Having problems with your dog not bringing the toy back to your hand, or not wanting to release the toy? As always we want to apply an objective eye to what is driving the behaviour. WTF? “What’s The Function?”, as Dr Susan Friedman would say.
Often people have issues with their dog not wanting to give them the toy, and it’s because the moment the dog DOES bring it to them, the human throws it away again. They never bothered to ask the dog what game HE wanted to play and they’re making an assumption that the chase is the thing the dog is enjoying. The dog, however, actually wants to play tug, so naturally doesn’t want to release the toy! —> WTF? What’s the function?
A few months ago Awhi was enjoying chasing the toys that I threw but didn’t always want to bring them back to me. I quickly realised that “keepaway” (pup dodges and runs and the human/dog playmate chases him and tries to get the toy) was his reinforcer of choice. You can’t play keepaway if you drop the toy in the human’s hand straight away. So duh. No dice. Catch-me-if-you-can!
The problem with this was that I want him to place the toy directly into my outstretched hand when we are playing fetch (a: because I am fundamentally lazy, and b: to make it easier for my mum and my little boy to play fetch with him, and c: for safety reasons if he ever grabs something he isn’t supposed to have).
So Awhi says “the game is keep the toy away from the human!” and Bex says “the game is bring the toy to the human!”. We were at an impasse. Except we weren’t. ‘Cos behavioural science for the win. Or the win-win.
I did two things:
- I devised a reliable cue for when its time to play keepaway, and we played that game together regularly
- I started reinforcing him with a click & food for placing the toy in my hand when we’re playing fetch, before throwing it again. I gave him more of a reason to want to bring it back to me. (I also sometimes reinforce him for a good toy delivery by immediately returning the toy to him, and then initiating the keepaway game! Double whammy).
Ok there’s a third thing (well sort of an extension of the first thing...):
- I also ensured my cues for ‘deliver toy to my hand’ vs ‘let’s tug’ vs ‘you should run cos I’m gonna GETCHA’ were nice and clear. These are separate games that have separate cues and they’re under stimulus control - i.e. we don’t play keepaway when the current game is fetch.
I always try to balance this out further by trying to take his cues as much as he takes mine - eg if he tells me he wants to play keepaway I don’t ride roughshod over his opinions and relentlessly insist on fetch. That would make me a poor playmate. Interactions with our friends should be a two-way street where compromises are made and communication is respected and one person doesn’t always dominate the games. Just ask my six-year-old. He and his buddies in the sandpit get it right (most of the time).
It is always worth thinking about what’s the function in very tangible terms - what is the consequence of the behaviour? How is it being reinforcer? Currently I reinforce the toy delivery with a click plus food plus a throw of the toy, and the keepaway game and tug are reinforced by the play itself. Soon I will start to fade the food for toy delivery and see if the behaviour maintains (ie test to see if the fun of chasing the toy is now enough to reinforce the behaviour of bringing it back).
So bottom line is this: it’s not all about me. I can honour the function of Awhi’s original ‘dodge-away-not-gonna-give-you-my-toy’ behaviour and not deny him that fun, while ALSO getting to have the fetch-and-deliver-direct-to-hand behaviour that I want. Win-win.
By satisfying the function and clarifying the cues for these different behaviours, I ensure that Awhi and I BOTH get what we want, and there’s no miscommunications or frustrations.
A guest blog by Tessa (15), from Texas USA, after the Positively Together clinic on March 7-8, 2020, hosted in Austin by The Willing Equine.
During the Positively Together Clinic with Bex Tasker in Texas during March, I took away some very deep and interesting points that have really been settling well with me and that I have already seen beautifully improving me and my horse’s flow of training.
First of all, I just want to say what an incredible trainer and person Bex is. She truly has an amazing gift of being able to teach others with such a profound mindset that is expressed through her deep passion in helping people and their horses create a connection in their training. I am so grateful that I was able to spend several days learning from her and having fun; it truly was very eye opening seeing what an incredible community she is building.
One of the main focuses throughout the clinic was the concept of “breathing and being.” Breathing to create a connection and calmness that leads to being present in the mind; being in the moment of the training and focusing on that connection between the human and horse.
“Breathe and be.” As I continued to think about it throughout the entire clinic, it continued to resonate more and more within me; as I put it to use during my training sessions with Arrow in the clinic, my eyes were opened.
It has helped both of us so much in the fact that it has reminded me to be in the moment during the training session which has allowed us to train more efficiently and improves my ability to asses the situation with a clearer mind. It reminds me to relax my body and focus on the present moment and what I’m positively looking for instead of focusing on what could go wrong or what I “should” be doing instead (more on the whole “should concept" later in this post).
Therefore with all of that being said about how it has been improving my mental state, it has helped Arrow so much because I am clearer in my communication in the training, I am relaxed and focused, which therefore helps Arrow because he can clearly feel safe in the training because he is perceiving clear communication from me. Our training is even more fluent and connected. Whenever one of us feels a little worried or unsure, we can always return to the “breathe and be” behavior and get re-grounded. I can also always keep the “breathe and be” thought process in my head as a reminder to stay calm and joyful in the entire training process.
Thank you so much Bex for sharing such an amazing concept with me to improve our training and connection that is built between myself and my horses. Whenever I am feeling stressed or overwhelmed in the presence of training, all I have to do to remind myself to put these words to use is to simply stop, place my hand on my belly and breathe as I reinforce Arrow for being in his “default” or “breathe and be” position. It has already been helping us immensely and I just have to remind myself to breathe and realize that everything is going to be ok even if something little unexpected happens — I have to challenge myself to stay relaxed and present.
Whenever one of us feels a little worried or unsure, we can always return to the “breathe and be” behavior and get re-grounded. I can also always keep the “breathe and be” thought process in my head as a reminder to stay calm and joyful in the entire training process.
Another very profound topic that was discussed is the meaning behind the word should. “I should have done this in that training session” or “I should be doing this instead of this.” — the list goes on and on and on… But Bex brought to my attention that “should" is a word that really puts a hole in our chest because it seriously causes us to question ourselves and regret the decisions we make and have made. When I think back on things, this word was the cause of so much self-doubt, frustration, sadness, and regret for me when I was switching over to R+. It has really caused some setbacks in me and my horse’s training in the past because I allowed it to get the better of me.
Over many discussions during the clinic days I opened my eyes in realizing that the word should is simply misused and overlooked in most cases. Who cares about what happened in the past because we can’t change that. I can’t go back in time and change something in the session that I just had with one of my horses. But what I can do instead is realize what went wrong, realize why it happened, notice that everything is going to be ok, my horse will forgive me, and then move on and start fresh with a new perspective and try again. Nobody is perfect and all we can do is try our best, we all make mistakes because it’s just part of the learning process. But Bex reminded me and refreshed my brain again to not let my words take over my mind; this is something that I have really been working on lately and Bex really helped me further my skill to improve it… the word “should” can’t overtake my thoughts because I will redirect my thoughts onto new priorities.
Instead of using the word should, I am looking and redirecting the circumstances as learning curves, reflections, and priorities. I have chosen to take that moment as a learning experience, reflect back on it to see what I can do different next time, and then create and choose new priorities that will alter depending on the horse so that I can avoid thinking of the past and future, and instead will help me create goals and accurate training plans for in the moment.
This thinking process has been helping me for several months now, but Bex helped me determine the word that was causing the triggering thoughts. Instead of dwelling in the past, I have been able to continue my steady mindset and thinking and have been able to continue and improve. This concept from Bex has deepened and, in a way, finalized my ability to get past certain events and continue to confidently move forward. Now of course I have moments when I do feel frustrated or sad from certain situations because that’s life, but for the majority of things, I try to continue to have this mindset and portray these positive thoughts.
I could write for hours about how much Bex has taught me these past several days, but these two things are what currently really stood out for me. I am so incredibly thankful for Bex and her teaching skills — her clinic was laid out beautifully and she has an incredible way of teaching people. She has created, grown, and is sharing such an amazing community with her wonderful business of Positively Together. I am so thankful for this wonderful trip and I hope to learn from her again during many experiences together in the future. Thank you for everything Bex.
by Tessa (15), Texas USA.
It was such a pleasure getting to know Tessa during the clinic and over the following week. She is bright, articulate, passionate, and an extremely talented horsewoman. It is youth like this that make me feel inspired and hopeful for the future of positive reinforcement training in the equestrian world. Thank YOU Tessa xx
Also another big shout out to Adele of The Willing Equine for making this clinic happen, and hosting it at her beautiful barn. Make sure you check out her website and follow her on social media if you don't already. I hope we can do it again soon!
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