If you train with play rewards, you’ll eventually run into this: sometimes you need the dog to tug, and sometimes you need the dog to take a cookie. Stationary behaviors are obviously best-trained with treats, and for us most very-new behaviors also work better that way.

The problem with this is that your dog will prefer one of these things to the other. Some people struggle more or less forever to get a dog who is happy to play as a reward. The minority of us have dogs who prefer play, especially in tough mental environments. For almost any dog, switching between these in the moment is HARD.

I’ve been working on retraining our fetch, because Silas has started to do the dreaded drive-by. Or, even worse if you do competitive obedience, the dreaded “I’m gonna stand here and chew on the toy for a minute before I come back.” As with all things, when you have a wickedly smart dog, this is totally my fault. His fetch got a lot worse when I started using tug to work on some body-handling issues, which were (in hindsight) more aversive for him than I realized. When the reward is not actually rewarding, your behavior will get sloppy.

Our sticky place in the retrieve is toy–>hand. So, last night I sat down in the floor for a little retraining of that. Which is when I realized anew that Silas is the perfect dog for training.

The *exact* details of what we were doing are ripped straight out of a Susan Garrett class, so I can’t post too much. But, I can still brag. Silas will put the toy in my hand, take a treat, and then immediately take the toy back. This is crazy hard.

So I decided to push the envelope. He was hungry, so I put a few kibbles on the floor. Would he take the thing I offered (the tug) or the thing he really wanted (the kibbles)?

Let’s just say we’re going to be working on this one a little longer, maybe when he’s not quite so hungry. The first time he did beautifully. The second time he skirted around my leg to steal the cookies, where I had moved them when he was too worked up to take the tug.

Still, it almost makes up for the full-on meltdown he had over a cat yowling in the middle of the night. This is good stuff.

4 thoughts on “Temptations

  1. Maybe I’m just not quite understanding what you’re doing. My question is why you don’t just tug with him when he returns with the toy you’ve thrown? Isn’t that – by definition – returning to hand? After that, it’s just a matter of teaching a -drop- cue, right?

    I can certainly see the problems in switching between food and toy, but I think I may be misunderstanding the reason you’re doing this to begin with. :/


    1. This is what I get for posting about complicated training things while I’m running late to an appointment–I think I’ve puzzled everyone. Because only the last, say, three feet of his retrieve have gotten bad, I’m doing very short-distance work to build up the value for putting the toy back in my hand. That’s all we’re working on–toy+hand=cookie. Tug is a weird reward for us for this behavior, because sloppy tug reinforcement is part of the underlying problem. (That is, because his phobias mean that he gets most of his exercise playing, we aren’t always as strict about the rules as we should be.)

      The latter part was just a fun experiment–will he pick the reward he wants, or the one I’m trying to give him? Will he stay engaged in a very distracting environment? The answer was so-so, which means it’s a good thing to work on.


  2. For our dogs, fetch is the reward. Many people don’t understand how the fetch could be the reward but it is.

    Even with all of our dog’s training, we still run into your very same issue at tests. Some of it is just immaturity/inexperience. After the dog has done a million fetches, usually it isn’t an issue anymore.

    We are at that stage with Freighter. He is fine with bumpers and frozen birds and fresh birds on land. Give him a fresh bird on water and he losses his mind and does the pass by…lol. Unfortunately we don’t get many fresh shot birds. But we just keep repeating his return with bumpers and eventually it just becomes habit, (hopefully).


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