Toy Story: Using Toys as Reinforcers
Some dogs are born to tug. Although I wasn’t present for his birth, I did meet Blink, my border collie, when he was very young (about 3 weeks old). I was lucky enough to visit his litter each week until I brought Blink home at age 8 weeks. I can attest to this—from the time he and his siblings were able to grasp something in their tiny mouths and hold on to it, they were tuggers. Fierce, enthusiastic, tuggers. They would tug until they dropped from exhaustion, falling asleep mid-tug with some poor, unsuspecting, braided-rope monkey toy hanging out of their mouths with its stuffed head half torn off. (True story).
Having had two Labs that were all about the food and “meh” about tugging, I thought this was just about the coolest thing ever! These baby puppies were grrring and tugging with all their might and seemed to really enjoy the game.
Given that, tug became a very powerful reinforcer early on Blink’s life. In fact, tugging was used to reinforce desirable behavior long before the pups ever left their breeder. I had such a huge head start using tug as a reinforcer in training that it felt like cheating! By the time I brought Blink home, not only did he have a reinforcement history of tugging, he had a reinforcement history of tugging with ME.
I capitalized on that reinforcement history right away. Unlike food (which Blink would accept politely, if I was lucky), he was rabid about tug. So rabid that he once lost three puppy teeth in the span of an hour-long group class and kept right on tugging through it all. Blink simply could not get enough of the game. I would have been foolish not to use that passion to my advantage in his training. I used tug as his main reinforcer for every single new behavior I taught him. “Wait.” Click/tug. “Sit.” Click/tug. “Lie down.” Click/tug. And on it went, until we built up a basic behavioral repertoire successfully, solely using clicker training, but almost never using food as a reinforcer.
Blink also loves to chase toys like balls, Frisbees and ring toys. Later on, when I wanted to add some distance to Blink’s behaviors, I began using thrown toys as reinforcers. For instance, if Blink was 20-30 feet away, and it wasn’t possible to tug with him, I would click and reinforce with a thrown toy.
To this day, tug remains 7-year-old Blink’s main reinforcer. I do use food sometimes, but almost everything the dog knows was taught with tug or a thrown toy. “Give me a hug.” Click/tug. “Hold still while I trim a nail.” Click/throw a ball. “Do a dog-sport demo with me in front of a crowd of people and dogs.” Click/tug.
Although it works great with Blink, using toys in place of food as reinforcers isn’t for every dog. For example, this would have been a terrible training plan for my Labs, unless I took the time to condition toys as secondary reinforcers for them. But, if you have a dog that loves tug or toys more than food (not to be “breedest,” but herding dogs often fit this description!), try using those things as reinforcers.
If you’re interested in learning more about adding toys, tug, natural, and novel reinforcers to your reinforcement strategy, and improving your own reinforcement skills, Ken Ramirez has authored an entire online course on this very subject! Check out the Smart Reinforcement course.