Toys as Reinforcers

Sometimes, a toy can be more practical or more rewarding than a food item. However, it takes practice to use a toy as an effective reinforcer. Remember – the dog decides if it is reinforcing, not you! If he isn’t interested or the target behavior isn’t increasing, then it isn’t a reinforcer.

Before you can use a toy as a reinforcer you need to understand what about the toy is exciting to your dog. There are several ways for your dog to interact with a toy:

  1. Holding the toy
  2. Chomping/Chewing on the toy
  3. Tugging with the toy
  4. Chasing the toy while you wiggle it
  5. Chasing a tossed toy
  6. Catching a toy in the air

Here’s a video example of Dan doing each of these:

Try each of these little games with your dog and see what he enjoys. Try to rank them in order and mark games your dog didn’t have much interest in with an “x”. Now, play each of them again in a brand new place and rank them – did the order change? Are there more or less “x”s?

Sometimes the type of toy alters the type of game your dog might like – for example, he might like to chomp on a ball better than catching it in the air. But he might like to catch a Frisbee in the air better than chomping on it.

List 5 of your dogs favorite types of toy and try to write down the top game for that toy.

How you deliver the toy can affect the behavior you get, just like the placement of a treat can affect the behavior. For example, if you are working on “4 Feet on the Floor”, be sure to present the toy from below your dog’s nose. If you hand it to him from above, he will be likely to jump up to get it!

Just like with treat training, you should use a reward marker for the behavior you like with toys too. You can use a clicker, the word “Yes!”, or the word “Good!” with both toys and treats. Just be sure the toy/treat is reinforcing so that the clicker doesn’t lose it’s meaning to your dog!

Another important piece of training with toys is to be sure that the toy is valuable. One way to help with this is to purchase 3-4 toys that are just for rewards in formal training sessions. Most dogs prefer new toys to the toys they play with all the time. My dog even prefers a new Chuck-It ball to an older Chuck-It ball! Be sure to have a variety in your toy reserve – a ball and several tug toys with different textures might be a good idea. That way you can add variety to the toy reward too. This is just like the concept of choosing a high-value treat for practice with distractions or difficult behaviors. I often suggest using boiled chicken or string cheese when you aren’t training at home, because these treats are extra special for most dogs!

Finally, and most important, be sure to carry out the game for a bit with your dog during each reinforcement period. Most of the time, just giving your dog the toy won’t be reinforcing and therefore won’t accomplish anything. The interaction with the toy is the reinforcer, not just the presence of the toy.

One Last Note:  What if your dog doesn’t like toys or doesn’t play any of the games? You can teach him to enjoy these things, but it will take a little practice. One strategy is to use a toy that can hold food so that you can transfer the value of food to the toy. Another strategy is to give food as a reinforcer for engaging in play (you may have to shape this in the beginning). Squeakers, fur-like material and even the scent of a toy that another dog used can all increase interest in the toy for some dogs. It is worth your while to work on building value in at least one or two of the toy-play games so that you have a variety of reinforcers in your toolbox.