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Food vs. Toy Motivation

Reprinted from April 10, 2013

I have been listening to DVDs and reading quite a bit on motivation in dog training. In agility, it’s much easier to motivate dogs with lots of drive. "Drive" is a combination of extreme passion, intensity, speed and focus (think Border Collie herding sheep or a Parson Russell Terrier intent on chasing a ball). On a scale of “drive” from one to ten, I think Vizslas are somewhere in the 5 - 8 range depending on the dog. They can be extremely intense and are capable of running very fast, especially when out in the hunt field, but they don’t have a hard core tug on toys and they don’t insanely chase and retrieve balls. They are rather selective in their intensity. Having that drive to tug - that desire to interact through play - makes training a whole lot easier. Food is always a great motivator, but what happens when the dog knows you don’t have food? For many dogs, no food = no fun. But a dog that loves to tug and chase a toy will have much more desire to do whatever behavior you desire. From the dogs’ point of view, they are THRILLED if they can just have a few minutes of play time with the center of their universe. Fortunately, there are some toys that combine tug with food, and a quick trip to the Clean Run Agility website, you'll find lotus balls, or other toys with treat pockets that are for dogs who are more food motivated than toy motivated.

It turns out that most of us don’t have natural skills in motivating a dog. Let’s take a tug toy, for example. Ask someone to play tug with their dog, and what do they do? They shove it in the dog’s face, wiggling it and slapping the dog’s muzzle with it. It shouldn’t be any surprise to find out that many dogs find that to be rather rude. But run off dragging the tug toy, changing directions often, and letting the dog have it and win the game every now and then, helps to build the desire to play with you. Put the toy on a long rope and drag it like a rabbit being chased - that can really get a dog’s prey drive amped to the max. Dragging a tug toy can encourage an agility dog to run fast - and can be used as a reward when the dog has taken an obstacle correctly. The two toy tug game is another great method to get a dog excited. Take two identical toys. Throw one away from the dog (in the direction he is facing) and as he runs off to chase it and turns back to you with the toy, throw the other toy in the other direction. The dog usually drops the toy in his mouth when he takes off to chase the other toy. Keep this up, first one toy, then the other, over and over again - it’s great exercise for the dog and it gets them very excited. Once in a while, run with the toy and when he drops his toy and grabs the toy in your hand, tug tug tug. Make lots of excited sounds and touch him all over, patting or tickling him (or playfully “smacking” him in a gentle rough-housing way) with your free hand to get him used to be touched all over. Getting a young dog to play tug will pay off in your future training. (Of course, if you feel teeth, stop the game. Wait until the dog is calm. Then start up again. He needs to learn to control his teeth. With a Vizsla, this isn’t a big problem - they have soft mouths. But with something like a German Shepherd, watch out!).

There is so much information out there on teaching your dog to tug - it’s worth spending some time to dig into the theory and practice of motivation, drive and desire. If you can control it and use it to your advantage in training, then it will make your life much easier!

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