A: Train with a pattern of “drive, exercise, drive.” Start with a toy in your training vest or under your arm, then ask the dog for a behavior, and as a reward, offer the toy for a few seconds to rev him up. Ask him to release the toy, then ask for another behavior and continue that way throughout the session. The toy is a reward just as a treat would be a reward. So, it’s sit, yes! toy, out! Then it goes back in the pocket for another exercise. These are not play sessions in between. In training mode, the dog is working for that toy, and he works fast because you are withholding the reward and he really wants it.
A play session at the end can serve as a jackpot for exceptionally good work, and that can be as long as you have time for. At the end of a session, I say “free dog,” which means work is over and we’re having fun.
Q: How can you use toys to help a dog learn a variety of skills?
A: Presentation matters. The dog has to take toys from all over: high, low, different positions. Be versatile. This also helps dogs learn to target. If the dog gets too near my hand and bites by mistake, the game ends immediately. Dogs can be very careful with their mouths, but not enough people require them to be.
Always have the dog come in to you—move the toy away to attract him in. This is especially true with recalls. Throw the ball behind you as the dog approaches, sometimes to one side, sometimes to the other, to keep the dog coming in with good speed and in a straight line.
Q: In addition to fun and training, do you use toys in other ways?
A: Toys are great tools to help dogs recover from something scary—a fallen jump or loud noise, for example. You can take the dog right back to a state of drive with a toy.
Q: Lots of people like to play tug with their dogs, but sometimes struggle to play it correctly. What advice do you give people about this game?
A: If you give an inch, dogs will take a mile. When playing tug with dogs, pull forward and out, not up and down or side to side. To keep the dog from creeping up the toy, keep the toy moving. Dealing with arousal is important. You need to decide when the game starts and ends.
Q: What are your favorite toys?
A: I love the Kong, of course, and the Kong on the rope is my key toy. I also love the large Goodie Bone to train good “outs.” I can hold onto both sides while the dog has it in his mouth, and it is not self-rewarding because it has no motion. To create intense drive, many agility or dock-dog trainers swear by the Wubba.
Q: What other training advice do you wish everyone would follow?
A: Train in short sessions, especially with young or inexperienced dogs. “Short” means just a few minutes, or even one minute for puppies at the very beginning. Multiple sessions throughout the day that add up to 15 minutes are better than 15 minutes all at once. Make it happen every time. It’s better to ask dogs for a behavior 50 times and have them do the behavior 50 times than to ask 100 times and have them do it 75 times. Have fun! The minute a session turns into work for you, give it up because it’s not going to go anywhere. Finally, always, always, ALWAYS end on a positive note.