Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Using Toys as Motivation

 What do you do if your dog isn't food motivated when you are trying to do a training session?

Sometimes, Azul will work for food in a training session and sometimes he won't.  Azul was highly food motivated up until about 10 months old when he basically decided that there are a lot better things in this world then food.  Azul is highly motivated by games including tug, chasing his flirt, and playing hide-n-go seek.  He also really enjoys playing with other dogs and sniffing around the environment.  Sometimes it can be difficult to find things that will motivate your dog to participate in training sessions, especially if those sessions involve repetition of the same thing because you're trying to train something brand new or a more advanced concept.  As you can see in the video, Azul gladly does what I'm asking but then he refuses the reinforcement treat I offer. 



This lets me know that if I continue to use food as motivation, he's going to walk away from the training session and probably not learn what I'm working on this session.  I've always used games to help with training Azul, but when he started refusing food I really had to amp up my skills of using toys and other motivators.  However, using toys as reinforcement takes a lot more skill as a trainer.  Here are some of the common problems with toy motivation.

  1. If you choose a toy that your dog really loves, they can be so focused on the toy that they don't want to do anything else but play.  This is very similar to the same problem Cam had in the video in my Food Motivation post.
  2. Sometimes the game you use for reinforcement takes so long that getting in multiple repetitions of the new skill you are trying to teach becomes problematic.  You may end up with get 10 minutes of play and only 1-2 minutes of actual training accomplished in your session.
  3. What do you do, if your in a place where you want to have reinforcement available and you don't have your dog's favorite toy?  Sure you can try to always carry a tug toy or ball with you, but sooner or later you are going to be somewhere with out that toy.
  4. Another common problem with toy motivation is that it may work really well in medium level distraction environments, but not work at all in high distraction environments.  Azul loves tug and I can play in multiple environments successfully, but a tug toy is not more interesting to Azul then watching another dog that comes into our environment unexpectedly as dogs hold a higher reinforcement value to him.
And this is where you have to expand your skills as a trainer to overcome these common challenges with toy motivation!

This video demonstrates how I use momentum during a training session to keep Azul moving and motivated at the same time.  I'm using tug as my motivation and working on targets.  Azul is well used to doing multiple targets with his paw, nose & chin so I'm working on teaching him to step on my foot on cue and will eventually apply that to a way to alert to dizzy episodes.  I'm using tug with various common targets on the floor so I can keep the tug game going while also hitting targets as we play.  In this way, I start out capturing his natural targets as he offers them during the tug game.  If you listen with volume on, you'll hear the occasional Yes or Good Boy paired with him hitting various targets.  Once we build us some speed and he realizes that his game is better if he keeps hitting targets, then I can start cueing specific targets.  I will do 2-3 easy targets that he knows and throw in the new paw to foot target occasionally.  Once he's hitting the new target often and easily, I can change up my game plan and make the criteria slightly higher or reduce the motivation level slightly lower until we get to a place where I can get the job done with little to no reinforcement.

When Azul understands the new target on cue very well, I can start moving out into other environments and with increased distractions.  But to protect my previous training, I will avoid asking Azul for this paw to foot target if he is in a highly distracting environment such as that dog that just showed up.  I want to avoid teaching Azul that he can ignore doing this target if something else in the environment is more fun.  That doesn't mean I will never ask for this in a high distraction environment!  As a rule, I ask for easier cues that have a higher reinforcement history when an unexpected distraction is present.  Then I will also add in training sessions to help reduce the distraction caused by things that are repeat triggers.  For Azul, his biggest distraction is other dogs as he loves to sit and watch whatever the other dog is doing then race up to sniff the area after the other dog has moved on.  I will work on his dog distractions in a completely different training session and not when I'm working on a fairly new skill.

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