It’s not surprising that retired sport dogs Kaya and Dakota are well behaved, polite and respond phenomenally fast to a wide variety of cues. They live with Mark Hines, behavior and training specialist for the Kong Company, who’s logged thousands of hours with them, and thousands more consulting with service dog organizations, shelters, military and law-enforcement handlers, prison programs, behaviorists, breeders, and veterinarians, to name a few. At heart, though, he’s just a guy who loves his dogs. Recently, I had the pleasure of talking with Mark about using toys as a training tool.
Q: Why do you like training with toys?
A: Basically, because it’s fun! You see more desire on the dog’s part to work, more passion and willingness to perform when you train with toys.
Q: Is one type of dog more receptive than another to this method?
A: High-drive dogs tend to respond well to toys. By drive I mean high arousal, easily stimulated dogs who are willing to work and have the motivation and desire to work. Dogs with drive are dogs who are rarin’ to go. When I see drive, I see so much happiness. I know I can shape a behavior and get a beautiful response.
Q: How do you advise people to begin using toys as training aids?
A: Find a toy the dog likes and that is stimulating. Then, teach a good foundation, which includes a solid “out” so there’s no conflict over the toy. The dog can spit it out on the ground, drop it or trade it for a treat. If you are having trouble with this, try switching to a toy that the dog doesn’t want as much. You can also go up in size to a bigger toy that the dog can’t get into the back of the mouth, an area I call the “power zone.” Or, go to a harder toy that’s not as self-rewarding. For example, a Wubba with tails that flop around is harder for many dogs to give up than a toy that has no movement. If the toy is self-rewarding, the dog may not release it as easily, especially early in the training process. Once a dog has a clean “out,” any toy should be fine.
Q: Not all dogs are interested in toys. What then?
A: Dogs can be taught to enjoy toys, even dogs who seem to be the least playful or toy-motivated. I once worked with a Beagle who was only into food, not toys. I started giving him treats every time he made a toy squeak, and it evolved into play even after I stopped using food as reinforcement.
Q: What about the dog who’s more interested in the toy than in you? How do you stimulate that interest?
A: You have to be engaging. What’s the point of trying to interact with the dog if he doesn’t even want to be with you? Be the gate to play—a clown with gadgets, toys and fun.
Q: You also use food rewards; why do you incorporate both types of reinforcement into your training?
A: Using toys as a reward instead of food is kind of like taking your child to an amusement park rather than taking him out to dinner. Which do you think your child would choose? I consider food as a way to focus the dog (especially puppies) and toys as a way to stimulate play and create drive. Sometimes toys bring out arousal and frustration, which can actually cause a dog to lose focus, so you need to balance toys and food. When working with a low-drive dog, it’s possible to do more repetitions with food than with a toy. High-drive dogs will work for a toy all day long.
Q: Can you use toys to increase a dog’s drive?
A: Yes. Movement is your friend. Show excitement, be active and animated, make an idiot of yourself. Make a toy desirable by holding onto it. Make it something that your dog finds fascinating and really, really wants. Build frustration just a little. Play hard-to-get in order to build the dog’s energy and motivation. Toys on ropes create even more drive because they move faster and are unpredictable.
Q: What would you say is the most common training mistake people make?
A: Not using markers, either a clicker or a consistent “Yes!” Don’t use the toy as a marker. Say “Yes!” or click before presenting the toy or the treat. Otherwise, the dog will only watch the toy.
Q: How much time should a dog be allowed to play with the toy as reinforcement?