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.
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