E258: Sara Brueske - "Teaching Toy Play with Food"

Sara Brueske joins me to tell me why she teaches toy play with food — and all the benefits that come with it.  


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today I have Sara Brueske here with me to talk about teaching an out and teaching toy play skills.

Hi Sara, welcome to the podcast!

Sara Brueske: Hi Melissa. Thank you for having me again.

Melissa Breau: I'm excited to talk about this stuff. It's a big topic. To start us out, do you want to share a little about you, your pups, what you're working on, and obviously you've got a new non-puppy addition?

Sara Brueske: I do have a 2-month-old daughter, non-dog daughter. She's hanging out with us for this interview, s if there's anything in the background, I apologize about that. She's sleeping now, so hopefully that continues.

I do have ten of my own dogs, as well as temporary guests who will eventually be looking for homes of their own. I have a bunch of Australian Koolies, I do breed Australian Koolies, a couple of Belgian Malinois I do protection sports with, and a menagerie of other dogs including a Boston Terrier/Shih Tzu mix, a Border Collie, Border Collie mixes, all sorts.

The reason why I have that many dogs is because I did work for Purina for seven years and we performed for Purina, as well as other halftime shows and that sort of thing. In order to do that job, you have to have lots and lots of dogs, and so that's why. Most of them are retired now.

My current dogs I am working toward goals would be Famous for scentwork, Vibrant is starting her scentwork career trialing, she's also training in dock diving, disc, and agility, and Kreacher is training for his Mondioring 3 title hopefully this year.

Melissa Breau: I think you said "a bunch of Koolies." Is that the official term for more than one now?

Sara Brueske: It is, it is. A gang of Koolies.

Melissa Breau: I wanted to talk to you today about toy play. Before we dive into the toy play bit, I think it makes sense to open up with a discussion on when you choose to use food and when you choose to use a toy when training, and why.

Sara Brueske: Absolutely. A lot of the sports I do, including disc and protection sports, toy play is actually part of the sport itself, and dock diving. Those are actually going for the toy reinforcer. If we talk about protection sports, I'm talking about the guy in the suit as the actual toy. We'll just include him and just say that we're working in prey drive, for those of you that are familiar with protection sports. I do mondioring, so I don't work in defense drive at all.

If I think about the sports as I have to use a toy in the sport itself, it's really important for those sports to be using a toy reinforcer to help the dog be successful. I can't train dock diving solely for food. I can train a lot of foundation stuff, but I have to bring that toy play in eventually.

As far as the other sports, if we talk about obedience or agility or scentwork, what toy play does is it helps bring extra enthusiasm, it helps increase arousal level, and it helps increase speed in the behaviors I want.

If I want super-fast agility, I'm going to try to use toy play to help bring out the prey drive in my dog, that chase drive, and help use that to increase the speed in my behaviors.

Same thing with scentwork. If I want to increase the speed and the resiliency of my dog's hunt drive, then I will use toys to help reinforce that. It's going to put that extra edge out there, my dog is going to be a little more excited, and that's going to transfer into more speed for the behaviors.

The same thing with obedience. If I want to increase the speed in my retrieve, and the excitement in my retrieve as well as my position changes or heeling, or increase enthusiasm in any of that stuff, I can introduce toys to help with that.

Now where food comes in, teaching the behavior initially, I need to use food to do that for the most part. A lot of dogs, including my own, struggling thinking a little bit when there's a toy around, and so we can work with that as much as possible. But it's just like trying to go to a fair and try and teach your kid math at a fair. They're going to be super-excited and jazzed, and they're not going to want to sit there and think about numbers and concentrating on learning that thing. So it's just easier to teach a lot of the behaviors with food and then transfer it to toys after that.

Melissa Breau: Are there downsides to using toys as reinforcers?

Sara Brueske: Yeah. Like I just mentioned, it increases arousal level and it makes it really difficult to teach new behaviors. I can talk a little bit with the sports that involve the toys in the sport itself, even dock diving.

My dog Kreacher is never going to be a great dock diver. He's just not. The reason for that is because toys make his arousal go up so high that he's not really aware of what his body is doing. Because he's not aware of what his body is doing, his jumping form tends to go out the window and we get some pretty crazy gymnastics in the air off the dock.

For his own safety, I've never worked dock diving with him to try to increase distance, and he just won't be competitive in any way. I can sit there and work with it as much as possible, and I have, but at some point he's not going to be safe doing it.

That is a concern when we use toys is that we tend to bring up arousal a little too much where the dog isn't able to think, maybe they're going to be a little bit unsafe, or the precision in their behavior is going to go by the wayside. That is the disadvantage of using toys.

Melissa Breau: You talked a little bit in there about some of the pros and some of the cons, but what skills are we really talking about that they need before we can even use toy play in training? Can you break down what's required in order for that to be a successful reinforcer for training?

Sara Brueske: Toy play is great except for when it's not cooperative. Cooperative toy play is a really good tool to have for your training. If I throw a toy reinforcer in agility, I want my dog to bring back that toy so I don't spend five or ten minutes waiting for them to stop running around with that toy in their mouth and bring it to me eventually. Zip Tie, I'm just saying, Zip Tie. To be fair, Zip Tie does have a loop on cue. I do send him out with his toy because it is one of those things that he just does anyway.

Anyway, you want them to bring back the toy because you don't want to be the one standing there holding up agility class while your dog runs around with that toy.

If you play tug and you let your dog win, you want them to bring it back to you and to continue that game. You don't want to be sitting there playing tug with your dog and always trying to win the game to prevent them from stealing your toy away. And so cooperative play is the most important part of this. I have to have some sort of game that I can play reliably in all sorts of different locations, and that my dog enjoys and that I enjoy playing, because otherwise those emotions are going to go into the game, and then into the behavior, and into the thing I'm training itself.

The two games I really like to use … I've got a few. Tugging, obviously. I want to be able to tug with my dog because I want to be able to reinforce on my body to help pull focus to me. I also want my dog to be able to chase a thrown toy and bring it back to me, so fetch. I also want my dog to be able to pick up a toy off the ground and bring it to me to play a game, whether tug or I throw it for them. The two most important ones are fetch and tug. Once I have those, and my dog enjoys them and I can bring them different places, then generally pretty good to add that to my training.

Melissa Breau: How do you approach teaching those skills?

Sara Brueske: It depends on which one I'm talking about, and it depends on the dog itself. There's a whole bunch of different ways I can teach my dog to play fetch. One of them is for food, and that's my favorite way to teach it is teaching through food as the reinforcer for bringing an object back to me. I start that with a neutral object. That's what my upcoming workshop is all about is teaching toy play for food.

The reason why I like teaching that, regardless if my dog has crazy toy drive or no toy drive out of the womb, naturally toy drive, it gives me really solid criteria, clear criteria, for my dog to follow. I can teach them to deliver that toy to my hand, and then I can use that to help build up a game of tug as well as a game of fetch.

I also like that I have an additional reinforcer, so when I start introducing that toy play to new locations and distractions, and my dog gets a little bit not committed to the toy, as some dogs will, I can use food to help reinforce them staying on their toy, which is a huge help for a lot of dogs.

I also like that by teaching toy play for food, I'm actually teaching my dog to go back and forth between the reinforcers, which is really important, especially if we start talking about arousal ability and helping our dogs go from crazy to calm. Having that ability to go back and forth between the reinforcers is huge. That's one of my favorite ways to teach those games is using food as a reinforcer.

The other ways are typically we have our toy switch game. I'm playing tug, they win the tug, and they come back to bite a second identical tug and we continue the game that way. It's a really good way to help reduce possession, so helping the dogs that tend to grab a tug toy and then go off into the corner, and they're precious and you're never going to get it again.

Melissa Breau: I've never seen that, Sara.

Sara Brueske: No, not at all common, especially in Cocker Spaniels or Malinois at all. That's a nice way to do that. You always come back and continue the game. And then there's the two-ball method. Same thing. I throw a ball, they chase a ball, I mark and reward them for looking at me, and throw another ball the other direction. Those are more the traditional ways of teaching it, but that toy play for food is my favorite way.

Melissa Breau: Your webinar coming up … you mentioned the workshop. Let's talk about the webinar first. The webinar coming up is on teaching the out. What approaches do you include in the webinar? Can you share a little additional information on what you'll cover?

Sara Brueske: The methods I already talked about. We use those games, the same games we use to teach the cooperative play, we can use them to teach the out, because we are already teaching them that we're the fun part of the game, so come back to me and the game will continue. That's a huge part of teaching the out is building that trust, that it's about interacting with the handler versus the toy itself.

We can use the switch game and then add in our verbal cue as our dog gets comfortable with it. Same with the two-ball game and adapting it that way so we're getting a drop at a distance so we're going to drop off at a distance versus just in our hands, which is huge for games like disc.

Using food again is a huge way to help out, so I have a treat toss game that I like to play with dogs when I'm teaching an out, and we'll be talking about that for sure in the webinar too.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. You mentioned the workshop. Do you want to talk a little bit more about the advantages to teaching toy play with food, since that's what you're focusing on for the workshop?

Sara Brueske: Absolutely. Like I said, introducing distractions is a huge one. One of the biggest things that people talk to me about with toy play is that they have great toy play at home. They've build up a nice, solid game at home, but the second they take it outside, even in their back yard, it tends to go away because the distractions are too overpowering.

One of my favorite things to think about with toy play, and it took me a while to get here, is that toy play is simply another behavior. If we approach it that way, it's a lot easier to maintain and build in the long run.

With behavior, let's talk a sit-stay or a down-stay. I teach a sit-stay in my house, I add duration to that sit-stay, I add difficulty in my house — maybe some dogs walking, other dogs training. I might go knock on the door, that type of thing. I might toss some treats. Whatever I do to add distractions at home.

And then I start to bring them out to new places once I have a solid behavior. I might start in my back yard working that sit-stay. I might bring them to my front yard. I might bring them to my training school. I might bring them to a park. That sort of thing. Each time I do that, I reduce my criteria and difficulty and help my dog be successful, and I'm using food as a reinforcer to help build that behavior.

If we talk about toy play in the same way, I build my behavior, my fetch game or my tug game at home, and I'm using food as a reinforcer there. I build up the duration and I build up the difficulty. You really have to pull that tug from my hand. I start adding behaviors and now they're working for that toy versus just playing with the toy. I bring them in my back yard and I bring them in my front yard, and each time I make sure I increase my rate of reinforcement, and then bring them to the park, and so on and so forth.

The reason why this helps, not only is it helpful for our dogs to slowly build the behavior that way, obviously, because that's all training is, but it also helps us take the emotion out of toy play, because I know from personal experience when my dog doesn't want to play with me, I am crushed. It is the worst feeling ever when you get that toy out and your so excited and jazzed to play with your dog, and you're running around being crazy, and they're looking at you and they think you're crazy and they sniff the grass instead.

So if we approach it like a behavior, at least for me, I found that it really helps me put my emotions aside and approach it more from that scientific method versus going, "I have to play this certain way and my dog will enjoy it," or "My dog's not really enjoying it, and toy play is never going to be a thing we're going to have."

That's what the workshop is going to be about is talking about that and how to build those games, and how to help introduce it to distractions and get a reliable, cooperative toy game.

Melissa Breau: I love that. As somebody who has struggled to teach toy play to her now adult dog, I think that sounds fantastic.

Let's say we've gone through that stuff, the dog has solid toy skills. Is there a point at which the game inherently becomes reinforcing if we've trained it with food? How does that piece of things work, and are we essentially building value for both food and toys by going back and forth between food and toys?

Sara Brueske: If we think about agility, if you've done agility, you know that you can use a reinforcer in agility and that's gong to be a good thing and a good way to build value for the game. But at some point those obstacles become reinforcing for our dogs just by themselves, and so we can start to fade those reinforcers out and start to chain those obstacles together and our dog has values for them.

For those dogs that are tunnel suckers, you end up using that tunnel as a reinforcer, so there's different things that you can do with that, and your dog starts to just love the game by itself.

It's the same thing for the toy play or for food. It might start out that your dog is really doing it for the food, but as that conditioned emotional response goes and you start to decrease the rate of reinforcement and now you have to win the tug two times, or you have to do three throws before you get reinforced with that food, the dog is going to start to enjoy the game itself, more so depending on the dog or equal to the food, and that's what we're going for.

Like I said, even the dogs that I have that have great toy drive out of the womb, I still reinforce with food and teach them toy play for food. What ends up happening, I found with those dogs too, is it does increase their food drives. Whatever is a weaker reinforcer, I found that using both reinforcement options tends to even them out. If you have a dog that's like, "No, there's a toy present, I'm not going to go for the food at all," if you go through the steps and really teach it as a behavior that you have to eat the food to get the toy, or vice versa, they do start to even out a little bit, which is really nice.

Melissa Breau: Once the dog has solid toy skills, so they bring the toy back or they push back into you with a tug, are there other things that need to be taken into consideration before you can use those skills in training?

Sara Brueske: Like I mentioned, distractions is a huge thing, and then fading that reinforcement, knowing how many times your dog will engage with that tug before you have to reinforce it. As well as can they maintain the criteria and how difficult can I make it?

If we talk about the disc dog game, which has a deliver to hand, that deliver to hand criteria is extremely important to disc dog players, because if the dog drops that disc three feet from you you're losing fractions of a second in time, which could potentially cut out a whole throw, which is a bunch of points for you. So basically we need to make sure that that deliver to hand is top notch.

For that, when I bring that toy play to new places, I have to know if that deliver to hand, that toy play to bring that disc back to me, can withstand the distractions around. So making sure that I have that, have a good understanding, and my dogs understand the behavior, and how far I can push it so I'm not setting my dog up for failure with it.

Melissa Breau: To round out our chat, one last question. If we were to drill all the things we've been talking about down to one key piece of information you want people to take away or understood, what would that be?

Sara Brueske: Toy play for food is absolutely amazing. I know it has a giant taboo around it, but oh my goodness, once you guys do it, you will always do it, regardless of what the dog is in front of you and how much they value toys or not. It makes life so much easier in the long run.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you, Sara, so much for coming on the podcast!

Sara Brueske: Thank you so much again for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely, and thank you to our listeners for tuning in!

We'll be back next week with Jake Schneider to talk about improving your dog's precision to save your fingers during toy play and building value for you rather than a decoy.

If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in — and happy training!


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

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