I wish I could share all of this through video. But some moments just happen too spontaneously. So my video camera was not part of this process sadly. Instead I’ll try to illustrate through words…

I am realizing Pinot has reliable play when outside, and in the context of agility…but I need to work on also getting play
more reliably as a break when we’ve been working with food. There are huge benefits to having a dog who will go back and forth between food and toys with cheer. 

This is a story about my own challenge over the last three days to figure out a plan how to get my lovely Pinot to play tug with me in situations when I am taking a break from reinforcing with food! It has been a long journey to get her to Tug, period….it took about 9 months to build her desire to actually tug. Now we have it…it seems – outside and in highly arousing situations, such as in the context of agility or outside on walks or in combination with retrieving. But what I just discovered is that we don;t have reliable play everywhere! …for example, here at home, if I have been working on behaviours using food first/ and her expectation seems to be to get FOOD.

So, I set out yesterday with a plan. I had a hungry dog, clicker, her breakfast (small piece of chicken back cut into small tiny training size pieces) and a tug toy. We started shaping, super short and absolutely sweet. Big steps forward with each click. After only a few repetitions, I felt it was time for a big celebration-reward with a tugging break. Only now we encountered a new dilemma. She saw the tug toy and left the room! No amount of silly, goofy play-talk could convince her that playing with me was going to be fun! Oh bother…now what?

So, I proceeded to do some shaping with Maggio instead. Pinot of course heard us working and immediately came into the room, offering what had just been rewarded. I decided to let her go on while ignoring her and just focusing on Maggio. (Sometimes this has had fantastic results…training the OTHER dog can bring about great results sometimes). When Maggio’s turn was up, I called Pinot to me and presented the toy again — the plan was to immediately go back to food if she decided she could play first. But she clearly felt the answer was a simple: NO WAY! And again left the room…

So Maggio got another turn at working and the same thing happened again. When Pinot’s turn rolled around again – she saw the toy and left.
Three failures in a row. Absolutely no sense continuing, I had to give my plan a re-think and try to come up with a way to work through this.

I know how much she loves her raw chicken and had a feeling that having the open container of chicken right in front of her while presented with a tug toy was probably a huge conflict for her; chicken really trumps any toy. Ideally, of course, I’d like to have her be able to go back and forth between any reinforcer as “I please”, but reality is, I realize (now) I have not been diligent in building and maintaining this — especially here at home – so I have to start with a step by step process. So, my thought was: what if I would make it a bit easier by putting the chicken away (in the fridge) and just bring it out after she has tugged a bit?
Other options included to change the food to a lower value food…go to boring kibble or something else less exciting than chicken. Or…another thought…I know how sensitive Pinot is to “feeling pressure”…maybe I am overwhelming her in my deep desire to get her to play? (I know this has happened before…)

Here is what I did: the chicken went into the fridge and Pinot got a short break. I summoned my 9 year old daughter and asked if she would help. She is a great little helper and definitely plays tug without any “social pressure” whatsoever. And because of Pinot’s smaller (than Maggio) size – and ability to understand rules of play they are wonderfully compatible play-mates when tugging. So we gathered in the kitchen and the toy came out..in my daughter’s hand this time. YEEY! SUCCESS!!! Pinot happily hopped on to the end of the sheep skin toy and started tugging…first a little softly, but then with 85% of her usual gusto! Success! We marked the tugging and grip with a “YES!” and ran over to the fridge to pull out some chicken for her. 
We then took a small break again to let Pinot “think about it” for a few minutes…and then repeated. Success again! Play first = then you get food! After my daughter had, this way, fed her about 3/4 of her breakfast, and Pinot’s usual tugging had returned, I asked for a turn and tried the same. Success! We were still not doing sessions back-to-back and I didn’t even want to try to go back to tugging immediately after feeding a couple of pieces of chicken, but felt that this was great success and indeed progress. For the rest of the day we did no more training.

Fast forward 24 hours. Breakfast again. Now her breakfast was going to be “boring kibble” and the tug toy was with me again. Again I wanted to start with the toy and the plan was to immediately go on to training with food if she only played some tug first. BUT it did not go that way….Pinot AGAIN left me as soon as I presented the toy to her  🙁 So I gave it about 30 minutes while I re-organized my thoughts. What if I just tried to start with a session of shaping (using the kibble) and then after a few reps tried to take a break playing with the toy?

It went against all logic of “do what I want you to do first” but I also knew it would take all potential frustration out of that first session and would also reduce the unwanted social pressure. I try so hard to be relaxed and not put pressure on her, but she is a remarkably sensitive little girl and just not able or willing to work when she feels pressured. Many times it is beyond the conscious level: I want something from her and she feels Pressured.

So, we started with a shaping session using kibble. She was a willing and happy worker! When I broke out the t
oy to play, she clearly said NO. I remained sitting on the floor and just played goofy games involving some petting and mostly my voice….and to my surprise she engaged and loosened up and started bouncing up and down with joy. Allright, I thought – I’ll take that. Maybe I can’t get play with a toy right now but maybe I can get happy bouncing? So we did happy bouncing, with the toy parked beside me on the floor. And then continued shaping. Another play-break…more happy bouncing. I didn’t even touch the toy, just left it beside me on the floor.

A third shaping session…then break for play…and wonder of all wonders…Pinot went over to the sheep skin toy and put her open mouth over it playfully growling. YEEY!!! I totally praised her up and grabbed the other end to give it some movement: she grabbed! AND TUGGED back! SUCCESS!!!

I only kept her engaged on the toy for maybe 10-15 seconds, asked for a “give!” and immediately went into another super-short shaping session with food. Back to the toy….back to shaping…back to the toy. What a great feeling! And how happily Pinot was participating in the games!

I don;t think the whole dilemma is resolved by any means. I am prepared for a journey yet again, but at least I think I have a sense of where to start/ or continue. And now I also know that transitioning between food and toy is not something I must ever take for granted with this girl. With Maggio I did have to go through a similar process/ in reverse (please take food also if there is an exciting toy) but once we worked through that, it has not come back to give me issues again. I THOUGHT I had established this with Pinot, but clearly I was mistaken. So – I have just added ANOTHER thing to my List of Behaviours to Train in 2012. 
I know with time, patience and practise we can do it 🙂

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