When I got Tess, I didn't really know how to just play with a dog. I had read all sorts of books and I knew I wanted to do agility, but I really didn't know what it looked like to train an agility dog, and I had all sorts of "have-to's" and "nevers" floating around in my head. Things like:
-never play tug with your dog and never let them win if you do.
-let them blow off steam and make sure they are tired when you start your training sessions
-make sure you are the dominant animal in the relationship.
-don't rely on treats because your commands will be "tricks"
-Using a head collar or other training "device" to teach leash walking means you failed.
Of course I got good advice too:
-get a puppy when you can spend a lot of time with in in the first couple of months (I quit my job early, and spent the first FOUR months with Tess at home without a job or school).
-crate training is essential
-puppy is in the crate when it isn't being directly watched or interacted with
-use the gastro-reflex, crate training, control of food and water etc. to house-train. House training must be 100% positive.
-Make sure the puppy has a wide variety of toys that fit different needs.
I knew I would be getting a puppy from Tess's litter before they were born - so I had LOTS of time to plan and think and read. I decided early on that no matter what I was reading, I would train my recall using treats. I had seen some research that said that behaviors trained with treats tend to "stick" better, especially if you randomly treat. Recall is so important to me, I decided I would do whatever was necessary to make it 100%, and it looked like positive training with treats was the answer.
After the first 3 days, realized I had a bigger problem.
My puppy didn't like me. Didn't see any value in checking in with me, being around me, or hanging out with me. She didn't see any value in me other than when I said "come", and then it was a quick dash away. She didn't like being petted, didn't care about verbal praise. Alternatively, she saw LOTS of value in Reed, the golden retriever.
I decided that step one wasn't getting her to sit, down, or even come. The first step was building a relationship.
The good thing was that she was very very VERY food motivated.
(And toy motivated until she discovered I wouldn't play tug with her. )
I made my decision then that I would use treats. Lots of treats (actually, mostly her kibble, deducted from her meal). Every time she looked at me I threw her kibble. Every time she came up to me, I threw her kibble. Every time she acknowledged me, I threw her kibble.
Looking back, I'm not sure what prompted me to depart radically from
what I had preached to family members and friends and jump "off the deep
end" in regards to food, treats, and what the human-dog relationship
should look like. I'm eternally grateful for whatever little trigger
occurred because I firmly believe that if I hadn't made that change when
I did, I wouldn't have the companion I have now.
So now I had a puppy that actual had some value for me. But she still wasn't interacting me like I had dreamed she would. My model of course was Reed (Golden Retriever) who had spent his entire puppy hood (and adult hood, if you must know), GLUED to someone's side and seemed to derive his entire satisfaction from life from "his people". Can you believe I actually thought I would get a dog like this by choosing whatever breed from the AKC sporting group? *shakes head*. Of course, I wouldn't have had nearly as much fun, or learned as much if I had!
Anyway - I digress.....I spent my afternoons in the back yard sipping wine and watching the puppies play (ah the delights of a summer off....). I had no concept of how to play with a dog or puppy beyond fetch - a delightful activity that none of my childhood dogs - but I knew that it was an important piece of the relationship puzzle. Tess LOVES Reed and so I started to observe HOW they played. How the engaged each other, their body language, the actual play, how they communicated intentions.
And then I tried to mimic it.
We left toys out of the picture - I still didn't know that tug was OK - but I started to get on the floor and just play.
Oh sure - we worked on sit, come, down, stay etc. - but we spent far more time on the floor wrestling and running and rolling and being silly. And guess what? My puppy started to like me, to choose to be with me, and see me as a source of good and fun things. And that's when we could start to work on those other behaviors like come, sit, and down. Relationship comes first.
After starting school and meeting agility people and other dog trainers, I realized the benefits of positive training, tug, treats etc. and I was ever so grateful I had decided to through my conventions out the window and listen to my dog.
BTW - Relationship STILL comes first. If I'm having a problem, especially as it relates to recall or leash work, it's time for a relationship check. Will she tug with me? Chose to play with me? On Sunday afternoon I got frustrated during a training session and among other things, put her in a forcible down stay. It was unfair of me, and Tess knew it. I spent the next 24 hours doing damage control on our relationship. Oh sure, she still listened and responded when I said "sit", "down", "come", "weave", "bow", "pout",.....but the she was not thrilled to please and play with me. Whereas before she would do ANYTHING to get me to notice her and initiate play, now she suddenly found anything more interesting to me - including grass, mud, and the cat. Only after 24 hours of relationship games was the relationship repaired to the point where Tess once again chose me over the environment, and was a willing, engaged partner. The more I pay attention to and evaluate relationship, the more successful I am in training tasks, tricks, responsiveness, drive, and motivation.
Susan's blog (linked above) talks about watching 2 dogs in play in order to gain insights have how they play. I often use this trick. Last fall, after realizing that I needed to teach Tess how to tug (since I had all but extinguished that behavior) I watched her tug with Reed to discover how she liked to play with the toy and then tried to mimic that.
Tess considers off-leash play with Reed the highest form of reward. And yes, since they are both toy motivated, it sometimes includes a rope or other toy. Their play is always supervised more because I can learn an enormous amount about behavior and motivation than because of any real danger to either dog (not to mention it's a training opportunity for recalls and a reminder to Tess that this high value reward came from me).
My advice if you are having problems with your dog is to watch them. What do they like? When do they take their naps? what is their favorite toy? What is their favorite way of playing with it? How do they prefer to initiate play? Training isn't necessarily bowing to every wish and whim of your dog - but understanding their needs, wants, and motivations is the first step towards shaping a relationship of your choice.