Since I was writing about where to purchase toys, I wanted to quickly add some information about how to select and use them.
The toys we are talking about here are for training. They are reserved for time you spend directly interacting with your dog. They are not to be left with the dog to chew on or make free play with. For that, use a kong or kong type toy. If your dog enjoys the nylabone toys, you might try those; my dogs have never been a fan and leave those untouched. Do not use tennis balls for play, as the abrasive surface wears down the enamel and weakens the teeth.
There are several key rules to toy play:
1. the toy is YOURS. you begin the play, you control the play and you end the play. not the dog.
2. while in your hand the dog may not nip or grab at it. see Rule #1
3. Begin and end the play with a verbal cue so that the dog is clear on what to expect. Example: begin play by asking "wanna play?" I continue to use this as a prep cue for obedience. End play by having possession of the toy and saying "All done".
4. the dog is always given verbal permission to take the toy by giving a command to get it, or by releasing with the "yes". Movement alone does not give the dog permission to grab the toy.
5. The play is always interactive. You will never throw a toy and turn your back, talk or ignore the dog
6. Prey does not jump in the dog's mouth and never should your toy. Never wave the toy in the dog's face to entice it to play or smack it with the toy. The dog must chase and work for the toy to earn it.
7. Always end the game with the dog wanting more.
Your dog is an athlete. Treat him with the same care as someone preparing for any other sport would. Warm him up with flexibility exercises first. The "spins" and turns that we teach in the foundation of driving for food are perfect for this. Do some light trotting and movements, or stretching exercises before asking the dog to run full tilt. Do not risk a permanent injury because you are too lazy to warm up your dog.
Be very careful with the surface you are working on, and pivot turns. Ice or wet grass can cause a dog to slide a leg out and tear the anterior cruciate ligament. Bouncing toys that entice the dog to jump and twist can also cause injury. The best toys will be thrown and land flat, not bounce. Ask any orthopedic surgeon what they think about Frisbee play and you will learn how that little disk can keep surgeons in new cars.
The toy you select needs to be what is best for your dog at that time, and for that purpose. This will change over time. A puppy needs to have a soft biting surface that feels good in the mouth and allows it to be successful; the size of the toy is also dictated by the size of the dog. Too small a toy is unsatisfying; too large and the puppy will learn an improper grip. I prefer the french linen toys for a soft, durable surface. If you take a dog that is just beginning tug play and make the play difficult and unrewarding, such as using firehose type material where the dog's grip slips off, the young dog will soon quit trying.
The same surface would be appropriate for an older, more experienced dog who needs to be challenged to grip down despite a slippery surface. Narrow leather strap toys and other small toys are good for that level. I always have multiple bite pillows, however, ranging from very soft to firm because there are times when a dog at every level can be rewarded by going back to something very simple that fills the mouth and makes huge play!
Balls present their own challenge and are generally not for the novice at learning how to play with your dog. The gripper jute tug with its stiff handle makes this a little easier, but when you use a ball for play you must first teach the dog how to properly target. Never let the dog grab the handle. This takes a little more skill than you might think. You want to calmly release the dog's mouth from the toy and show them how to regrip, but do not correct them and cause them to stop trying. A key thing to remember is that there can be no "No' until there is a "yes"; in other words, you cannot correct for a behavior your dog does not know. Properly used, a ball can be a very motivating toy.
Food will be your primary choice in teaching aids; use toys to amp up the game once the dog shows you that he understands the behavior. Teaching a behavior using a toy can create problems because the dog is so stimulated it is not thinking from a calm place, and once you deliver any biting tug toy, you now have to worry about proper grip and proper return/release. Not as simple as it sounds!
The best toy play keeps the game with you. The dog grips, tugs, releases and is completely focused on staying with you and interacting with you. Thrown toys change that picture and tell the dog that the best fun is made away from you UNLESS you reinforce it by using a long line to bring dog directly back to play with you. In the beginning, the most fun should be in playing with you, not chasing a toy away from you. Who knew that playing with your dog required you to THINK?! Evidence shows that there are quite a few owners who prefer to mindlessly chuck a ball away and consider that play, but it isn't the type that we need to build a cooperative partnership. When your dog comes out to work and is looking at you in anticipation, not being distracted by other people or dogs, you know you have accomplished this goal. Make it short and sweet, leave 'em wanting more!
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