In this microskills post I’m going to cover some really basic toy skills that we, if we are going to use toys to train, really need. It is really sexy right now to use multiple markers for toys and while I do find this concept really helpful, I do feel that trying to add a system of multiple markers to our training before we have clarified a few basics is not a good idea. Here’s what I think we need to teach our dogs before we put toys to use in training:
Consistent Toy Love
Let’s face it, if the dog doesn’t WANT the thing, it can’t work as a reinforcer. So the first order of business is to convince the dog he wants the toy, and that’s harder in some cases than in others. I am not a person who bends over backwards to get toy play; if I had a dog for whom it just did not come naturally I would just use food. Having said that my dogs do typically enjoy toy play with me so this process is usually a “puppy” skill in my life, one they learn quickly and easily and one that can be put to use when my pups are around 6 months of age.
Here is a quick clip of Watson and I learning to play together:
And a (ridiculously cute) video of Felix learning a similar skill set at a younger age:
Stimulus Control on the Strike
Once our dogs like toys and can play with us in a variety of training locations (totally fine if this just means the backyard and the living room–lots of dogs take years to play comfortably out in the world), it is time to produce stimulus control for our “strike” (bite the thing) behavior. That means the dog will reliably bite the toy when asked, and will not bite the toy other times. That involves cueing in a clean manner so that the dog can get a clear strike at the toy, and using your new cue (your strike verbal) just before you produce your old cue (whatever you did before to get the dog to bite the toy).
In the early days, this might look something like this:
And when the behavior is well under stimulus control, it would look more like this (this video involves both the strike and the next thing I’d teach, a get it off the ground cue):
Something often overlooked, and one of the biggest values to toy play, is the skill of switching reinforcement. Being able to go from a toy to food and back again, or to switch between two toys, is a skill that not only serves us in training but gives us valuable information about our dog’s headspace. If Felix can accurately and cleanly switch reinforcers I know he is present and ready to learn. The term “switching reinforcement” is one I first heard from Shade Whitesel, and I credit her with much of my understanding of this concept.
Here is Felix learning how to switch identical toys, in real time:
And here he is now, cleanly switching from toys to food and back again, something that was very hard for him to learn:
Stay tuned for yet MORE microskills!