Silas has food allergies. Right now, we’re in the diagnostic phase, which means he can eat one thing: turkey. Obedience class+really strict diets don’t mesh well. It’s an added problem that there aren’t a lot of turkey-based treats out there that are a good size for training. When you’re clicker training, a good treat is about the size of a pencil eraser. Our best options (Primal’s Turkey Liver, and Fresh Is Best’s Turkey Hearts and Turkey Giblet Rounds) are much larger and can only be broken down so far before turning into dust. Using them exclusively is not only expensive, but also because of the size it can be easy to give a small dog way too many treats. And we all know what happens when you give a dog too much organ meat.
I’d read about using play/toys as rewards, but I’d never done it. Then, in our first obedience class of this round, I could tell that Silas was checking out. I pulled his favorite tiny stuffed toy (curse you, Martha Stewart Pets, for putting a squeaker in the new versions) to play with him for a minute and get his focus back. The instructor came by and asked what I was doing. I explained, and she said, “Just use the toy for his reward!” Skeptical, I tried it. Hide toy behind my back, ask for behavior, click, toss toy, play a little tug, get the toy back, repeat.
I still mostly get through class with treats, because they’re much quicker. You can only get a toy back from an adolescent terrier so fast. At home, though, I’ve been doing a lot of training with toys. It’s easier to fit into a regular day. Silas is too scared for walks, so we get most of his energy expenditure through indoor fetch. For a dog who isn’t strongly food motivated to start with, chasing a ball is a much more awesome reward. Even better, it is teaching him some playtime self-control. Interrupting play periodically to ask for a trick keeps Silas from getting so excited that he forgets the rules.