Day 2: Play: Release the toy, release the joy!

Welcome to Day 2 of #100daysofenrichment and thank you for joining us on this journey!

Although our challenges are directed mainly at dogs, we want all species to enjoy and benefit from #100daysofenrichment so, please join in, adjust and adapt to help your pet or companion live a more enriched life.

Don’t forget to review all the information leading up to #100daysofenrichment and more here on playing safe. Know your dog!

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Release the toy, release the joy!

At a glance:

  • a release cue is a signal, probably a word, used to ask the dog to let go of a toy or item
  • teaching a toy release, to drop something, apply it to games and tricks
  • cognitive based enrichment
  • toy release, relinquishing stealables, play/play/play, tricks
  • get the family involved in this one – children can be great dog trainers but, for this, it’s best to add smaller children when the pet is responding reliably to the toy release cue to avoid any caught fingers!
    Remember, supervise children in all enrichment activities and interactions with pets.
  • training exercises can be practiced in individual sessions of no more than 30 seconds at a time; have as many sessions as you can!

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What do you need?

  • favourite toys such as tug toys, ropes, tennis balls
  • food rewards – you can use your dog’s regular food, a training mix, commercial treats, home prepared treats such as cut up meats, cheese, vegetables or homemade treats such as liver or tuna cake
  • stealables like socks, tissue
  • maybe even a load of washing and laundry basket…

We will talk about human-dog play throughout this program, and one of the first lessons in learning to play with toys, with humans attached, is to teach the dog to release the toy so that the game can continue!
We want to be able to use a word to ask for an item to be released, whether that’s a toy, a ‘stolen’ item, or a random item for tricks such as loading and emptying the washing machine!

This is an early session of Decker learning to put something into the washing machine; he LOVES emptying the washing machine!

Enrichment Goals:

  • to teach the dog that the release cue, for example, “THANK YOU!”, means something rewarding is about to happen
  • to teach the dog that their human will ask for behaviour and will make sure reinforcement is available – this reduces stress by improving predictability and controlability
  • to encourage more appropriate toy play between dog and human
  • to build that bond between dog and human
  • to have a fun and rewarding experience in social situations, between dogs and humans
  • to learn about learning – this is just another puzzle to your dog…”how do I train the human to make rewards available?!“…it’s all human training, for dogs!

While training exercises certainly fall into the cognitive enrichment category, they can provide so much more.

Providing dogs with cues allows for a complex level of communication between two species; you are merely requesting that the dog perform behaviour (he already knows how to do the behaviour…they can already drop things) and that request comes with a contract. Respond appropriately to this signal and rewards are coming your way. That’s the deal…that’s what being a good teacher is about – keeping your word and making it easy for your dog to train you.

This forges the most healthy of relationships between our two species. This is a level of social enrichment that’s tricky to replicate.

When we talk about enrichment being enriching, this is never more clear than when we start to teach behaviours intentionally. It’s the human’s job to set the dog up for success by making sure the behaviour is doable and that rewards are fast-flowing.

There’s no test at the end of this and you and your pet are not under any pressure. Learn to enjoy the time together, whether you achieve the goal behaviour or not. That’s what’s enriching here…the social and cognitive outlets such exercises provide (for both species).

What goals can you add to this list for your pets?

How can we achieve these goals?

  • work with toys or other rewards that your dog enjoys – the reward for giving up the toy or item must be worth it and it’s the dog that decides something is worth working for!
  • keep it simple and split behaviour – reward approximations toward the final behaviour, rather than hoping that your dog will offer the goal behaviour quickly
  • take your time and work in many short sessions
  • try for 30 seconds at a time, 5-10 rewards each session, and then take a break
  • plan each session – what behaviours are you looking for and rewarding?
  • watch the clips and try out the exercise
  • portion out your dog’s daily food and allot some for training exercises

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  • make a training mix by adding in something yummier and leaving it all to ‘cook’ together in the fridge; the smells will mingle, harder foods will soften a little, and everything will become more valuable

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  • remember to adjust your pet’s diet accordingly to accommodate the extra calories from treats added, where relevant
  • split your food rewards into little bowls with just the right number of rewards in each bowl so that you are ready to go; stick bowls of rewards in places where you may need to teach and reward behaviours so that you have rewards ready to go

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If you are feeding wet or fresh foods, cut up small or mash to a paste and present on a wooden spoon or spatula. Alternatively you can freeze in small ice cube trays or a pyramid baking tray so that you can use small portions and individual treats.

What adjustments will you make for your pets?

Applications of toy release cues:

We use the release cue “thank you!” because it’s a relatively novel cue for most pets, and it’s difficult to say it in anger. When wanting something off a dog, the temptation is to attempt to intimidate the dog, using a stern tone, but that’s not needed.
If a dog isn’t doing some behaviour, it’s because you have to teach it better, not shout louder!

Even when my tug-lover is really into the game and tugging the life out of that toy, I can cue a release gently, without intimidation.

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  • release the toy so that the game can continue
  • release the toy so that a break in the game can be taken – this is important so as to keep arousal (and stress) under control
  • release other items
  • reduce the need for resource guarding behaviour
  • to allow the dog to choose to give up toys or items
  • to teach ticks such as putting toys away, picking up things, retrieving things, loading and emptying the washing machine

You can use whatever word or signal you like, once you condition and teach the behaviour correctly.

Enrichment Options

Option 1: Condition “thank you!” cue

Does your dog already have a toy release cue? How effective is that cue?

Unless you have a pretty reliable release behaviour, without intimidation (can you whisper it?), and during the excitement of a game, start here!

Beginners:

  • have 10-20 tiny treats ready
  • hold one or two treats behind your back
  • say “thank you!” in an upbeat voice
  • then move your hand and toss the treats across your dog’s eyeline

It doesn’t matter what your dog is doing, whether they look at you or not, just say “thank you!” and then toss the treats.

Repeat ten “thank yous” per session and then take a break.

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By practicing this over several sessions you will teach your dog that the phrase “thank you!” means to check the floor for yummies. By conditioning this cue reliably, your dog will begin to drop things to search the floor for a treat.

Advanced:

With some practice, you can begin to apply your conditioned release cue to play. Just about our favourite toy game to play is tug and contrary to popular belief playing this game won’t lead to behaviour problems.

We love tug because:

  • the human and the dog has the toy most of the time
  • the fun is happening with the human
  • we can easily control and vary the intensity and duration of the game to better manage arousal
  • it’s an excellent confidence booster; check out shy-girl Cara’s confidence increase in this tug game here
  • playing tug training games is a great way to play body and mind games, all in one

This video provides you with a tutorial for teaching tug and release:

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Option 2: Practice in play

We want games to be fun but recognise that dogs need to learn some rules about playing with humans, especially because play can get very exciting.

Playing with toys for short periods is a great way to introduce reinforcers other than food rewards, while boosting your relationship with your pet and their joy in engaging with you. Bringing this game on the road is an excellent way to improve recalls and responsiveness while out and about.

Beginners:

Fetch games, although often loved by humans and found addictive by dogs, present some problems.

First of all, the repetitive, intense and exerting nature of fetch games can cause spikes in arousal so constant that they can raise the dog’s overall baseline for stress and being wound up, leading to other problems.
That’s why it becomes ‘addictive’ and dogs can’t seem to get enough, bringing about all sorts of high stress behaviours. Watch your dog’s behaviour the next time you play – note their intensity for the ball, the hard panting, tight mouth, possibly with vocalising and barking…all associated with such levels of arousal that the dog may be losing control.

Second, the dog is being rewarded for moving away from their human. There is such a disconnect between dog and human, especially where those ball launcher devices are used.
We even see automated fetch devices available on the market now – no human needed 😦

To help make sure fetch games are actually fun and playful, while being beneficial for your dog’s behavioural health, we start by solidifying a ball release cue so that you can safely throw the ball again. Once that’s established, we can get the ball, have an obedience break and start the game going again.

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Intermediate:

Puppy tug games are our favourite and puppies and adult dogs love it! Check out this clip showing the rules of puppy tug:

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This game works great with puppies and young dogs, and also dogs that are really into tug games who can happily switch between a tug toy and food rewards.

Advanced:

In lots of dog sports and training, we use different cues or signals to communicate to the dog what sort of reinforcer to expect, where it will show up and how it will be presented. This helps to refine training and communication, and makes things very clear and predictable for the dog.

For example, for Decker, “tug” means to bite the toy in my hand and I will hang on, “Geddit” means grab the toy on the ground (I should refine this more to indicate what will happen with the toy afterwards, whether to tug or run away with it or to return to me and so on), “thank you” always means relinquish an item, no matter what.

In this clip, we are working on “switch”, which means release one toy and tug the other.

You will see that I continue to prompt his behaviour with more established cues (“thank you” and “tug”) but he starts to learn that the new cue, “switch”, means there’s more fun to be had!

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If your dog already has an established release cue, you can introduce a switch cue to add lots of fun to the game!

If your dog’s is a TUG-ADDICT, using your release cue to let the dog know to switch to another available toy, is a great way of teaching that release cue.

Say the release cue, reveal the other toy and make it live (wiggle it, jiggle it, make it irresistible) and when your dog switches, hide the first behind your back. Switch ever 3-5 seconds of tug.

Option 3: Building motivation for toy play

For some dogs, ending the game isn’t the problem…instead, getting the game going is more difficult.

Gaps in human-dog play are often associated with humans coming on too enthusiastically, overwhelming their dog, or humans not splitting play behaviours down into small enough pieces making it difficult for the dog to find their mojo.

Tips for boosting motivation for play:

  • really short sessions – 30 seconds to one minute at a time
  • get their attention first and ask if they might like to engage
  • invite play – show them what you have to offer
  • get consent and continue to ask consent throughout – is this ok? is what I am doing to you or with the toy ok?

Play will feature throughout our 100 day project and we will continue to build the enjoyment and engagement for both ends of the lead!

Beginners:

Use a stuffable toy or a sock, or similar.

Level 1:

  • initially, keep this special toy out of reach
  • play with the toy, away from the dog (but where he can see you) – several 30 second sessions, every day – act as if this is the most fascinating thing ever, lots of ooohs and aaahs, and tossing it in the air and catching it
  • when the dog starts to show interest in this process go to Level 2

Level 2:

  • stuff the toy with treats and play with it by throwing it in the air and catching it.
    If the dog shows interest, drop the toy and when the dog approaches, open and allow the dog to eat the treats. Practice only 2 or 3 times per session.
  • each successive session, be slower to help the dog get the treats so he has to interact more and more with it.
  • when the dog starts to manipulate the toy more, reduce the food in it
  • continue to build manipulation and participation by reducing the food rewards and increasing engagement with the toy and with you

Make sure to allow the newbie-player to control the game; this clip shows how we helped Molly learn to love this game, boosting her confidence and helping her get over her initial reluctance:

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Intermediate:

Sometimes, we just want to get a little more interest and engagement in toy play, with our dogs. Again, this comes from us drumming up just enough interest in the toy to get them hooked, and then making it about the interaction between both dog and human, rather than just the toy.

Here I work with Brady, getting him hooked on interacting with me with the toy, rather than just the toy or not at all:

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Tips for boosting value in toys:

  • use long toys that can be traced along the ground to encourage interest
  • try using real fur toys (if you are ok with this, fake fur if not) – you can get rabbit skin toys and some dogs love them
  • try lacing a particular toy with hunting scents – work best on fleecy type toys
  • use a sock with food or stuffable toys on a rope

Option 4: Picking things up

Teaching your dog to pick things up might be key to teaching the dog to release things and to play with you with a toy.

For some dogs, who like to mouth and bite things, just wriggling the toy along the floor will encourage them to try to pick it up, just like Brady in the clip above. But for some dogs we might need to work a little harder to help build value in picking things up.

The entire picking-a-thing-up behaviour can be broken down into smaller, simpler components:

  • looking at the item
  • approaching the item
  • reaching toward the item
  • opening mouth close to the item
  • biting the item
  • picking up the item
  • lifting the item off the floor

We could add further components to the list to include moving with the item and ultimately dropping the item again.

For the more reluctant dog, we can shape and freeshape this behaviour by working on each of the components, a little at a time.
For the trainer, this is an exercise in timing and delivering rewards.

This clip shows the shaping plan put into action with Boomer. This from our learners’ work on a mechanical skills course.

Boomer is a little reluctant and not into playing tug. The learners build from Boomer moving toward the toy, through to beginning to place the toy in a human hand.

Stages of this behaviour include:

  • approaching the toy
  • sniffing the toy/lowering head toward toy
  • mouthing toy
  • picking toy up
  • holding toy while human hand moves toward dog
  • holding toy longer
  • dropping toy into offered hand

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You can see our wonderful students work through some of the problems presented, but note that the dog is only offering behaviour that’s been clicked. You get what you click, not what you want!

This exercise can also help to teach a dog a fetch behaviour. Once the dog is picking the item up reliably, and placing it in a human hand, placing the item further away will encourage the dog to bring it back. Soon, you will be able to toss or roll the toy for the dog to retrieve.

Option 5: Tidy up!

Once we have a dog who is picking things up, we can teach the dog to put the item somewhere specific, whether that be a human hand or a tub or box.

This can be applied to teaching tricks such as ‘tidy your toys away’ and we’re going to apply it to something just as helpful…

Start with teaching your dog to pick up an item and place it in your hand. Then you can gradually fade your hand so that your dog is dropping the item into a specific container.

In this clip the stages Decker goes through include:

  • picking up sock and dropping in human hand, over the basin
  • picking up sock and dropping in lowering human hand, over basin
  • picking up sock and dropping in one hand, over basin
  • picking up sock and dropping in to basin, with point prompt

In this clip, I am using a YES! marker. This means, to the dog, that that behaviour is the one to repeat and that your treat is coming. Decker hears “YES!” and drops the sock to get his treat so I just need to line him up so that he is dropping the sock in the basin.

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Option 6 Empty and load the washing machine

If you have front loading washing machine, this is a fun and, not to mention, useful trick to teach your dog.

This exercise is just an application of options 4 and 5 so once you have those behaviours established, this one will be a breeze.

One of Decker’s most favourite behaviours that I have every taught him is to empty the washing machine. He comes running when he hears the machine door open and is ready to tug-tug-tug those clothes outta there with his trademark enthusiasm...!

For safety, keep your washer and dryers closed securely at all times, especially when not supervising pets (or children).

Emptying the washing machine

This is one is a little easier and is really the same idea behind picking up an item. If your dog needs help, start by placing their toy or stuffable in the machine and reward them for retrieving it.

Use the same item you used for teaching the dog to pick up and place it just at the opening, at first, so that they don’t have to stick their whole head in until more confident.

Start to work on this as you did when teaching the dog to place an item in a container, so that’s a part of the set up from the beginning.

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Loading the washing machine

This takes place-a-toy-in-a-container trick to another level but is essentially taught in the same manner.

Start with your dog just picking up the item and dropping into your hand and, once that’s established beside open machine, start to move your hand a little closer to the door opening each go.
Soon, your pet will be dropping the item into your hand in the machine, so you can start to turn your hand into a pointing motion. To fade that, each go, move your pointing hand a little further out of the machine opening.

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Your challenge

Now it’s your turn. Show us what you and your pets, of any species, can do with these challenges!

Post to your social media accounts, using the #100daysofenrichment so that we can find you and join our Facebook group to share your experiences, ideas and fun!
You can comment right here too 🙂

We look forward to hearing from you and your pets – have fun & brain games!

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