Evoking a Thinking Relationship with Toys

Two weeks ago when I tossed a toy Takoda brought it back to me.  But it didn’t take long for him to decide that toys were more fun to hang onto rather than bring back.  Jake and Lil, being the terriers that they are, enjoy chasing more than tugging or mouthing toys so they learned quickly that bringing back a toy = another opportunity to chase.  But with Takoda, it appears the value of the toy is mostly about having it in his mouth.  This is great for tugging, but eventually I want to have the option to place or toss a toy at a distance, and I won’t be able to do that if he runs off with the toy.  🙂

Takoda running off with toys is not something I’m freaking out about.  After all he is just 10 weeks old.  But I also don’t want him practicing behaviors I’d rather not see when he grows up so I am paying attention to everything he does so I can encourage the things I like and discourage the things I don’t like quite as much.

Still life of toys used for various "thinking" games we've played these past few days

Still life of toys used for various “thinking” games we’ve played these past few days

Silvia Trkman has a fun way of training dogs to to bring back toys.  She starts by training the dog to pick up a metal spool and drop it in a bowl. Eventually the dog learns to drop the spoon in her hand vs. in the bowl.  Over time she switches from the metal spoon to other low value objects and eventually switches to low-value toys and gradually moves up the “toy chain” to higher and higher value toys.  I thought this would be fun to do with Takoda plus I really like that it is a “thinking” game.  Plus my gut feeling is if Takoda learns to associate toys with “thinking fun” vs. “instinct fun” that he will maintain his ability to think when toys are used in training.

On April 8,  we did three sessions with a metal spoon, and by the third session Takoda dropped the spoon into the bowl a few times and earned huge jackpots.   One reason he progressed so quickly is because he likes holding the metal spoon in his mouth… so much so that he actually ran off with it outdoors before we moved the game indoors.   Another reason is because his attention span is very long, especially for such a young puppy, so we were able to do a bunch of reps with no loss of motivation.  I suspect his long attention span is a typical Border Collie trait.

On April 9, we played the game again in various places and he did not try to run off with the spoon, although he thought about it a few times.  Each session he started off mouthing the spoon and only dropped it when I clicked and tossed a piece of kibble into the metal bowl.  The CLANG of the kibble hitting the bowl was an added incentive (like another CLICK) that inspired him to drop the spoon to get the kibble.

With each session, he tends to gradually build back up to dropping the spoon in the bowl vs. starting right off doing it.  I suspect this is due to how much he loves having the spoon in his mouth which makes this a great game for learning there is something to be gained by dropping the spoon (kibble) and nothing to be lost since he gets to pick up the spoon again.

I like solving training puzzles by approaching them from different angles so I asked my two “go to” friends how they trained their dogs to bring toys back because they are both experienced and great dog trainers and one happens to have a dog that used to run around holding a toy in her mouth but now mostly brings back toys.  I must have slept on all the different methods because in the morning I woke up thinking about a few of them, including using two identical toys.

On April 1o, I started with two identical donut plush toys I happened to have, which are of medium value to him, and while Takoda chewed the label on one (his favorite part of these toys), I rolled the other donut toy a foot or so beyond where he was lying.  At first he only eyed the second toy while continuing to munch on the first toy.  But after a few seconds, he grabbed the second toy and brought it back to his original position and proceeded to munch on that toy.  I then rolled the first toy by him.. and so on.  I felt this game would be good for teaching Takoda a game I play with Lil which I call “This One is Getting Away!” which is a fun way to teach dogs nothing is lost when they give up a toy.

However, with Takoda munching on the toys, the game stagnated after five or six reps so I decided to drop a little star treat inside the hole of one toy.  He had to move the toy to get the treat which stopped him from munching on the labels and increased his energy level because he was now “thinking” and problem solving.  While he extracted the first treat,  I put a treat in the hole of the other donut toy and we continued going back and forth between the two toys.  He loved this “Two Card Monty” game and it was great fun to watch him go from pawing the same toy looking for more treats to quickly leaving one toy for the other toy.  After that, I started pointing to the “loaded” toy, thinking it couldn’t hurt for him to learn when a human points, its a hint 🙂  and he picked up on that quickly.  After a handful of reps with pointing, I put the donut toys away feeling really good about the session.

Takoda was ready for more fun and the only other toy I had in the kitchen was a medium- sized holy roller ball with a mini Kong ball inside.   My goal was simple…for Takoda to interact with the ball and me at the same time.  I put the ball on the floor and dropped a star treat under it. Takoda nudged the ball with his nose, and got a CLICK and the treat.  He continued to roll the ball around the kitchen for about 15 reps and then I rolled the ball towards him and he picked it up and brought it closer to me.  I praised and petted him like crazy, and then I rolled the ball a few feet away.  He got the ball and brought it closer to me again…  more praise and petting.  End of session.  He was not intentionally bringing the ball TO me but he was not taking it AWAY from me either so I consider this short session very successful.

(above) Later that day, my friend Sharon stopped by to meet our puppy and got to witness Lil and Takoda playing tug for the first time.   Not sure how often they will play tug once Takoda grows bigger. Right now he weighs 13 lbs and Lil weighs 14 lbs so they are pretty evenly matched.

On April 11, we played an advanced version of the “Two Card Monty” game because I also happened to have 2 rubber donut toys that are harder to extract treats from.  By the way, I don’t know how I ended up with so many donut toys because I don’t even like real donuts but I sure am glad I have those toys. HA HA

Later on, came big surprise during Takoda’s witching hour, which unfortunately happens every day around 6pm, right when I want to sit back and enjoy a glass of wine (SIGH).   Anyway, Takoda was hanging out with me in the kitchen when suddenly he grabbed his favorite plush toy (the yellow fuzzy chicken) and took off running around the backyard with it in his mouth.  Its the first time he ran around on his own (vs. chasing Lil a little here and there)  so I spontaneously said GO GO GO as he zoomed around.  Then much to my surprise, he came running towards me and I sent him to GO run some more.  After a short loop he came back and he put the toy in my hand and we played a short game of tug.  I sent him away again and after a small loop, he came back for more tugging.

This was extraordinary.  It indicated to me that my thinking is correct and he doesn’t have an “issue” stealing toys.  He just lacks experience in terms of all the fun he and I can have together with toys.  I am in no hurry to have him to fetch on cue but I’m certainly looking forward to playing a bunch of different “thinking” games with toys which I’ll bet will end with Takoda bringing toys to me when I throw them without me needing to get all serious about training “fetch.”

Dog training is way too much fun to get serious about anything.   🙂