Tuesday, August 30, 2011

An experiment on an August evening

Last night Phoenix and I were working on heeling in the back yard. One thing I've been doing to reward for sustained effort on heeling is releasing to a toy that's laying on the ground or in a nearby lawn chair. He races to get the toy, brings it to me and we play. This is NOT a formal retrieve.

Then I drop the toy and we heel again, maybe for a few feet feet, maybe for a few minutes. Sometimes I release after a halt, sometimes during a successful speed change, sometimes after a turn, sometimes during a long straight stretch.

The first toy I used was his french linen tug. He loves his tug. I love his tug. It's very tough and finger friendly.

Then I decided to do an experiment. Since putting some food back into our training, I've been filling a little treat bag, the kind with the drawstring closure. As part of the reward, I throw the bag, Phoenix retrieves it, we tug briefly, then he gets his cookie. So it's not just shove a cookie in his mouth and done. I definitely want to keep play a big part of the picture.

I left the tug on the ground and put the treat bag next to it. Well, duh, that was a no-brainer. Of course he brought me the treat bag the next time I released him.

Then I added a tennis ball on a rope. The tug and the treat bag (which still had food in it) were still on the ground. The ball on a rope was next to them. I truly do not care which toy he brings - it's totally his choice.

On the next release, Phoenix raced to the pile and grabbed the ball on the rope. Well. Surprise. He chose a ball over food. We tugged and I put the ball on a rope back into the pile.

Next, I added a single tennis ball, the kind that squeaks. We heeled and I released. Phoenix didn't hesitate. He grabbed the ball and brought it to me, squeaking madly.

I thought maybe he was just picking the "new" toy each time but for the next 3 releases, he brought the squeaky ball. Then I put the squeaky ball on top of the patio table and covered it up. We heeled, I released, he ran to the pile . . . and stopped . . . and sniffed . . . and ran around the yard, sniffing and hunting for that squeaky ball even though two other toys and a bag of treats were available.

Finally, I grabbed one of the toys, he gave up his hunt and came to play with me. We played with the ball on a rope and the tug and I had him retrieve the treat bag a couple of times. Then I gave him the squeaky ball. It was obviously his toy of choice and it even outranked food.

I don't mind my dog having a "favorite" toy but I want him to engage with me, no matter what toy I have. It really surprised me he would ignore food in favor of a ball. Since the squeaky ball is clearly his favorite, I'll reward with it on a somewhat limited basis. I don't want him to become so obsessed with it that he doesn't think he can play with anything else. Whatever rewards you use, you "build." If you use only food, the dog's enjoyment of toy play will decrease and if you only use one particular toy, the dog may soon lose interest in other toys.

The Farmer, in his eternal wisdom, watched this whole thing and wanted to know "What's wrong with that dog!" that he would choose a ball over food. Obviously he wasn't raised by Shelties!


  1. Its an interesting choice. I know the rankings of most of my dog's toys for each dog. Its helpful, because it can be used as extra motivation, or else remove it from the picture to help dampen down over-excitement for a while. My dog can't even barely think if there is a ball of wool felt around, its such an amazingly exciting toy to him.

  2. Legend will leave food for a toy. She wil also pick only one toy to play with at a time.

  3. This is very interesting. I might have to recreate the experiment and try to find Layla's preferences. I think it's a fantastic sign that he took his ball over food!

  4. Coach will always choose the a ball over anything else. The ChuckIt is the ultimate and really is tooooooo much excitement for most of the time. Tennis balls are next whether they squeak or not. Jazz will always choose food. He only played with toys that squeak until Coach came along. Now he just takes whatever Coach wants. Not a great training opportunity there. The ChuckIt trained Coach to do lovely fast weaves!

  5. I'm working on using a toy with the new puppy since I don't want to rely totally on food (which puts me in the same boat with my adult Weim, he's brilliant in practice, has brilliant runs in trials but is not consistent and a lot of that is because he is green, but I digress). Last night we used a round/flat fleece and her non-stuffed "fox" with squeakers. Both were a hit and really had her engaged. So now I need to put more effort in to that with the adult.

    Thanks for these thought provoking and enlightening posts. It has made me look at my training in a different light (and made me realize that I need to buckle down and get to work!).