What is on my mind this last month? Toy play! This has been a focus of mine, since Brilliant arrived and things transpired differently to how I had expected it to go! I wanted to share with you all some tips and observations that may help you improve your toy play as well.
I knew that when Brilliant came to me, he loved toys and he enjoyed grabbing on to things so tugging and toy play should be easy right?? I also had learnt a few years ago (thanks to Keen and him taking me on the path of looking at all of the reasons he had such arousal issues in agility!), that making sure to let go of toys while tugging lots, was the best way to encourage dogs to want to bring them back to us.
Prior to this, the big influences in agility have told handlers to hold on to the tug the whole time while playing. They also encourage us to apply body contact, in the form of gentle slaps on the dog. Then to get the dog to give up the toy, they suggest we hold the dogs collar and while we are still holding the toy, wait for them to give it up eventually when they work out they can no longer play. All of these suggestions, lead to many issues in dogs enjoyment of the games with us!
I started Bright's toy play very differently, after learning how detrimental the usual ways we have been taught are and it went super easy! I let go of the toy lots and only held on to the tug for one or two secs, then I made my hand active to encourage her to chase it down with the toy. It went so easy and she quickly learnt to shove the toy into my hands playing this way. Of course I thought I had the magic solution for never having toy play issues again. Then Brilliant came along and decided I need to learn something more! LOL
I could see that Brilliant had a tendency to take his toys off to a dog bed and lie down and chew them. I had a lot of regular close contact with the litter, before he came to me and I 100% know that was a habit because of the size of his litter. Whenever a puppy had something like a toy, there was likely to be at least be a couple of puppies trying to chase them down and get it, if not more. With ten puppies in the litter, there was a lot of competition for things!
But in my head I didn't think much about this and I just figured he would work out I was letting him win lots and he didn't need to take it off and keep it from me. I tried to let go very quickly in initial games and he would run off to a bed with it. I removed all the beds from the area when we played, which fixed it a bit and I also got down on the ground so he had a tendency to treat me like I was a bed and he was bringing it to me lots once I did that. The issue came, when I tried to stand up and also in particular, when we played anywhere but the small pen where he couldn't go anywhere much. Often we would have one session that felt like the problem as fixed! Then I would come back down to earth with a thud. haha
Because this was all happening in the first few weeks of our toy play, I was feeling myself hanging on to the tug more and more, which was making everything worse. In my head I knew it, but I also knew I couldn't trust him to bring it to me. I knew I needed to teach an object retrieve but I had tried to avoid this, as I had some concerns of mixing our food and toy play up like that. With him being an Aussie, I do have concerns that he will say he would prefer food over toys and mixing them made me fearful this could happen easily. Having said that, he has never given me a reason to worry about switching, as we do this all the time in our sessions but I still felt some trepidation about it!
But as we continued our training sessions I could feel things were getting worse in our toy play. He was really great tugging but if I let go or did any type of toy retrieve he was bringing it back less and less. It was time for me to start working on that retrieve! We started off with just small random objects that weren't toys at all (pegs were a favourite!) and I shaped him to pick it up in his mouth and then place it in my hand. To shape this, you need to first get the picking something up in their mouths part and then there needs to be duration of them holding it and moving it towards your hand. I was lucky that he learnt this really quickly and we progressed in each session to him picking up all sorts of different things. Once he was great with objects, I moved that on to different toys!
While I was working on the part of our play that had this massive hole, I wanted to continue his tugging as I didn't want to end up losing that. I find puppies really love biting and tugging so I do feel like there is a window you can miss, if you hold off on this. So I used a really long tug, that I could move towards him when he pulled and he could feel like he was winning it, without me actually letting go. If he grabbed the bottom fluff of this tug, I would put my hand down for him to test whether he wanted to bring it to me or not but at the same time I still had the top part of the toy preventing him taking off. You could also put the dog on a lead, so if they try to take off with it, they can't get too far from you anyway.
About two weeks ago, when I could see he was getting really good at retrieving toys in different places, I started to test our tugging again and I could see he was so much better!
We still had to keep working on it and there were some other aspects that needed to be put in place to make it super clear for him but we have made huge progress. I am so happy with how great he is doing now!
I've also really loved analysing these toy play behaviours and coming up with ways to fix what is happening. In the past, I would have just felt depressed that my puppy didn't want to bring a toy back to me because he doesn't love me. :D
On a serious note, some people might have labelled him as independent. stubborn or naughty for keeping the toys away. This problem also comes up way more frequently than you might think. I've had lots of young dogs that started in puppy class start to do it and I've also seen it happen with some top agility people's young dogs.
Simply put, the dog is saying that it's more reinforcing to keep the toy than come back and play tug. Behaviours only build/grow when they are reinforcing, so it just gives us information and we need to work out how to shift the balance and make what we want more rewarding to them! Brilliant was saying that he found it more rewarding to keep a toy to himself, than to bring it back to me to play. I had to find a way to make bringing things to me rewarding and then it allowed me to let go of the tug way more, because I could trust he wasn't going to run off with it!
Check out this video to see the huge progress we have made so far!
If I had my time again, I would have only used a long tug initially, until I had taught an object/toy retrieve. I would make sure the puppy felt like they were still winning it but I could prevent any running off with it. And I think I would just teach that retrieve to every puppy just in case! It's a fun little trick to teach regardless. :)
Also remember, it's never too late to try to fix your toy play skills! The things I am teaching Brilliant can be applied to adult dogs as well. There is a lot more that has gone into our toy play communication skills, so if you want to see more detail and watch us working through all of this then come and join in my puppy diary. Click on the link below, for a list of all the things we are working on from 8 weeks to 6 months! It's super value at only $80 and you get to see the way I train so many things including every day life stuff!