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!