E288: Sara Brueske - "Teaching Toy Play with Food"

Can you, should you, teach toy play with food? Sara's answer is a resounding yes — in this episode we talk about why and how. 


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 one of the most current and progressive training methods. Today, I have Sara Brueske here with me to talk about teaching toy play skills. Hi Sara, welcome back to the podcast.

Sara Brueske: Hi Melissa. Thank you for having me on. Excited to talk about this. To start us out, do you wanna just remind everybody a little bit about you, your current crew, which you're working on with them?

Sara Brueske: Oh, absolutely. So I'm a professional dog trainer. I focus mostly on online coaching for sport dogs and that sort of thing. Occasionally in doing some seminars in person as well. I currently have 10 dogs, but only three are in current training. The rest of 'em are retired, either they're just older and they've had such a great career or you know, injury or something like that, prevents them from playing sports. So I do compete and train in a whole bunch of sports. I compete and train in Mondioring, agility, obedience, Rally, dock diving, Frisbee, nosework. Yeah. And oh, I'm gonna do a joring race coming up in a couple of weekends, as well. So like pretty much everything. Just the whole, the whole range of things. Yeah, exactly. And of course then I, you know, I have a variety of dogs to do all those sports with. I have, you know, some Belgians, Australian Kooley, even a little Boston terrier-shih tzu mix, so all sorts of different dogs and yeah, that's, that's pretty much me in a nutshell right there.

Melissa Breau: All right, so talking about toys, I think a lot of people kind of think about their dog's reinforcers as being really innate, right? So like a dog is either into food for training or they're not, or they're into toys for training or they're not. Can you talk about that a little bit? Is that true? How much of our dogs like interest in reinforcers is nature, how much of its nurture?

Sara Brueske: So I think that there's a lot more nurture in there than we give it credit for. So I can make food very, very exciting for dogs, turn it into a game. And some dogs that previously don't like food as much, maybe they're just not foodies at heart, but they love the games that we create with it. So I can increase the value of food by doing that. And it's the same thing with toys. So a lot of times there's a lot of pressure with toy play we put on our dogs, especially if we use that toy play for our training, cuz now there's rules attached to that toy play and I think sometimes when we start to do that, we start to add those rules in or expectations with our toy play we add a lot of pressure to it and becomes, you know, not very fun to our dogs and maybe they just weren't really driven with the toys to begin with to help 'em push through that.

And so I think that by teaching games and kind of realizing that pressure and kind of taking that pressure off a little bit and adjusting how we teach it, we can actually increase that toy drive quite a bit. You know, I don't know if we can take a dog who is just like a couch potato and, and low energy in general and turn 'em into, you know, a dog that's crazy for tug, like I don't think we can quite swing that way, but I do think that, you know, within that dog's genetic spectrum of where they lie, we can go ahead and nudge that spectrum a little bit further down the line so that they are more driven for food, more driven for, for toys and that sort of thing.

I think there's a lot more about the relationship than just the reinforcer and often that comes out in my training in general, people ask, well what type of treats are you using? What kind of toys are you using? I'm like, well you know, it really doesn't matter. My dogs love the game, they love to play with me and they love to work. And that kind of overshadows the reinforcers themselves in a lot of ways.

Melissa Breau: So kind of based on that, I mean some people are gonna listen to that and they're gonna go, okay, if my dog's into toys, is it worth the work? Right? Like is it worth kind of going back and doing all that stuff? So what advantages are there to having those options, having multiple reinforcement options and why would somebody want to be able to use, you know, both food and toys for example, in their training?

Sara Brueske: Yeah, so often we have a dog that is just crazy about toys and then you bring up the food and they're like, no, I don't want food. I'd rather have my toy. And they can't kind of go back and forth or vice versa, there's food in the picture and now the toy's not so appealing and they really wanna focus on that food. And a lot of times for our training's sake, like it's, it's a lot easier to go back and forth based on what we're working on or maybe we want to help with arousal levels and that sort of thing. And so maybe I do wanna go back and forth within that session between food and toys and so even though your dog has both reinforcement options, having both in a single session is a huge advantage. And I know I switch back and forth all the time in my session, I wanna call my dog down, I might use food instead of a toy, that sort of thing. And so I think that is a good thing to work on even if you have both reinforcement options and if you don't have both reinforcement options. So I don't have toy play but I do have food. Using that food to help teach that toy play is a really, really good thing to open up that whole avenue. That though all those tools that you have by using toy play within your training.

Melissa Breau: Can you talk a little more about the reward strategies piece of that? I mean you kind of mentioned switching back and forth and using it to play with arousal, but when maybe you wanna use tug for example versus fetch or food, you know, what factors kind of go into making those decisions?

Sara Brueske: So it all depends on how I want my dog to emotionally respond to a behavior. So if I want my dog to be jazzed about behavior, I want them to be like, this is the best behavior ever. And maybe I'm not so worried about precision in that moment. I'm definitely use toys and I might do whatever my dog's favorite way of getting that toy, whether it's tugging or a throw to help amp up that enthusiasm within the behavior. I can go back and add the details in later and make sure it's back to precision. But if I'm really wanting that emotional response at, oh my goodness, I love to do this behavior, whether it's heeling or maybe going through a tunnel or something along those lines, I'm definitely gonna use toys as a primary reinforcement for that because then the prey drive, the emotional response to who that toy will help go into that behavior itself. But if I want my dog to be a little bit calmer, so if I'm working on like a down-stay, an absence in mondioring where my dog needs to just sit there for a minute regardless of what's going on, I don't necessarily want my dog to be jazzed and super excited. That's kind of counterproductive to the behavior as a whole. And so for that I definitely would use food, you know if something calm me and I'm, the way I even deliver that food is gonna be nice and calm, everything about it is gonna be nice and calm to help convey that message to my dog within that behavior. And we can get even more detailed in that, you know, how am I using that toy if we're doing something like disc and I want my dog to come in close to me for a move.

So for example, maybe I'm doing a collection move, like going through my legs so I can set them up for a more advanced trick like a leg vault or something along those lines. I might reward my dog for that initial collection move using a tug because that's going to add value for being close to me and versus them kind of going crazy in that and like ending up a bigger distance from me.

But if I reward close to me with that tugging, they're going to realize that oh when I do this move I need to stay close to my mom because now that reward is gonna come or we're gonna do something else. Versus if I want my dog to do the nice big sweeping motion behind me and come out with acceleration on the other side, I'm gonna use a throw to reinforce that behavior because now I want want my dog not thinking collection, I want them thinking extension and acceleration. So same thing with agility training, right? So if I have my dog, I'm training a go, for example, to take the line in front of 'em. I definitely don't wanna be using tug in that moment because that's gonna pull them back into me and it's going to not get that independent behavior that I want, that independent acceleration. But using a place toy or a thrown toy, for example, is gonna help achieve that.

Melissa Breau: So you're introducing a new class in December called pay-to-play using food to get great toy play. This is something you kind of touched on this earlier, but is this something that's possible with any dog?

Sara Brueske: Yeah, so honestly all of my dogs learn toy play this way now regardless of whether they come out with insane prey drive and just are naturally gifted toy dogs or maybe they're not so into the toy. The reason I really like to do it is it helps clarify a lot of those rules like I was talking about before and take that pressure off of toy play in general. So as long as you have food drive, you can teach the toy drive part of it. And so for that reason, yes as for any dog, any dog can learn to play this way as far as how reinforcing it ends up, it's gonna be based on the dog itself. You know, again, like I said, we're not gonna take like some couch potato dog who would much rather lay in the sun all day and turn into a crazy flyball dog or something like that. Like they'll be able to do flyball but it's not gonna be that barking lunging one that is throwing down three second runs or anything like that.

So like there is a limit to what we can do, but any dog can absolutely learn this and yeah, and, and you can end up using toys as a reinforcer if you haven't done it previously.

Melissa Breau: So what kind of toy play are you gonna cover? Can you share just a little bit about your approach?

Sara Brueske: Yeah, so what I like to do is break down both fetch and tug into a behavior. So just like we're teaching something like a retrieve, we can teach our, retrieve our as a game of fetch and turn it into more of a play style type of a retrieve and add that fun and that enthusiasm element to it. Same thing with tug, right? So if I can teach my dog to pull on something to close a cupboard door for example, that's just tugging. And so that way we get the behavior, we get the tugging and we can add the play elements into it after the fact once my dog understands the rules of the game. So just like when we are learning a new card game for example, that first time we go through we're just learning the lay of the land, we're learning how to play the game.

And then once we understand those rules and we have those kind of mechanics down and we have our strategy down, that's when it actually becomes fun. And so same thing for our dogs. Once they understand that game and that pattern of the game and what the expectations are, like oh yeah, I have to bring the ball back to you or I have to try to tug on this thing to win it from you. Once we have those pieces, then we can go ahead and turn it more into that game and it's gonna be a lot more fun for the dog in that moment. So if we build toy play with food, will it ultimately still be as reinforcing for training purposes as if they just had a natural interest and we kinda ran with that. You know, I always try to share the story of Edgar with this. So Edgar came to me–he is a weird dog–like I always just profess he's, he's a weird dog, he's a Boston Terrier-Shitzu mix. He's had three cherry eye surgeries, he doesn't have the best eyes, like thresholds are really a big issue for him going across doors and stuff like that because he can't see super well.

He initially came to me really loving toys but never liked enough to work for him. So he liked to chase and then like once or twice and then be done. And at some point about a year and a half he decided toys were not worth it, whether I pushed it too far or I poisoned it somehow. I wasn't really sure what made that switch flip, but he didn't like toys anymore. Like I would bring out a toy and he'd be like "see ya" and go check out and do something else. So whether we can say that naturally he had it or not, I don't know, I think he liked the energy I was bringing and maybe that helped pull him through. So I took a year off with him with toys and I kind of evaluated like how do I wanna approach this?

This was, this was, he's seven now, so this was, you know, five, six years ago. And so then I'm like, you know what, I'm just gonna teach it for food. His food drives great and he brings a lot of enthusiasm with his food, let's just see. And so from there I went ahead and taught him the game of fetch. I taught him the game of tug using food as a reinforcer and started turning into a variable reinforcement so he didn't, just cuz he won doesn't mean you get the food, you know, and turning into more of a game that way and adding the play ailments. And pretty soon he's doing his full performance for Frisbee versus food itself and he loves his Frisbees, he started doing vaults and I could teach him all, all the crazy tricks and everything else like that and if anything ever got too tough or he started going, you know, this is a lot of work, I could always bring that food back into it. And so it gave me that added, that added tool of going, ooh, you know, we're in a really distracting environment. I wanna play with him with the Frisbee but I can always back it up with food if I have to. And so I would say it gives you better toy play than the ones that you just teach naturally because if I go out there with a dog, so a puppy, let's take cake for example, right now she's going through this process right now she's my little Australian Koolie puppy. She's five months, 16, 17 weeks. So four months old and she's got great natural toy play, but she's a puppy and she's very, very social and so it's a little distracting for her to play toys with people around her in new environments and like she'll chase the thing and she'll tug. But I have to do a lot of work to keep her engaged with the toy.

But she also has fetch for food right now. So if I'm worried about the environment, I can go ahead and throw her toy, she comes back, does a delivered to hand, she gets that food reinforcer so we can practice plain toy play in that environment and setting up for success.

Melissa Breau: So it kind of works hand-in-hand as far as being able to use it as a reinforcer later on.

Sara Brueske: Yes, I absolutely think you can use it as a great reinforcer later on. And like I said, probably more so because now you're using a double reinforcer, my dog gets their toy, which you've built emotional response to, they enjoy that plus the eventual food reinforcer two if you need to back it up. And so having that as your option, I think you actually end up with a better, more reliable tool to use for your training.

Melissa Breau: Interesting. Okay. So where do we start? So what are the foundation skills for toy play?

Sara Brueske: Yeah, the first thing we have to teach our dogs is the concept of interacting with an object for food. So this is the same as a hold, it's the same as a take, as a retrieve or anything like that. The foundation is the same because the concept's the same. Pick up this thing with your mouth, get your food, and then we can build that and shape that into our game of fetch in our game of tug. And then from there we just change it to variable reinforcement and we start fading out that food reward altogether. So yeah, it's just like shaping a behavior plan. Take the emotion part out of it, just teach it like a behavior. It's so much better.

Melissa Breau: So who should consider signing up? What else should folks know about The class? I think if you, like I said, have any problems with switching back and forth between reinforcers or you want really a solid, reliable, like delivered to hand, for games like disk for example. Or you know, even the dogs that have great toy play but you know, maybe distractions or environments are really difficult for them and you want reliable toy play that you can use in agility class, for example. Any of those type of dogs. Absolutely. Puppies, absolutely. The only concern I have is if your puppy's teething, it might not be the appropriate time for them to have a gold spot, but take it at bronze and come back when they're 8, 9, 10 months and those teeth are nice and set in and then go through the process.

Melissa Breau: Gotcha. Alright, so I wanna just pause for a second and talk about kind of the other stuff you have on the schedule coming up. Just give you a second. So what do you have that folks should know about?

Sara Brueske: Yeah, I have two workshops coming up. So I have tricks for pics. That one actually already happened, but it is still available for purchase. That one's all the cute tricks that you'll want for like your Christmas cards and that sort of thing. Or hey, for Instagram We do everything for the Gram, right? So that's like your sit pretty, your head down, sad look and all those type of behaviors. And then I have happy holds. So this Happy Holds is a great supplement to the Toy Play class just because it is again, interacting with an object with a mouth. So it's the same concept, but that is for again, you know, cute photos, you wanna take a photo of your dog holding something. That's the class to have for that as well as for foundation for like a competition retrieve.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. All right. So one last question to kind of round everything out. If we were to drill down kinda the stuff we've been talking about today into one key piece of information that you want people to walk away with or kind of really understand, what would that be?

Sara Brueske: Yeah, so one thing I felt like I honestly didn't touch on quite enough, so I'm glad that you always put this question in so I can circle back to it, is that, you know, toy play is hard. It's emotional, right? So we have all these feelings tied to our toy play, we want our dogs to play with us and we get frustrated, upset even if we don't mean to, and we try to take our dogs emotions into account when they don't wanna play with us. And so that emotional aspect, it makes teaching toy play really difficult because a lot of times we're told, well you just have to move this way or you just have to act this way or you just have to be more exciting or you have to try a different toy.

Melissa Breau: Yes.

Sara Brueske: Yeah, man, that's hard. I don't know about you, but I am like a single person and when in doubt I just act a certain way and by default. And so yeah, I can react to a dog, you know, the best way I can. And I feel like I've built those skills, but those skills have been built over time. Those are hard skills to have. And so that's why I really, really like this type of teaching toy play because it really takes that emotion part of it out. You don't have to be super enthusiastic. You don't have to, you know, move just the right way. You don't have to turn away from your dog and give 'em sideway glances or anything silly like that. You can add that stuff in later. But we need to teach our dogs the game before we start adding different things in. And this is a really good way to do it because, you know, we also don't wanna have to handicap our training. Like, I don't wanna, my dog, I don't wanna be afraid of letting go of the tug and I have my dog not bring it back.

And so by teaching Toy Play as a behavior as a whole, you're taking the emotional side out of it. You're, you know, it's not about the play at that moment and you're teaching your dog, Hey, I let go of the tug, bring it back to me, or Hey, I, I throw this ball, I want you to deliver it back to my hand. And so teaching those rules with food, just like we teach any other behavior with food before we bring up arousal, is a fantastic way to approach toy play. Now your dog's not super excited or they're not weirded out by your weird pressure and you're funny trying to play and while you're trying to teach 'em the rules of the game as well. So anyways, I have lots of feelings about toy play like we all do. But yeah, so take that part of it out, make it just like a behavior and teach the behavior first and then make it more like a b a a game of play.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Well thank you so much for coming on the podcast to talk about this, Sarah.

Sara Brueske: Oh, absolutely. Thank you for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week. Don't miss it. 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 Body. 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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