think that working with me and giving 110% of himself is the coolest thing in the world. He’s working with me because it makes him happy and he loves it, not just working to get “paid” with a piece of cheese. The toy is just a means to an end because play builds fun and energy in a way treats can’t.

Sure, treats are great for some things and Phoenix loves them, but my overall experience has been that treats have zero carry-over value with him. When they’re gone, so is my value unless I make it obvious I have more and am willing to deliver. Then we go in the ring with no treats, and, well, you know what happens.

As others have pointed out, you don’t always need a toy to play. Just being YOU should be enough if you work at building yourself into the Super Cookie. My end goal is for Phoenix to engage with me and stay engaged (alert, focused, interested, animated, ignoring everything else) while I am cookie- and toy-free. I want him to think that no matter what we are doing, it’s the coolest thing on the planet because he’s doing it with me.

Just how do you achieve this state of canine-human nirvana?

Here it is in 500 words or less. (Just guessing on the word count, thanks Renee, for jump-starting my writer’s block, you deserve credit for most of this post.)

Try this experiment:

Go someplace where you normally train and do an obedience exercise or entire run-through without any type of reward on your body. Do you like the response you get? Is this what you want to take into the show ring? If your dog’s work is lackluster, what do you do? Pull out a cookie/toy to lure the dog into producing effort? If so, the dog has YOU trained!

There needs to be some sort of consequence for this lack of effort (i.e., a correction — not just producing goodies to lure the effort back!) I’ll write more about the corrections I’m using with Phoenix in the future. Trust me, they are not horrible. A) I simply CANNOT be horrible to my beautiful dog who loves me B) Phoenix is 52 pounds of solid muscle so my corrections need to be more mental than physical if I expect them to do any good C) I want my corrections to show him how to be right, not beat him over the head about being wrong.

So give your correction and then try the exercise again. Did the dog give you more effort this time? Even just the tiniest little bit? YES! EXPLODE AND GO BERSERK WITH JOY! Go nuts! Leap around, whoop, holler and act like your dog has cured cancer! Your dog may think you have gone insane but that’s okay. The point you want to make is that effort on the dog’s part produces supreme joy and elation on your part. Too often we have substituted a “reward” when what we should have been doing is showing our dog how much their effort means to us and that we genuinely value it.

Find out what kind of play (no toy) your dog likes — chasing, wrestling, whatever. Use it shamelessly. Roll around on the floor. Run. Squeal. Whatever. Use your body and your voice - no inhibitions allowed!

And to quote Renee, because as a journalist I simply can’t not include this quote, “It’s a sh*tload of work.”

She’s right. You’ll need to put a lot of yourself into this kind of training because if you want your dog to think you are fun and exciting, you need to BE fun and exciting. And it’s work. Did I mention that?

Does that make it clearer?

One of the reasons I’m using a lot more play now with Phoenix than I did before is because I want him to understand the value of giving effort, and asking him to play with me is a simple way to address it. (I’m addressing it concurrently with actual exercises, too.) It takes effort on the dog’s part to play with a toy, especially in an environment where he might want to go do something else. Frankly, it doesn’t take much effort to eat a cookie, no matter the environment.

As my first goal, I wanted Phoenix to play with me in a place he would find very distracting. We went to a spot on our farm I call “Catville.” Granted, we only have two cats these days but when Phoenix first discovered the magic of cats, we had a lot more and this is where they hung out — in and around the hay shed. He is pretty sure there are dozens of cats hiding in the trees and under the bales, just waiting to pop out of thin air.

Of course, he wouldn’t play with me. But he was also on a leash so he couldn’t get away and go cat hunting. I backed up until we were far enough away from the potential of phantom cats that he could function. And we played tug and chase, moving ever gradually closer to Cat Ground Zero.

I was delighted he stayed engaged with me, biting hard on his tug and letting me fling him around and thump his sides and have him “out” and let him bite it again. This was WORK on both our parts — physically on my part, to keep him engaged, and both mentally and physically on his part, because he couldn’t think about cats and bite his tug at the same time. Unless he was visualizing the tug as a cat. Which is entirely possible with him.

Sometimes I ran and let him chase the toy flopping at my side. Sometimes I held the toy next to my chest and ran, squealing and leaping around and making ridiculous noises. (It’s a good thing we live in the country, otherwise the men with butterfly nets would have hauled me away a long time ago.)

We quit after less than 10 minutes because quite frankly, Asthma Girl was whipped. But I’d made my point. He COULD play in the face of strong distraction. We’ll keep at this exercise during the summer, it doesn’t need to take an hour, just a few minutes of “Let’s go play!” in a place you might never play with your dog - the basement, the spare bedroom, in the garage, the laundry room?

Next time: ideas for simple games to build yourself as the cookie. God bless Susan Garrett for coming up with that description. I know there's much more along this line on her Web site, so please forgive me if I'm repeating stuff others may have already said.


  1. I'm reading YOU, not THEM, so feel free to repeat (and give credit if it'll make you feel better). I'm working with my younger girl who has a natural tendency to appreciate play as much as food, so I have a jump start with her. It's easy to see the difference anyway, between my older girl (no food? no work!) and Tosca who will work without food. So the trick, as I see it now, is to not LOSE that by making sure the FUN is there.

  2. Great post! Thank you! The concept makes sense as you explained it.

    I foresee it being difficult for me and Sophie. She is super food motivated but also super tug motivated. She will tug and tug regardless of distractions (the tug is what has her disregarding the dog running straight at her in the flyball lane)

    So I think my goal is to make play with me fun. I look forward to reading more about your progress with Phoenix!

  3. I've been reading your blog off and on for a while now, but this entry is the first one to prompt me to post.

    I've been working hard (some days harder than others) to "Be The Cookie" recently. After a prolonged break from competition I'm jonesing to get back at it. I think this post has some great suggestions in it, and I'll be keeping it in mind as I move forward. Good work!

  4. Thank you SO much for writing about all of this....Falkor and I REALLY need this!!!

  5. Hey, stop by soon and pick up your Inspirational Blogger award on my blog at