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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Toys in Training - The Trials and Tribulations

See the wild-eyed dog in the picture? That's Zulu on toys!

I mentioned several weeks back that I was going to try my hand at working/training Zulu & Rouge with toys. It has been a learning experience for sure!

As a recap, I had previously avoided toys due to arthritis which made it painful for physical interaction. Thanks to some new meds, I felt I was ready to give the toy tugging/tossing a try.

Not surprisingly, there were a few lessons to be learned and I'm betting most of you will appreciate my learning curve.

First, the whole coordination thing! What kind of toy works best, where does the toy go, which hand, how do I use the toy and how do I put it all together...

What type of toy - I wanted something that would allow me to actively interact with my dogs so a tug toy was my choice. For Rouge, I chose a toy that I could stuff with food to encourage tugging and I put turkey sausage inside of it. For Zulu, I initially used a long stuffed animal pelt that he loved and then switched to a soft frisbee for easy tossing.

Where does the toy go - Yeah, this isn't a trick question. I thought this would be a simple keep toy in hand and after using a marker word, reward. This works great with Rouge, however, I ran into a few problems when trying this with Zulu.

First, he was overly aroused and simply couldn't think. The other problem is that in his absolute focus on the toy, he kept leaping on me, at my hand and sometimes making inadvertent contact with me when he was frustrated - ouch! What I learned was that the toy is a great motivator...and I needed a bit more of a middle ground. So I did two things, first I went back to working Zulu's toy manners away from the obstacles and second, I put the toy in my pocket which worked far better!

Which hand - For Rouge, I tend to keep the toy in the lead hand, or the hand closest to the dog. However, I do this mainly for jumps and especially for collection and do NOT use it for weaves or contacts at this point as I have trained for independent performance and don't want to inadvertently change that by accidentally 'luring' since we are well past that stage.

For Zulu, the toy is in my pocket and I throw it in any manner that will keep Zulu on whichever path I've chosen. More details on that later.

How do I use the toy - the answer seemed easy enough, toy = reward. The real art is timing and that takes practice! I'll admit, it's been a little awkward and similar to learning how to ride a racing bike when you're used to a mountain bike (similar, but still strange). I still use a marker word, but my goal is to keep my dog accelerating after the marker word and to transition smoothly from the exercise to the reward.

How to put it together - Practice, practice, practice! After working with just toys, I started small and moved up to a single obstacle such as a tunnel or jump and with very little movement on my part. This allowed me to focus on my dog's actions and my reward timing. Soon I moved to just two obstacles and I am currently up to three - four obstacles at most. I do randomize when the reward comes, but most importantly I really try to focus on rewarding the behaviors I want.

For Ru, I'm currently rewarding attention and speed and for Zulu his training at the moment revolves around jump work and offering behaviors.

Overall - I'm really enjoying the work and I've seen quick results which has made my mental process and working outside of my comfort zone much more rewarding.

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