Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Ohhhhhhhh (aka: Where I went wrong)

This has been a "light bulb moment" week for me. For whatever reason, the stars are aligning and some rather big name trainers all appear to be blogging on the same subject. It's a very profound subject for me, because it's something that I struggled with for so long with Secret. And what they have to say has made me really reflect and see exactly where I went wrong and how I actually CREATED the lack of toy drive that bothered me so greatly.

One of my Facebook friends posted a link to a recent blog post by Denise Fenzi. I suppose I should just subscribe to her blog, because every time someone links to one of her posts I seem to have an epiphany. The link to this particular post is here: Balance -- food & toys

Wow. Really? It's that simple? I'm the one who created the dog with no interest in toys? This is something I was considering just last week as I was watching one of my very first videos I made with Secret. She actually DID show interest in tugging when I first got her and I was wondering where I went wrong with that. Well, Denise's blog post pretty much spelled it out for me. I took the easy road. I chose food.

One of my weaknesses as a trainer has always been that I like results and I want them NOW. While Secret did show some initial interest in toys, the level of drive wasn't enough to consider using them as rewards. I introduced her to the clicker straight away and the obvious choice was to pair this with food since toys didn't yet have the value. We did a LOT of clicker training in the beginning. As I struggled with building interest in toys later on, I often reflected back and wondered if all of the shaping/treating I did early on was to our detriment. Turns out, it likely was. Oh.

Check out this quote:

"If the handler finds the rapid success with food to be highly gratifying, the tendency is to go back to the food while wistfully thinking about how much they’d like THIS dog to show better toy drive."

That was me!! That was totally me!!

I love that Denise points out that "dog training is not a race." Because to me, it was. I wanted my puppy to learn an amazing amount of tricks in a very short time. And she did! Secret was a brilliant puppy. Despite my frustrations at her lack of toy drive, I kept plugging away with food based training because I did see results there. And by doing so, I more or less kept decreasing her interest in toys. Fantastic, right?

Susan Garrett has also been talking on a similar subject lately. Her most recent newsletter really went into this in detail. One paragraph in particular caught my attention straight away:

"What happens is that many dog owners try to "interpret" their dog's actions and make dog training decisions based on these interpretations rather than the dog's actual responses. For example, a 16 week old puppy has been tugging since he came into his new home, but has also been growing a bigger and bigger love for his training treats. One day during training the puppy chooses to not tug when asked, possibly because he smells the treats and is trying to source them out (however the reason actually isn't important to me). The owner's interpretation of this choice is that her 16 week old puppy is feeling pain due to the fact he is teething and his mouth is likely too sore to tug. So she decides to just hand out treats in her training until all of the puppy's adult teeth come in. Five weeks later we have a puppy that no longer has any drive to tug. That is just one example of how tug drive may have been lost, but sadly, there are many more I could give you!"

Susan then went on to list ten common mistakes that people make when trying to get dogs to play -- and sadly, I did almost all of them.

It was following many of Susan's suggestions that eventually did help me to succeed in building Secret's interest in toys, so it is no wonder that many of the things she goes on to suggest are things that we did and ended up working for us. Limiting access to toys, only asking her to play when she was energized & excited, keeping sessions short, using lots of different toys (heck, we STILL do that, lol), etc.

The newsletter was super long and jam packed with really good information. Susan did follow up on the subject in a blog post, which is also worth reading. You can find it here.

It was a very long & frustrating road, but I'm very happy that Secret & I seem to have overcome our early difficulties with toy drive, or lack thereof. I do all of her training at home with toys now and the results are exactly what I hoped for -- more speed, drive & love of the game. We are still working to be able to bring out this same love of playing in stressful situations like trials, but our results at the run-through this past Friday really give me hope for this!

More or less this is all information that I'll be storing in my back pocket and keeping in mind for the next dog. If my goal is to have a toy/play driven dog, I am not doing myself any favors to dispense treats like candy. So much of my early training is food based, so it will be a hard habit to break, I'm sure. In the long run, though, I have no doubt it will be worth it and help me to achieve my goals. What I have to remember is that it's not like I have to do away with treats, but a healthy balance should be the goal.

I love the internet. There is just so much great information out there!!


  1. Legend had always had a ton of toy and tug drive. But she is clearly not the most driven agility dog. It's entirely possible some of that is my fault, not sure where I went wrong or if I just didn't try hard enough. Or if it's just the way she is. It frustrated me to no end for some time. But really, she's the dog I would still want no matter what, and even though there are plenty of better agility dogs out there, she's still pretty good in her own right.

    I think part of my coming to terms with this is that agility has ceased to be the driving force in my life. I still love it, but I'm not as obsessed with it as I once was and am enjoying more things in life these days. Also, seeing her have a seizure made me realize I didn't care that much about QQs after all. I just wanted my dog to be ok.

    I might not even pick my next dog based on it's potential for agility. I just want it to be pretty and fun-that's why I love border collies, they are great companions for an active dog lover! Maybe I should have just written a post about this huh?

    1. You still can do a post about it. :o) You make a very valid point, after all!

      It's interesting to hear of a dog who did come installed with a lot of play drive that didn't have it transfer instantly to agility. I guess I assumed that would be the case -- and we all know what happens when we assume. lol

      Even now that Secret is turned on to toys she is still not a remarkably fast dog -- fast enough, but there is no crazy speed coming out of her any time soon. But honestly, I just don't know that I would have EVER gotten anything out of her with food. Maybe I was doing something wrong, but she was (and still is to this day) always so slow with food....

      Did you see the posts on the NADAC list about pros & cons of tugging? I get annoyed by people who imply that dogs who tug and play are crazy over the top. HA!!! I just wanted my dog to play so that she'd be inspired to do something more than walk through the course.

      I was really irritated by the post that implied that you should already have a relationship in place with your dog before you start any training. Uh... Don't you think I tried??? Sheesh. Some people.

  2. I haven't read the posts. I'm so busy trying to get caught up I've just been glossing over all that stuff. Don't they think training is building a relationship? I don't think tugging makes dogs crazy or over the top. All dogs are different. Don't we want our dogs to think agility if play?

    There are so many oddballs out there. Like anon poster more concerned with bone density than pyometra? I guess they think everyone else is the oddball huh?

    And yes, I assumed the same thing about the toy drive. I thought Legend would be the greatest dog to ever run agility! Live and learn.